Text and photos by Anna Morelli
Translation by David J Constable
It was November last year when I received the phone call from Andrea Petrini. We talk often, but the content of this call contained something different: an offer, a request, a challenge. “Are you ready to travel around the world?” he asked, “eating at at all five restaurants that make up the shortlist for the awards?” I took a moment to think. Should I play the drama queen here? Should I curse him to hell? Nah, he knows me too well. “Petrini… of course I’m ready, man!”
My partner in crime for this culinary whirlwind tour was Paul Carmichael, the chef of Momofuku Seiōbo in Sydney. Like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, we accepted our mission and awaited further instructions. There was so much expectation around the first World Restaurant Awards. Anything Petrini and Joe Warwick set their efforts to is always something worth attending. They have the ability and the contacts to create international buzz, and these awards were no exception. I could feel the adrenaline building, and the idea of eating around the globe with Paul was intriguing.
The details of our mission arrived. The category we were to judge would be “Arrival of the Year”, and the itinerary – devised by IMG – would send us bouncing around the globe for two weeks. I reached out to Paul to make an introduction. “I’m in and ready for the ride!” he replied. The journey began on Monday 7th January 2019. From my home in Lucca, Italy, the plan was to travel to Amsterdam, then on to San Francisco, and from there, to Lima, Peru. Then, a brief return to Europe, before taking to the road for San Piero in Bagno, Italy, and then Paris, eventually ending our tour in Tokyo. We would mark off cities like international assassins, moving from airport to airport, hotel to hotel, restaurant to restaurant. But it started badly.
The fog in Florence had fallen like a blanket, covering the Tuscan hills and obscuring the city. There was no way a plane could take off in these conditions. So I sat and waited, biting my nails. Thankfully, I departed only a few minutes late. But then Amsterdam happened. Arriving at Schiphol Airport, I noticed the hazy Dutch sky hung with a heavy fog like Florence. Perhaps though it wasn’t fog, maybe it was all of the pot – this is Amsterdam after all. A two-hour layover, and then, I’m off again – to San Francisco. US entry. Ohhh, here we go… another gruelling exercise in patience as the blunt instrument immigration officer gives me an aggressive stare, looking into the depths of my soul. Then, the litany of questions: “What are you doing here? How long are you staying for? I’m cool, calm and collected, and reply “One day… I leave tomorrow.” “Huh! What do you mean” she says. I explain my secret culinary assignment to the officer. “Oh, lucky you. I want that job!” she says. And then in I enter, across American lines.
Paul was there to meet me at the airport. He was an easy spot through the crowds. The long black dreadlocks, the mega smile and an entourage of luggage. There’s a huge check-in suitcase, a carry-on and another duffel bag in green, gold and red Rastafari colours. Honestly, I’ve never seen one person travel with so much, although to be fair, he had been but travelling for a month. He tells me that he also encountered a two hour delay at LAX Airport, and when he landed, bumped into Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez. The irony was that after our dinner tonight in San Francisco, we were due to dine at Virgilio’s Central restaurant two days later in Lima.
We left the airport, taking an Uber to the Van Ness Inn, near Fisherman’s Wharf. The building is a typical American horseshoe-shaped design, a two-tier motel with parking in front. It’s the sort of place you see in cops and robber movies, when the criminal is on the run with a bag full of cash, and hides out in a motel room. Then, inevitably, there’s a shoot out. It reminds me a little of the Bates Motel from Psycho. Perhaps I shouldn’t take a shower here? I slept well enough. There was some sort of shifty exchange outside of the motel, a fuss between biker types. Paul told me that his room smelt of bleach and he was forced to nap that afternoon with his door open.
That evening, we had dinner at Angler, a new restaurant by American chef Joshua Skenes. Things kicked off with a Pineapple Daiquiri at the bar, a pleasing west-coast style welcome. At the end of the room was a huge blue marlin hanging on the wall, and an open kitchen meant that I could peek in, seeing the chefs at work and an abundance of fresh seafood cooked over open fire. The use of fire is of great importance to Joshua, with the specifics of the kitchen designed to his keen eye. Of even greater importance, is produce; the kitchen working with a small group of fishermen, hunters, gatherers, ranchers, and farmers to find and follow microclimates that produce the highest quality products in local existence.
