An exclusive interview with Stefano Viola, Executive Chef of Villa Toscana at the St. Regis Abu Dhabi, the best Italian restaurant in town.
A life dedicated to cooking and exploring every culinary corner of the planet, though always with native Sardinia in his heart, and a big dream in his mind: coming back to Italy – and smelling again the scent of freshly-cut mortadella. Meet Chef Stefano Viola and peak inside his restaurant Villa Toscana in Abu Dhabi.
Where does your passion for cooking come from?
I was born in Sardinia in a family of 6 people. I’ve absorbed the passion for cooking from my everyday life and from my mom, who was always preparing new dishes using fresh, genuine, local ingredients. Our weekends culminated with the Sunday lunch, often consisting of lasagna and roasted meats.
While in Sardinia, I started cooking school, where since the beginning I had the fortune to meet a mentor, a chef who taught me what it is like to be passionate about your job and respectful of good ingredients, of persistence, of hard work and teamwork. These are the basic elements to make the most out of our world.
Your resume is full of remarkable experiences in every corner of the world. What is the path that led you from Sardinia to Abu Dhabi?
While I was still in school, I started working around Sardinia’s hotels and resorts, working very hard but also having a lot of fun.
The Free Beach Club was the resort that introduced me to the world of the big catering organizations. A huge village of 450 rooms, with space for more than 1300 guests, that had the whole team working hard all day long to prepare three meals of the day and some extras.
Here again, I met a cornerstone person for my growth: Chef Silvano Rapetti from Genova. A guy so full of energy to be inebriated by, and who luckily took me under his wing from the first days.
Since then, every season has been used to pile up new experiences and achievements, with new projects always in evolution.
For 5 seasons I’ve been forged by Chef Silvano, who gave me a vast knowledge on big scale caterings.
Throughout the years, Silvano and I had also some winter experiences in Aprica, Trentino, and then sailed to Spain and its islands.
There I remained for 8 years with various companies, topping my Spanish experience as the Executive Sous Chef of the RIU hotel.
CHEF STEFANO VIOLA ST. REGIS ABU DHABI
My lust for knowledge and new challenges finally allowed me to open my own first restaurant in Tenerife. An intense experience for such a young man, that has given me a deep insight of the catering world.
The years that followed could be considered a tour around the globe: London, Kenya, Egypt, Italy. In Tuscany, I opened the Osteria del Galletto in Camigliano and stayed there for 4 years. I also followed the opening of Ferragamo’s Borgo in Montalcino, and then I landed in this current Emirates experience with a leader in the hospitality field, Starwood, now part of the Marriot International group.
In your international portfolio, the presence of the Bel Paese is still predominant. Which Italian region has the biggest influence on your dishes?
Without any doubt, Sardinia makes a big difference in the way I chose and pair my dishes. Also, my 10 years in Montalcino are still very relevant for my work.
Even if I’ve been travelling around the world, my palate still remains purely Mediterranean.
Speaking of your worldwide experience, is there a place in particular that inspires you in your creations?
I think that Montalcino is still the place where I’ve really been able to express myself the most, first at Edgardo’s restaurant – now known as Re di Macchia – and then at the Osteria del Galletto. Being the latter my own restaurant, I was able to experiment freely and get the best out of the quality that Tuscany has to offer.
Nowadays the food world is constantly boiling with new ideas. Which cooking trends of our times suit you the most?
Speaking about the food culture in the Emirates and in big hotels, the new tendency is to propose light and dietetic menus, full of culinary offers that communicate freshness and health.
In this overcrowded market, you don’t make it in the news for a single dish, but for the full dining experience. Along with outstanding dishes, you have to present yourself with courtesy, likeability and passion for your job.
The peculiar diets and allergies that have recently emerged are also another turning point for our industry, things that help you attract more clients. Vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options are among our guests’ most popular requests.
For what concerns Italian cuisine, we’re trying to propose regional dishes and regional topicalities in order to infuse more personality to the menus.
Speaking of Italian regional specialities, which are dishes that are more requested by Villa Toscana’s guests?
Here at Villa Toscana, I’ve been able to educate our clients and make them completely trust my suggestions. I’ve created a relationship with them, and they let me surprise them with new creations. When your clients don’t ask for the menu, you know you’ve won them.
