Italian Culinary Excellence at Talea Restaurant
Immersed within the luxurious embrace of Emirates Palace, Mandarin Oriental, Talea Restaurant stands as a landmark of Italian culinary excellence, genuinely blending traditional Italian flavors with a heartfelt “cucina di famiglia” approach. It’s all about authentic, mouthwatering family dishes, deeply rooted in cherished memories of relaxation and togetherness around the table, sharing anecdotes, and offering support.
A Journey with Chef Luigi Stinga
From crafting the menu to igniting the stove at dawn, from the delicious aromas wafting through the air to the meticulous table settings, every detail contributes to the warm embrace of family hospitality. Leading this fine dining restaurant is Chef Luigi Stinga, whose unwavering passion for pushing culinary boundaries has rightfully earned Talea Restaurant its prestigious Michelin star.
Rejuvenating Abu Dhabi’s Culinary Landscape
Chef Luigi’s odyssey began with a bold vision to rejuvenate the culinary landscape of Abu Dhabi, infusing it with the vibrancy of authentic Italian flavors. Supported by the esteemed Chef Antonio Guida, renowned for his two Michelin stars at the Seta Restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental, Milan, Chef Luigi embarked on a culinary journey to showcase authentic Italian ingredients, traditional recipes and flavors.
As Talea gears up to celebrate its second anniversary this March, let’s embark on a journey through Chef Luigi’s captivating narrative, from Talea’s humble beginnings to its meteoric rise in the culinary scene.
A Conversation with Chef Luigi Stinga
Erika: We are in Abu Dhabi, in the Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental, at Talea Restaurant. Could you share your experience in transforming the culinary scene at Talea Restaurant and earning a prestigious Michelin star?
Luigi: Unexpected, very unexpected. But we tried to do it being Italian, trying to bring something new to the city, also keeping the tradition and doing something a little bit different than others. We made a good one. We have a good team, we are very close with each other, and we are all young people.
Erika: But what was here before?
Luigi: There used to be an Italian restaurant here, which has been closed for four years now, so we reopened as Talea, renovated it and changed its appearance. I wanted to make the terrace outside because it is very beautiful. I think the view of the sea is spectacular.
Erika: I guess, in the beginning, It was challenging to reopen the restaurant.
Luigi: Yes, it is often much easier to open a restaurant from scratch than to change the idea of the restaurant that was there before. So you know, having people here for so many years, there’s the idea of that restaurant and then this young kid comes along who wants to change everything, even though that’s the beauty of it.
Erika: So actually in the beginning you decided to go with a traditional approach?
The Concept of Talea
Luigi: When we arrived we wanted to do a little bit more gourmet cuisine but I think the city of Abu Dhabi is still not quite ready for real gourmet. It is changing so much because the city here really goes very fast. One year in Abu Dhabi is eight years in Europe. Really the government helps a lot so slowly it is changing. But we started from a very traditional cuisine, but with a little bit of technique behind it and a little bit of research. We also have our own garden, so we try to do tradition with a little touch of innovation.
Erika: For example, what were the dishes you focused on in the beginning to be able to, let’s say, convey the message, “Talea is now open and welcome”?
Luigi: Maybe with dishes that had only three ingredients, like octopus. Mashed potatoes, octopus, and pistachios, with the highest quality ingredients. That’s the idea: a restaurant that doesn’t have dishes that are too fancy, but not too common either. So those who come to Talea find a search for the product, traditional dishes but with some innovative touches. The raw material comes first.
Erika: Speaking of raw material, earlier you said garden, actually you probably meant vegetable garden, you have your own vegetable garden with seeds that come directly from your region, Campania?
Garden to Table
Luigi: Yes, my Dad sent me all the seeds and we made the garden in the sand. This project started with the Executive Chef, then we took over with the restaurant. We get everything, 95 percent of our vegetables from the garden. So in the morning we go to the garden, get the herbs, get the vegetables, and now we’ve also created a “Garden to Table” menu there that also changes every day. It kind of depends on what I find in the garden. In the beginning it was a bit difficult, but now it’s nice because the customer comes, maybe twice a week, and finds totally different dishes.
Erika: How do you explain the concept “Garden to Table”?
Luigi: It’s difficult here because nobody really has their own garden, so oftentimes the most mundane thing, like a tomato, people haven’t seen on the plant, so often we even take the customer to the garden, pick a tomato and cut it on the table with some oil. It’s something great for them.
Erika: I smile, not to tease, but because many times we take for granted things that are very important. So going to the garden, picking the tomato, the carrots, the vegetables, instead of going straight to the supermarket and finding them ready.
Luigi: Yes, it’s an added value for the restaurant. Then my kids hate me, because for example in the zucchini period, we eat zucchini for breakfast, lunch and dinner because we have so much of it.
Erika: Well, it has nothing to do with vegetables, but yesterday I tasted a burrata cocktail.
Luigi: Yes, burrata and basil, our Burrata Sour.