Paul and I decide to order from the à la carte menu, with sides of Parker House Rolls and freshly-churned Angler Butter. Everything we receive is good. There’s an Antelope Tartare to begin, a meat I’ve never tried before. It’s an enjoyable texture, a little gamey as expected, similar to venison. The Diamond Turbot is delicious, followed by Radicchio X.O which I find a little to sweet for my palate. Then, Little Abalones, that are truly wonderful, masterfully cooked and like nothing I’ve ever tasted before. And, Petrale Sole, a lovely flatfish that’s prepared to perfection. The food here is clean, fresh and a good reflection of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay region. Unfortunately, we didn’t try Angler’s signature dish, the Whole Pastured Chicken, but we did see one arrive at the neighbouring table, a wonderful site with the enticing smell of roast chicken stealing my senses. I looked across to gain a better view, and who should I see… Virgilio Martinez, again. He’s dining with Dominique Crenn, the newly crowned three-star chef of Atelier Crenn.
After dinner, Paul and I join Dominique and friends. There’s a contagious enthusiasm and electrifying energy. Dominique assists us back to our motel, promising to collect us in the morning for a visit to her farm in Sonoma Valley. We wake bleary-eyed and true to her word, there’s Dominique ready to collect us. We visit the farm, picnic in the rain, and leave for the airport. Next stop: Lima.
It’s a bumpy nighttime flight south, across the states to Dallas, Texas, before a change of flight to Lima. The short-tempered American Airline staff do little to ease the journey. Things couldn’t get much worse. But then, oh, here comes dinner…
For the second-leg of the journey, I pass on the meal. Instead, I snuggle into my seat, and self-medicate by popping an Aspirin and knocking back a gin & tonic. Woah, it works wonders, and I’m out like a light, sleeping the entire journey. I wake in Lima, refreshed and eager to get going on our next adventure. In contrast, Paul tells me that he had a wretched time of it. He couldn’t get comfortable in the chairs and therefore couldn’t sleep. Instead, he watched three of the longest movies he could find.
It’s 7am on Wednesday 9th January by the time we land in Lima. Keen to escape the tourist crowd, we depart the airport as quickly as possible but are met with the bumper-to-bumper traffic of morning rush hour Lima. Thankfully, we were not in a rush and had a few free days to acclimatise and recover from jet-lag. Taking advantage of this, Paul and I explored the city. I have a personal link to Lima and, thanks to DNA, have a wealth of family still living across Peru. Now, my youngest daughter Carla lives here – part of her Latin American adventure.
We check-in at the hotel, but we’re early and our rooms are not yet ready. I had arranged with Carla to meet Paul and I in the breakfast room and spot her instantly. There she is, my hippie traveller daughter, dressed in dungarees and flip-flops. She took an all-night bus from the very northern reaches of Peru to get here, and my heart bursts upon seeing her.
We drop off our luggage, and then we’re off again. Two have become three, and we explore the Miraflores district, meeting with my friend, Javier Masía. Javier is a local journalist who recently opened the Babel bookshop inside La Casa Inclán. We visit the bookshop, a stunning place surrounded by plants and greenery, next door to both a fashion house and an artisan jewellery store, and adjacent, there is a small but beautiful coffee bar. Javier joins us for our walk around the neighbourhood, stopping to eat ceviche and chicharrón de pescado in the Surquillo Market.
I spent the afternoon with Carla, catching up on her adventures and filling her in on mine. Paul grabs a few winks, filling in the missing hours lost during the night flight. We assemble that evening, refreshed and recharged, ready to head to the Barranco district. This is one of the city’s smaller neighbourhoods, but it’s also one of the most beautiful. Over the years it has become a popular destination for creative types, growing into an art hub, and bulging with trendy coffee shops, bars, nightclubs and art galleries. It’s here where we discover Ayahuasca Bar. The name comes from the infusion of Amazonian herbs – the aya-huasca, also called liana of the soul or liana of the dead, consisting of hallucinogenic properties. We order Pisco Sours, before snooping about the property and exploring the impressive venue, but time is tight, and soon we’re off for dinner at nearby Statera. According to Javier, who has knowledge of these things, chef André Patsias and Statera is one to watch. The cuisine is rooted in the Peruvian traditions, using the variety of products from the country’s bounty and its incredible biodiversity. André works closely with a small group of farmers based in the nearby hills and the result is a terrific meal demonstrating a myriad of ingredients and techniques.
The following day – Thursday 10th January – Carla and I leave early to meet my cousin for coffee. By lunchtime, we’re back with Paul for an appointment at Maido, the restaurant of Mitsuharu ‘Micha’ Tsumura. Maido was not one of the stops on the judging shortlist, but if you find yourself in Lima, travelling with such ravenous company, then you can’t pass on a meal here.
