Luca Fantin’s unwavering quest for the seasonal and local ingredients that form the cornerstone of his contemporary Italian cuisine has taken him to far-flung corners of Japan.
“I have gone fishing for calamari at three in the morning, with the ocean going like that,” says the chef, as he waves his hand dramatically, mimicking the chilly, turbulent seas during those pre-dawn hours. He continues: “The fisherman was so happy, saying, ‘Many squid, many squid!’ But I was like, ‘How long is it before we go home?’”
The 38-year-old from Treviso in northern Italy, who helms the one-Michelin-star Bulgari Il Ristorante – Luca Fantin in Tokyo’s tony district of Ginza, had willingly subjected himself to hypothermia and seasickness, due to his great respect for farmers and fishermen. For a year, he travelled up and down the Pacific nation, where he is based since 2009, with a photographer and writer to put together a tribute to his agricultural heroes, culminating in a glossy coffee-table book published last year.
His food is deceptively simple. Eschewing the showiness of molecular gastronomy so popular at high-end restaurants these days, his menu does not feature sous vide meats or fancy foam, even though he is well-trained in such techniques.
“The only thing I believe in is to cook the ingredient in the best way, to perfection,” he says. For fish, that means flash-frying in hot oil and then slow-cooking at a lowered temperature, using an old French technique that is similar to making confit. It takes advantage of the fattiness of the oil to preserve moisture in the meat.
For beef, Fantin prefers to, repeatedly, over the course of an hour, introduce the meat onto, and withdraw it from, a grill heated with Japanese charcoal. He explains: “We use this technique to break the molecules inside the beef. We do not want it to lose liquid. But it takes a lot of time.”
The cuisine at his new outpost of the same name, an intimate 36-seat, dinner-only establishment at the Bulgari resort in the Uluwatu district of Bali, will be “fresher” and “lighter”, says Fantin.
“This is a small brother of what we do in Tokyo. We bring our experience, idea and technique here, adapting to the market and ingredients available. It is very hot here and the food cannot be too heavy.”
In the three set menus offered, you will find mains prepared with locally caught tuna and lobster, and sinful desserts crafted from coconut. Caviar and Australian wagyu beef also make their appearance, rare concessions in his local-ingredients mantra.
To replicate the high standards of his flagship, Fantin has been shuttling back and forth between Tokyo and Bali since the start of the year to set the groundwork. It is an international operation of sorts, with dishes developed and re-created in both cities, together with the Bali outlet’s resident head chef, Fabrizio Crocetta. Even the bespoke crockery, custom-made by Kevala Ceramics in Bali, required several round trips before it passed Fantin’s muster. The rigour is astounding.
Although Fantin is not at the helm here, his name is on the banner; essentially, it is his reputation at stake. He explains: “What I want is consistency. When you come here, you will always have a good meal. Always. You cannot go home with a yes, no, maybe, let’s go back, let’s see. This is very bad for the restaurant business. If I am sick or tired, nobody will care because they are paying the bill. It is not a one-time shot. Working in a restaurant every day is like being in the Champions League final.”
Split along three lines, the set menus at Il Ristorante – Luca Fantin showcase the best of the chef’s techniques.
Prices start at 1.1 million Indonesian rupiah (S$110) for the four-course Traditional set. For reservations, visit www.bulgarihotels.com/en_US/bali/bar-and-restaurant/il-ristorante.