Text: Jesper Storgaard Jensen - Photos: PR Enrico Crippa and Jesper Storgaard Jensen
"When I first received their letter I read it with quite a lot of distraction. I was in the middle of doing other things and my mind was elsewhere. Then, a couple of days later, people started to send me mails and call me up to congratulate. At first I was quite embarrassed, because I didn't understand what they were talking about. Then I remembered the letter, and I went back to read it. This time carefully. It was only then - 2-3 days after having received the official communication - that I realized that I had received one of the most important recognitions in the gastronomic world".
Enrico Crippa is smiling - almost laughing - about his own distraction, while he is telling me about the days in the spring of 2017, when he received a very official letter from the Parisian Académie Internationale de la Cuisine, one of the most prestigious gastronomic institutions. Since 1990, every year the French Académie has nominated what is usually considered a sort of "the world's best chef". On the list you'll find names such as the French Alain Ducasse, the Spanish Ferran Adria, the Danish René Redzepi and Crippa's fellow countryman Massimo Bottura. In other words: the world's best chefs over a period of more than 25 years.
"I must admit that I was overwhelmed, especially when I realized who had received this price before me. When you become aware of something like that, you instantly have an incredible feeling of joy, because this means that someone has been paying attention to you and your work. This made up for all the hard work, the fatigue and the doubts. To me and to my staff. And that was a wonderful feeling", he says with a smile.
Grandfather and grandson
I'm talking to Enrico Crippa in his restaurant Piazza Duomo. It is situated in the very heart of Alba, in that part of Piedmont called le Langhe, which many consider a sort of "regional pantry". Outside the restaurant's windows you can hear street sounds from Piazza Risorgimento where everything looks so tidy, so joyfully laid-back and so relaxing, especially if you have just arrived from Rome's confusion like I had.
That morning, in a timid early summer morning light, Alba almost appears to be a sort of small fairy tale town. And as we all know, every fairy tale - also the gastronomic ones - has a beginning. In this case an important person in Enrico Crippa's life was his grandfather.
"During the Second World War he fought in Greece and in Albania. To me he was a hero, a strong person that I very much admired. And then you could always find him in the kitchen, cooking. I actually don't know why my grandmother never cooked, but that was how it was. During summer time I often went to the local market with him. Then back home, we went to the kitchen together and started to prepare for the cooking. I still remember how he taught me to touch the vegetables, to smell them, to pick the best ones. In some way I have brought all his passion for food into my adult life", Enrico says.
However, another person has also had a quite important role in Crippa's career. The name is Bruno Ceretto of the local Ceretto-family, who has been producing and selling wine in Piedmont for many years. Mr. Bruno Ceretto thoroughly believed that the region needed a top quality restaurant. This belief was anchored in the fact that the Piedmont region is an incredible treasury of nature's best products. Here you'll find truffles, hazelnuts, high quality meat, famous wines and all in all a high range of excellent raw materials. So why not a restaurant of prima qualità?
"When I first met Bruno Ceretto I realized that he really had a vision. He contacted me when I had just come back from a three-year stay in Japan. He was very serious and ambitious, and I still remember one of his first remarks: 'Think of Bresse in France. They have an excellent chicken that they cook in many different ways, and they have become famous all over the world. Can you imagine ... just because of a chicken!' We have to do the same", says Enrico, laughing.
Enrico was conquered by Ceretto's enthusiasm and in 2003 he arrived in Alba. The first two years were dedicated to a stage in a small trattoria in the area. "Just to become familiar with the local cuisine and the local products", he says.
Then the second restaurant - Piazza Duomo - was added and he had to divide his time between two different kitchens. "It was quite a tough period. I'm Lombard so I needed to get into the spirit of the Piedmont way of thinking. Besides, that was the time where many Spanish chefs were in with their theories on molecular cooking. I must admit that I did not find that trend so interesting, and actually in Italy it never became predominant", he explains.
Best salad ever
When you do research on Enrico Crippa, reading old interviews and so on, you'll unavoidably stumble upon the same issue again and again: the 21-31-41 salad mixture. And you ask yourself: "what on earth is that"?
"Well, it's no big secret. It's the proud result of the restaurant's vegetable garden. We have two different gardens, one close to Barolo and one on the outskirts of Alba, near San Cassiano. A total of four people take care of the vegetables in the gardens. Needless to say that the quality of the raw materials is the Alpha and the Omega of the food we serve. During the summer season we actually manage to get about 80-90 percent of the vegetables from our own gardens. In winter time, the percentage is about 50-60. Some of the products we grow are carrots, tomatoes, green beans, cabbage, zucchini, potatoes, onions and so on. Lots of energy has gone into these gardens and I must say that I'm quite proud of the result".