Maido, meaning ‘welcome’ in Japanese, is Micha’s flagship restaurant, serving an inventive tasting menu of Peruvian-Japanese ingredients. His approach is truly unique and has resulted in the restaurant earning the number one spot in the 50 Best Latin American Restaurants list for the past two years. The meal was exquisite and while I’d love to continue my love letter to Maido, it doesn’t meet the “Arrival of the Year” criteria. That position was reserved for Kjolle, the new restaurant by Pía Léon, where we would all dine the following evening.
Pía is married to Virgilio and the two have set about creating Kjolle, as well as a bar – called Mayo – on the same complex as Central. The building also houses the offices of Mater Iniciativa, a project led by Malena, the sister of Virgilio, which consists of a team of researchers and botany experts who travel the country to studying ingredients. It’s a real family affair. The biological and cultural research of Mater Iniciativa influences the menus of Central, Kjolle, MIL and Mayo.
Dinner at Central was amazing, an unforgettable adventure. The tasting menu speaks of altitudes and ingredients, telling stories of communities and ecosystems: products are sourced from the coast to the desert, from the Andes to the Ceja de Selva, to the banks of the river in the Amazon jungle. Each dish contains a story of only one ecosystem and is composed of products exclusive to that specific area. It is a complex experience, each course accompanied by its own unique story.
The following day and it’s another early rise. We’re up and out by 6 am, meeting with Virgilio for a flight from Lima to Cusco in the Peruvian Andes. From the airport, it’s a bumpy incline drive by van – at the dizzying height of 3,568 meters above sea level – to the Sacred Valley, where MIL is located. The idea behind MIL goes far beyond mere restaurant. This is an exercise in agriculture, it is anthropology, research, study, production and processing combined. MIL is all about the people and the land, respecting and preserving a culture. The landscape is breathtaking, set within the ruins of a terraced circular depressions and the Moray archaeological site.
Upon arriving in the Sacred Valley, we were greeted by a delegation from the local indigenous community. Santiago Pilco – the community leader – and Francesco – an anthropologist – toasted our arrival with Chicha de Jora, a local corn beer prepared by germinating maize, but not before they poured a drop for Pachamama, the fertility goddess. Due to the research and work behind the sourcing of ingredients, MIL is only open for lunch, during which they serve an 8-course menu that changes with the seasons.
With tight time constraints, we were soon back in the van, heading downhill, bumping along a dirt track. The travel, speed and altitude were too much for Paul, who was beginning to feel poorly. Most likely, his symptoms would suggest soroche, the Altitude Mal. We left Cusco for Lima, and once there, Paul returned to the hotel for a hot bath, cotton sheets and a well-deserved rest. I went on with the next stop on our culinary assignment: Kjolle. Having experienced MIL and the Sacred Valley, I now had a greater understanding of the menu at Kjolle and the work gone into sourcing such a vibrant list of ingredients. The name itself comes from a tree that grows in extreme altitudes and produces beautiful orange flowers, the official name being Buddleja Coriacea, but which is referred to as Kjolle, pronounced koye.
The tasting menu at Kjolle is 10-courses, with a vegetarian option available. To begin, there’s an appetizer of Scallops with Seeds & Sea Urchin and Sea Bass and Shells with Mashua and Amazon Nuts. This is followed by Various Tubers & Cassava Olluco Tart with Potatoes. Then a meat course of Duck Tartare served with a delicious warm bread that is typical of the Cusco region. Octopus, Sachatomate, Garlic & Native Basil then arrives, and there is a vegetable dish of Yacón, artichoke & Coffee Broth. There is a sort of Crême Brulée too, made of pumpkin cream with shrimp and bitter orange; and another wonderful meat dish of Beef & Corn with Macambo & Paico. We close with two desserts. The first is a Frozen Pomerose, Muna, Airampo & Cocoa of Mil with Chirimoya & Amazon Honey, which was, well… wow! This was a real standout dish, an avalanche of ingredients with strange and unpronounceable names, that when assembled became something other. It seems to me that the difference between Kjolle and Central, is that Pía is more playful with her ingredients, pulling from all the regions and ancient traditions, but in a more experimental fashion. The result was a truly fantastic dinner with an explosion of new tastes and textures. This really is something very special, and I look forward to returning again soon.
