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Chef Marco is now into his fourteenth year at Prego restaurant in Chaweng and the Samui Times wanted to catch up with this iconic chef to learn more of his fascinating career path, his personal philosophy on homemade Italian cuisine and about running one of the most popular restaurants on the island.
ST: What inspired your initial passion for cooking?
CM: As a boy I was only really interested in cars and motorcycles and was not particularly keen on school, so often at 2pm I could be found down at the local mechanics helping out at the age of fourteen. My parents wanted me to study so I chose the culinary school Instituto Giovanni in my town, Varallo Sesia because I really hoped it would be a school to give me an outlet for my creativity. Initially there was a great deal of theory and basic training but after a couple of years, representatives from hotels came to the school to ask for manpower for the weekend. It was very valuable work experience to be in the kitchens of these magnificent five star hotels, even though I was mainly peeling potatoes, but the atmosphere and environment was always exhilarating and I was hooked.
ST: When did you first start to cook professionally?
CM: After my national service in the army I started work in a restaurant in my town as a commis chef, the lowest grade in the kitchen, I spent several months prepping vegetables and peeling yet more potatoes. Any feeetime I had, I would go back to the kitchen to learn as much as I could, I was very ambitious to succeed and I had made up my mind to become an executive chef and have my own brigade in my own restaurant. With lots of hard work I progressed up the laddder from commis two then one, chef de partie, sous chef and then eventually at the age of twenty seven, head chef.
ST: How was it that you came to Samui to start up Prego restaurant?
CM: I was in Italy in 1994 and was contacted by a private Thai company in Bangkok asking if I would come to Thailand for three months to teach a Thai brigade how to cook Italian cuisine. I wasn’t initially overly interested as I don’t enjoy hot climates at all, to give you an example I would often choose places like Norway or Sweden for my vacations, but I realised it would be a great opportunity to further my career. Actually the real incentive was them offering me a Kawasaki Eliminator motorcycle on top of a handsome salary package so the bike enthusiast in me couldn’t say no. The time passed so quickly that three months turned into six teaching people how to make pasta, ravioli and gnocchi. After six months they asked if I would sign a contract for two years, as the work was very enjoyable and things were going well I agreed. After this wonderful experience I wanted to broaden my horizons so over the next several years I worked for a few different establishments and built up a very solid reputation and I was often interviewed for newspapers, magazines and on Thai television and became popular in the hotel and restaurant industry in Bangkok. I sent out several e- mails and was approached by the vice president of the Amari Watergate who had heard about me on the grapevine, so I accepted their offer. During my time here the Amari group wanted to expand and develop a stand alone Italian restaurant at their location on Samui and they asked me if I would like to be involved in this new venture. At the time, 2003, Amari was only a one hundred room hotel and really in need of development and I was excited to be offered the opportunity to build up my own restaurant to my specifications literally from the ground up, I was very fortunate indeed.
ST: How would you describe your cuisine?
CM: Authentic Italian, genuine, real Italian food. In the last few years even in Italy there has been a trend to mix flavours and over complicate tastes and in doing so, losing the very essence of what is real Italian cooking. I don’t criticize this globalisation of blending different styles of cooking, but I am a strong advocate of simple, fresh and tasty original recipes.
CM: All of them! Back in 2003 at Amari every Thursday they put on an Italian night, there was little if anything that truly represented Italy so the director asked me to completely redesign the menu to fully explore the tastes and flavours of my home country. It was very difficult at the time on Samui to find suppliers who could provide what I required, but fortunately I still had my contacts in Bangkok and was able to have fresh produce flown to me on a daily basis. It wasn’t until after the tragic tsunami in 2004 that suppliers in Phuket saw the opportunity to expand their business into Samui and so it became much easier for me to source my products. I was in fact the first chef on Samui to bring genuine Italian produce to the island.
ST: What is your favourite food product to work with?
CM: It has to be my pasta the very backbone of real Italian cuisine, and it has to made with real semolina flour, anything else is simply not authentic. There is nothing quite like homemade Pappardella, a sort of large, flat ribboned fetuccini accompanied with a rich meat sauce. I personally have a preference for beef or lamb over fish and seafood.
ST: What would you consider as the most essential item in your kitchen?
CM: To continue the theme of the previous question, that would have to be my pasta machine, it is absolutely indispensable and a real workhorse in my kitchen.
ST: How do you chose your suppliers from the many that are now currently available to you?
CM: As we touched on earlier, my suppliers are vital to the running of the business. Even though we have a wonderful choice of produce in the Thai markets, it is just simply not possible to to find the authentic Italian ingredients and above all the flavours that are essential in creating my recipes. I really miss going to the markets twice a day as I used to back in Italy and hand pick the produce. These days, traceability, cost and quality control are big considerations in the cooking industry, so for me my suppliers really are key.
ST: Do you have a particular philosophy when it comes to food?
CM: Buy top quality ingredients and cook them simply and they will speak for themselves.
ST: The look of a plate is very important, what would you consider to be your best colour, texture and taste matching?
CM: That is very true, a plate must certainly be pleasing when it comes to the table but it must be a secondary consideration to the taste of the food. Make it appealing to the eye but above all a delight for the palate.
ST: Is there a particular dish that you like to cook for family and friends?
CM:That would have to be my homemade lasagne. It is a long process to make the pasta, prepare the bechamel sauce and cook the bolognese for a couple of hours. It would probably take me all morning to prepare but the result of all the effort is always very popular, well appreciated and a great meal to share.
ST: What are you hoping to improve on at Prego?
CM: The current menu was restructured just recently but all my, and importantly, the clients preferred dishes still feature strongly; spaghetti carbonara, gnocchi and fettucini all presented a little differently but retaining the fundamental essence of Italy. We are due to complete our planned renovation project at Prego after Songkran (13 April), which will take a couple of months to see through. We will remain open during this period of change so hopefully there will be as little disruption to our service as possible. In the meantime I remain enthusiastic and ambitious for the continued success of Prego and still thoroughly enjoy teaching new staff the wonderful art of creating real honest Italian cuisine. This sharing of the gift of knowledge remains one of my greatest joys.
ST: Chef Marco, many thanks for your time and we wish you much ‘Buona Fortuna’ for your future endeavours.