Surely, this requires massive attention: you always have to remember their preferences and least favourite dishes. But I like to have this relationship, I’m often out in the dining room chatting with people. That’s what inspires me.
Anyway, the most requested dishes are classics such as the ribollita and lamb pappardelle, and of course the Florentine T-bone steak.
Regional often rhymes with seasonal. How do you maintain Villa Toscana’s menu fresh and dynamic?
Our menu is based on a dozen of “cornerstone” dishes; then, every 4-6 months, we insert some new entries according to seasonality and guests’ preferences.
Moreover, I’ve ideated some daily specials that are very useful to test new proposals for the menu.
The ingredients come from all over Italy, we really have plenty of choice with importations.
The Villa Toscana is regarded as the best Italian restaurant in Abu Dhabi. How do you plan to maintain this title in the future?
Since we opened 5 years ago, we’ve managed to maintain the title and we’re very proud of it. Our restaurant has always been an Italian landmark for local and foreign guests.
Of course, the opening of new hotels with new Italian restaurants inside gives us the incentive to work at our best and make clients come back to us. Moreover, the collaboration with the Italian Embassy and with the local Italian Community helps us spread our voice even more.
Speaking of local guests, how do you conjugate Arabic and Italian tastes?
My first mission is to re-educate the local palates, getting out in the dining room and talking with our guests. It’s an attentive work, but I always get the trust of my local patrons.
I don’t want to contaminate Italian cuisine with local products, though. My guests come here to get a thorough Tuscan experience, nothing more, nothing less.
Your field is crowded with great talents. Is there a Chef who inspires you the most? Would you like to collaborate with someone in particular?
I’m really amazed by Roberto Petza’s determination. He is the Chef at the S’Apposentu restaurant in Sardinia, which now has a Michelin star. We’ve studied together in Alghero, and I had the chance to dine at his restaurant in Cagliari’s Theatre many years ago. Now he has created this project in Siddi, it even has an Academy inside the restaurant. So hats off to Roberto, a point of reference for all of us.
Future projects: are you planning on going back to Italy or moving somewhere else in the world?
Going back to Italy is certainly my biggest dream. With Marriott, we’re now discussing future paths, but for now, my goal is to make the best out of Villa Toscana. Then we’ll see.
Is there a culinary experience that has remained stuck in your mind?
A dinner at Pierangiolini’s ex-restaurant, the Gambero Rosso. Simplicity and creativity at their best.
Which restaurants around the world are on your wish list for a dinner?
One above all is El Celler de Can Roca, owned by the Roca brothers. Their menu and raw materials selection is almost maniacal.
In Italy, I’d say Osteria Francescana. I’m fascinated by how Bottura has conquered the world.
What’s the must-see place in Abu Dhabi?
Being Abu-Dhabi a city in the middle of a desert, everything is already mind blowing. It’s incredible to see what these people have created in 40 years, their meticulous development. All to keep up with the rest of the world.
Among the must-see place there’s surely the Emirates Palace, where all the celebrities get invited by the Sheikh. And don’t forget the Great Mosque and the newly-opened Louvre Museum.
As a final note, let’s jump from the international jet set to your own four walls. Who is the Chef at home and what do you like to eat when you’re not working?
My wife is surely the chef at home and a really good one too! Her cooking is way healthier than mine, she’s very keen on calories and fresh ingredients.
I’m also glad to be her assistant and to cook dinner for our friends when there’s the occasion. I love preparing genuine dishes to be paired with a good glass of wine.
Our last question concerns your dream of going back to your home country. What’s the first dish you’re going to eat when you get back to Italy?
When I’ll get back to Sardinia, I’d love to be greeted by a good plate of spaghetti with Bottarga. However, truffle tagliolini in Piedmont will also do, as well as a thorough Florentine T-bone steak in Tuscany.
Truth is when you live in a foreign country you start missing specific things and habits, such as smelling a freshly-cut mortadella or hearing the steamers’ whistles while walking around Montalcino, with the scent of ribollita pouring from half-closed windows. Those are the details that you really miss in your everyday life outside of Italy.