Enrico has been speaking with such enthusiasm about his vegetable gardens that he has forgotten my original question, and I have to bring him back on track by mentioning the three numbers again, 21-31-41.
"Ah yes, that's right. Well, this dish actually started as a joke. When the Piazza Duomo opened back in 2005 we had something like 20-25 different dishes on the menu. But it still happened that some clients could not find anything that they liked. In that case they would usually ask for a salad. I must admit that I found it rather strange, when it happened, and it also annoyed me a bit. So I said to myself: 'if they want salad they should have the best salad they have ever tasted'. It became a challenge to me. You can find herbs that are acid, salty, bitter and so on, so if you carefully combine these different flavors you don't really have to add salt. You can add vinegar flavored, lemon flavored or perhaps hazelnut flavored herbs", Enrico explains.
And that was exactly what he did to create three different salad mixtures where a total of 21, 31 or 41 different herbs are used, and where sesame, ginger, aceto balsamico and dashi (a Japanese bullion) are added to create an even more intense taste. The lucky consumer will experience a world of different flavors exploding in his mouth and throat.
Not a social chef
During the Olympic Winter Games in Turin in 2006, the organizers set themselves the target to promote not only Turin but the whole region, including what the region has to offer from a gastronomic point of view. And these efforts really seem to have created positive results. Piedmont has been discovered! In certain periods, especially in la bella stagione from April to October, you'll find that many gastronomic travelers reserve a table at Piazza Duomo to try the area's best cuisine.
"Actually, in certain periods nine out of ten guests come from abroad, and very often they have booked months ahead. Especially in the autumn period you'll find many foreign guests. Apart from the fact that they come here to eat, they also come to Piedmont to visit the wine cellars of Barolo, Barbera d'Asti, Barbaresco and Dolcetto or to visit the International Truffle Fair here in Alba", Enrico explains.
We have been speaking for about one hour and I feel that we have reached a good level of confidence. So I say to Enrico: "I these days, when I told people that I was going to Alba to make an interview with Enrico Crippa, they all said: Enrico who?"
Enrico starts laughing, as I go on: "Many of your colleagues participate in cooking shows on TV, they do TV-commercials or they open new restaurants around the world ... but you don't seem to be eager for this kind of publicity. You're not on Facebook and not on Instagram. Why's that?”
"Well, you are perfectly right. I'm not really social, as they say. Obviously I have nothing against my colleagues who participate in TV-shows and use the social media, not at all. I've also had a TV-offer that I declined. If I had to be such a kind of a 'social person' all the time, I think that I would be very stressed, because it's not really me. I prefer to be in my kitchen to do the things I like doing".
Even though Enrico Crippa can't be found on the social media he still has some feeling about what's going on. Actually, almost every day he is an astonished eyewitness to some of his clients' "peculiar behavior".
"Oh yes indeed. You know, in this business the dishes also have a strong aesthetic appeal. So what do people do? They grab their smartphones and start taking pictures from different angles. Again and again. I know that they do this to post the photos on the social media, but to me it sometimes seems exaggerated. I feel the urge to say what mothers usually say to their children: 'come on now, eat your food while it's still hot", he says laughing.
In 2006, only three years after the opening of Piazza Duomo, Crippa was awarded the first Michelin star. The second star came in 2009 and the third in 2012 - and in 2017 Piazza Duomo was ranket 15th on the well-known list "The World's 50 Best Restaurants". With this success, how is he still able to keep his motivation burning and look for new achievements? Isn't he satiated by success?
"The short answer is no. Many restaurants that have been awarded the three stars tend to lie back and say: 'we did it'. There are exceptions, of course. Adria (a famous Spanish chef, ed.) was a volcano of creativity and so was Marchesi (a famous Italian chef, ed.). Anyway, if you rest too long on your laurels, you risk that the creative process will come to a halt. In fact, I've worked in several two-star restaurants, and there you really felt the drive. They wanted more. They were ambitious. They were hungry for the third star. And I think it's important to maintain both ambition and hunger, also after the third star. You have to set new objectives to yourself and your team. So... sometimes I pretend not to have three stars, but only two. Or I say to myself and to someone from my team ... hey, we're going to get the forth Michelin star".
Piazza Risorgimento 4, Alba
Tel.: 0039-0173-36 61 67