Erika: Did you think of it to accompany certain dishes or just because you also wanted to use such a product within the mixology world?
Luigi: The truth?
Luigi: We had a lot of basil and a lot of burrata, so we made these basil syrups. Why not do something different with burrata and basil? Quite Italian! And then it became our signature cocktail at the restaurant and it’s very unique.
Erika: You just explained that the menu changes frequently. How do you maintain consistency and quality in the dining experience?
Luigi: The nice thing is that I manage to change it very frequently because people are also starting to ask and they are starting to like it more and more. So when they come and they want some particular dish, I can experiment with my creativity. So in the kitchen we play a little bit more, we make new dishes, both for the menu and off the menu. We always try to keep good, first-rate ingredients. Often with some suppliers who bring me different ingredients we can play a lot.
Erika: I can be a witness. I have tasted the dishes and the basil and capers felt like being in Italy. When you taste them you really take a trip.
Luigi: That’s the difference when you have your own garden, the bought ones are very different. So it’s little things that change both the flavor of the dishes and I think the whole experience. It’s that extra touch that others don’t have, and something quite unique.
Erika: And people are starting to understand the difference in fresh produce and Italian produce.
Luigi: We as chefs also have to kind of give direction. So people come here, we bring them to the garden, we show them what we produce, they taste the ingredients, and I also often make the difference between our basil and bought basil. You can see there is a difference. So they often say to me: what’s from the garden today? What do you have me eating from the garden? In my opinion this has moved people’s curiosity, as they are curious to see more, to try more, to discover something new. I think at that point you won as a restaurant. You have achieved the goal because then the same person comes back, asks you for something more, asks you for a new dish, asks you for a different experience. I think when a chef is able to do that he has achieved a great goal.
Synergies and Collaborations
Erika: Well, certainly you are promoters of “made in Italy”. That’s what they call it in the world, but it’s not easy to find people like you who are really interested in teaching about our country, though, so definitely credits to you. Have you tried to create synergies and collaborations with other chefs in town to be able to promote this gourmet cuisine that is so difficult perhaps to explain at first?
Luigi: Yes, that is also at the base I think. If I am the only chef who wants to make something different and I ask a supplier for a different item or a different product that is just for me, the supplier will never take it and also people will never change their idea. Instead, if we try to make a group, if I want a particular product, I tell other chefs who maybe also use it in a different way, so we start to create a different market. First, we can change a little bit the approach to the idea of gourmet cuisine in the city, because people come to me and find something different, then they go to another chef for a particular dish and so on. That’s what moves curiosity, if we all collaborate in the same direction then the change is felt. You start to change the idea about gourmet, about Italian cuisine, and in my opinion we can “change” the city.
Erika: Well, certainly collaboration must really be the word that accompanies this year and future years to come. Definitely it is most important in all areas.
Luigi: Yes, on our own we can be as good as we want to be but it doesn’t go anywhere. So often I also like to do collaborations here with other chefs in Abu Dhabi, to be together, to create a little bit of that connection you know, also because it’s nice to send your customers to other restaurants and get feedback. It fits.
Erika: Is there a particular event that you want to tell us about that really stuck in your heart?
Luigi: I think the Michelin event, held at the Louvre this year. We were in a crazy space and behind us we had the Louvre, a crazy structure. We were 20 chefs including 10 chefs from all over the world, 2 or 3 Michelin stars. And even there, it’s very nice to have these chefs come to the city and for a week we tried to show them a little bit of the city, create a little bit of a tune-up and it’s going to be very, very nice. We’re still receiving nice feedback.
Erika: It definitely helps the collaboration that we were talking about earlier. I ask one last question. How long have you been here?
Luigi: Two years.
Erika: What have you brought home in these two years?
Luigi: A lot, because the city is crazy and there’s so much to see, even historically. There’s the cuisine behind it, which is very, very beautiful. The locals have a very strong culture and it’s really beautiful. The government helps us so much in the restaurant business to help us grow. They try to bring a lot of chefs from abroad to help change the idea of catering a little bit and that helps us so much.
Erika: Specifically the tourism office, right?
Luigi: Yes, we have DCT helping us out on so many of these things. They are very, very good. Plus the Mandarin has given me the opportunity to work in a unique place with a beautiful restaurant. The brand helps me so much, supports me, and then the nice thing is that it also makes me shoot so much in other places, so you can always learn, and take something from other chefs in other cities as well.
Erika: Last question – A happy thought.
Luigi: When I got the Michelin star here, I was crying like a baby.
Erika: With your parents, too, right?
Luigi: Yes, my mom was there, I was at the table and I was crying like a baby.
Erika: Well, after a long journey, and sacrifices, it’s definitely a great recognition.
Luigi: That was a mean question.
Erika: Not me, I am not mean! But I have to bring out the emotions because otherwise sometimes you are like robots.
Luigi: We are chefs. It was really a nice evening, so unexpected. After so much work it was so nice to receive recognition from Michelin for myself, Talea, and also Mandarin Oriental.