After he had fully recovered and tasted the menu at Kjolle for lunch, Paul joined me for our journey back to the airport. We decided that we would discuss the meals as little as possible and let them settle over the coming days. Both Angler and Kjolle had been great, but there were still another three restaurants on the itinerary. We thought it best to keep our cards close to our chest, at least for the time being. Finally, we landed in Florence, where we were collected by my husband and driven back to Lucca.
Returning to Europe – and Paul’s very first time in Italy – the next day we all drove to Da Gorini in San Piero in Bagno. The restaurant is rather secluded and driving three hours across the country is both the best and most direct way of travel. I have visited the restaurant before and know the young chef, Gianluca Gorini, well, so am pleased to see him upon our arrival as he welcomes us and joins in for an aperitif in front of the fireplace.
We move from the cosy fireplace setting to our table. It’s a Monday night in winter, so the room is quiet and we share Gianluca with only a few other tables. As the dishes arrive and fill the table, we’re able to question him about the creations, learning more about the genesis of each plate. What follows is a long and complex assembly of ingredients, dotted with flair and flushes of creativity: Battuta di Daino, Bergamot, Chestnut Honey & Coffee; Codfish Almond, Rosemary, Lemon & Olives; Roasted Artichoke, Artichoke Sauce, Capers & Matcha Tea; Barbecued Eel, Radicchio & Shallot; Green Noodles with Mantis Shrimps, Bread Flavoured with Seaweed & Marinated Lemon; Rigatoni with Cream of Smoked Parmesan Cheese, Mace, Coconut & Dried Sausage; Ravioli Stuffed with Shallots, First Goat Salt & Dried Chicory; Passatelli in Cabbage Broth, Pumpkin & Soybeans; Stew of Venison Stewed with Beer, Orange Cauliflower & Carnation; Grilled Pigeon, Laurel Extract & Dark Onion; and Spit of Fifth Quart of Spicy Pigeon.
Gianluca is a chef who doesn’t mind taking risks. He knows all about the balance of flavours, but is brave enough to push the boundaries in an attempt to create something new and interesting. Previously, I had visited Da Gorini in the summer, so this winter menu made a nice alternative and demonstrated Gianluca’s talents. Here, he was able to play with the seasons, using new ingredients, pulling on produce more from the land than the sea. The only ocean-sourced ingredients were the salt cod and the mantis shrimps with seaweed.
One of many highlights during dinner, was a Rigatoni dish with dried sausage and shaved coconut. The coconut resembles shaved Parmigiano in appearance, but adds a subtle sweetness to the pasta, cutting nicely through the smoked sausage. The table are all agreed that this is one of many highlights, and as I throw in the towel, full from an extensive meal, I realise that there is still dessert to come. I look over to Paul, who smiles at me. “Bring on the dessert” he says enthusiastically. We finish the evening by returning to the snug comfort of the fireplace, where we knock back a couple of gin & tonics. This is a memorable meal that Paul and I will discuss often.
We drove back to Lucca in the morning to repack, but there isn’t time to hang about as we have a flight to Paris. It’s Wednesday 16th January now and we’ve been on the road for just under one-week, during which time we’ve eaten in North America, South America and Europe. Thankfully, it’s a straightforward flight from Florence to Paris and we arrive at our hotel in good time.
Paul and I both have friends in Paris, so we parted for a few hours to touch base with our buddies. My childhood friend, Desirée, is an actress who is based in Paris and I visit the theatre where she is performing in Les Derniers Jours de Ma Vie (The Last Days of My Life). Desirée introduces me to the troupe, who want me to stay for the show. As much as I’d love to hang with the cast, my dinner reservation is creeping up and I’m due to meet Paul, so off I dash to Virtus.
Virtus is the restaurant of Chiho Kanzaki and Marcelo Di Giacomo, two chefs who met in 2009, working for Mauro Colagreco at Mirazur. Paul and I walk to the restaurant, a spectacular setting on the Rue Cotte. Both Chiho and Marcelo greet us upon arrival. Inside, the restaurant is beautiful and cosy with elegant decorations adorning the walls, almost maison privée. We had convinced ourselves that this would be a Japanese menu, however, we soon realised that most of the Japanese chefs based in Paris, are adopting European flavours and leaning more towards classic French cuisine.
