With his fresh and modern approach to Southern Italian cuisine, Neapolitan chef Marcello Scognamiglio has given a new identity to Hong Kong’s long-standing dining establishment, Grissini. He talks to us about his culinary journey, the pressure of being a chef and why consistency is key.
As an Italian, discussing food with a Neapolitan chef can be intimidating. The city and its surroundings are home to a millennial culinary tradition that effectively popularised Italian cuisine all over the world.
However, when I meet Marcello Scognamiglio, chef de cuisine at the Grand Hyatt’s Grissini, the conversation flows naturally. Scognamiglio, who’s just 30, is eager to share his philosophy and inspirations, and to talk about the flavours and scents of his beloved Campania.
Since 2019, when he joined Grissini after the restaurant’s much-anticipated revamp, Scognamiglio has completely transformed the atmosphere and menu of the famous dining establishment, which is now into its fourth decade, conquering the hearts of old and new guests alike. He tells me his idea of contemporary food and the public role of chefs.
What’s the idea of contemporary Italian cuisine that you brought to Grissini?
The concept of Grissini is to have an elegant Italian restaurant that serves Mediterranean food, mostly from the South of Italy, which is where I’m from. I try to give a personal touch to every dish on the menu, which isn’t entirely classic, in the sense that the dishes aren’t completely traditional, but in their taste and pairings they do represent the gastronomic history of the South of Italy. The way each dish is conceptualised and then personalised or innovated is always the same, starting from a classic idea or from a specific memory.
Hong Kongers are a tough crowd, especially when it comes to Italian food. Do you feel the pressure of constantly having to come up with new dishes and menus?
Being in the kitchen is a journey. It’s about gradually gaining the confidence to experiment and create new things with common ingredients. Before putting a new dish on the menu, we try it so many times, there’s a lot of trial and error. My process tends to be the same – I start from an ingredient, I think of a specific experience or smell and then I turn it into my own dish. The main thing is that you always have to be ready to take feedback and suggestions. In my opinion, a dish is never fully finished. There’s always room for improvement and adjustments.
The most difficult thing, the real challenge, especially in a big restaurant like Grissini that’s open for lunch and dinner every day, is to be consistent, to maintain the same standard every single time. The more creative you are, the harder it gets to be consistent.
You’re from Campania, a region famous for its flavours. How much of Grissini’s menu is from there?
Everything. Italian cuisine is evolving. In the past years, outside Italy, there’s been more and more regionalisation of our cuisine, which is incredibly diverse. My food is 90 percent inspired by what you’d eat in Campania, whose ingredients are among the most popular and well- recognised all over the world. We do have other things on the menu that aren’t typically from there, of course.
Where did you work before joining Grissini?
I worked for two years at the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok, in an Italian restaurant. I was 25 and young to be a chef there, so I didn’t experiment as much as I do now. Before that, however, my career was a bit different from that of most fine-dining chefs. At the very beginning, I worked in Michelin-star restaurant in France and Italy.
When I reached 24, I felt a bit stressed and disillusioned about the tough world of haute cuisine and decided to work as a private chef on yachts around the Caribbean. It might sound surprising, but that opened my mind so much. Every morning, you buy ingredients in different islands, markets and places. It was a great experience.
The thing is, you can work in the best restaurants in the world, but to become a chef with your own philosophy and sense of creativity, it takes more than that. You need to understand who you are to then bring it to your dishes. Every day you need to demonstrate you know what you’re doing.
In a city like Hong Kong, an executive chef represents the restaurant and its identity. Do you like this public side of the job?
At some point, when you’re in a restaurant like Grissini, you need to become used to constantly talking to the media and other people in the industry, and to be comfortable representing your restaurant. Nowadays, it’s not just about cooking, it’s about having a presence in the dining room and communicating with your guests.
What are your favourite restaurants in Hong Kong?
After living in Thailand for two years, I often crave Thai food. I usually go to Samsen, which I think is one of the best restaurants in the city. I eat a lot of Japanese food and I love Ronin – I’ve been many times. For Neapolitan pizza, I like Gustaci, the new place in PMQ.
Can you divulge any plans you have for Grissini?
We’re working on a new set menu with seasonal ingredients, and also on how to improve the dessert experience. In Naples, there are lots of sweet street foods that we’d love to bring to the tables of Grissini in an elevated way. We’ll continue to improve our service as well, and come up with new ways of presenting the food and making it interesting.
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PHOTOGRAPHY ALISON KWAN