Dinner at Virtus begins with Scallops, Cauliflower & Broth of Granny Smith, a delicious and fresh partnership that’s the perfect opener. This is followed by Declination of Celeriac, Caviar Osciètre and then Sea Urchin, Fruit of Passion & Watercress. Everything is clean and fresh, high on flavour. Nothing is out of place, although I would say that because of the mix of ingredients and flavours, the character of the sea urchin was lost. The meal continued with Yellow Cod, wonderful in a turnip and clam broth; then Canard de Challans, a roast duck with black sesame that’s perfectly prepared by the kitchen. By the time the Plateau de Fromages is offered – a staple of the French table – both Paul and I are near bursting point, so we decide to split the cheese rather than declining it. Accompanying the cheese is a glass of La Notas by Jean Claude of 2012, Rosso, from Mendoza, Argentina. A few weeks after our visit, I learn that the French Michelin Guide rewarded Virtus with their first star – a well deserved accolade.
Having marked off Paris, we’re packing our suitcases again, ready to board another plane. This time, we’re saying goodbye to Europe and hello to Asia, as we head over to Tokyo, Japan, on the last stop of our tour. Paul has made several visits to Tokyo and is more familiar with the city than I am, which is just as well, as the subway is confusing, to say the least. I play the tourist and follow Paul’s lead until eventually, we arrive at Inua, located in the uber-cool Iidabashi neighbourhood. Honestly, I have no idea how he found the restaurant. In typical trendy, Japanese style, Inua has no sign, no board, nothing to distinguish it from any other building. But find it he did, and we enter into the stylish building, an elevator taking us up to the restaurant.
Inua itself is a restaurant of minimalist design. It’s very Japanese, very Nordic too. This is no surprise, seeing as chef Thomas Frebel worked as Rene Redzepi’s right hand man at Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant for nearly a decade. The German-born, Tokyo-based chef now applies his trade using the very finest Japanese ingredients. He spent two years foraging the Japanese land and sea – from the tropical southern islands of Okinawa to the northernmost mountain forests of Hokkaido.
Petrini dined at Inua last year, and his report will feature in the 23rd issue of Cook inc., out March 2019. For me, this was an exciting journey with some new and interesting ingredients. In many ways, it was reminiscent of Noma – Scallop Mousseline, Fresh Tofu, King Crab & White Truffle, Reindeer Tongue, Wild Herb Salad – but punctuated with Thomas’ own unique take on things. Dishes like Seasoned and Smoked Maitake, Grouper in Salted Plum Sauce and Salad of Sweet Prawns & Seaweed were really exceptional. The Enoki Steak with Egg Yolk Sauce is further proof that this is something special, as too is Rice & Beechnuts (please give me a second helping!). By the time the Whole Wild Duck arrived at the table, Paul and I were already won over. The duck – perfectly pink with succulent, lick your fingers fat, and a crispy skin – confirmed everything: this was truly outstanding cooking.
Deciding that it would be best to moderate our wine intake, Paul and I had plenty of room left for desserts, which include a chewy, pliable and deliciously soft, Mochi. I thought it strange when the lights shook and the room seemed to spin. Turning to Paul, he too had the same look of shock across his face. Hang on, how far gone was I? I had barely touched a drop and I know whether I’m properly sloshed or not! Oh no, this was an earthquake tremor. Gulp! I clung to the table, looking around the restaurant. No one else seemed to mind though, so I took comfort in this and copied the calm actions of the other Japanese diners.
Post-dinner, Thomas and some of the kitchen team joined us at the table. We discussed the menu, the research and the travel required to source such rare and interesting ingredients – like kihada berries from Nagano and scarlet pitanga fruits from Okinawa. These ingredients, when applied, create some of the most inventive cooking in the country.
I woke early the following day, scratching my head and having to think about which time zone I was in. I decided to seize the day and venture out while the city was still quiet, marking off the wonderful gardens of the Imperial Palace. I visited the National Museum of Modern Art, taking in the exceptional displays of silk and sculpture, and the Fukuzawa Ichiro exhibition. This proved to be the perfect opportunity to stretch my legs in preparation before boarding yet another plane for the twelve-hour flight back to Italy.
Finally, I was home, having marked off the Americas (North and South), Europe and Asia. The problem now was whittling down the list, from five to three to a single winner. All of the restaurants were outstanding, all driven by a talented force, all offering something completely different. Paul and I debated the options. We looked at the location, the environment, the chef, the research, the ingredients, the service. We studied all components, moving back and forth until, eventually, we agreed upon one. We now had a winner, but the rest of the world would have to wait until the awards ceremony in Paris on February 18th.
The top spot, in the end, was awarded to Inua and Thomas Frebel in Tokyo, Japan. And, ça va sans dire, a decision which Paul and I both believe, is fully deserved.