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Chef Alfonso Iaccarino on healthy cooking and his love of Asian cuisine

The beating heart behind Macau’s Don Alfonso 1890, Alfonso Iaccarino, tells Nicole Hurip about healthy cooking, Asian cuisine and why Julia Roberts should dine at his restaurant

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Alfonso Iaccarino, head chef at Macau’s Don Alfonso 1890
Poached saffron-flavoured organic egg with white asparagus and Oscietra caviar
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Poached saffron-flavoured organic egg with white asparagus and Oscietra caviar
Spaghetti with flat lobster and cherry tomato spicy sauce
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Spaghetti with flat lobster and cherry tomato spicy sauce

Jovial, passionate and down-to-earth. That’s chef Alfonso Iaccarino. The head honcho at Don Alfonso 1890, Macau’s sister restaurant to the highest Michelin-rated eatery in Southern Italy, clearly adores food – particularly the healthy Mediterranean diet. In fact, when we meet him, his palpable love of cooking becomes as infectious as his positive outlook on life.

Born into the hospitality industry, chef Iaccarino, who describes his food as ‘new-style Mediterranean’, was meant to become a hotel manager like his father and grandfather before him – but his love of food led him into the kitchens instead. Growing up in the countryside, he gained an early healthy respect for nature something reflected in his passion for organic food and farming. In fact, he talks a lot about healthy food. And with more than 40 years in the business and two Michelin stars to his name, he’s something of an authority.

Don Alfonso 1890 at Macau’s Grand Lisboa opened three decades after chef Iaccarino’s first in Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi on Italy’s Sorrento Peninsula. It creates dishes which use the best ingredients, cooked skillfully and simply by the chefs. It’s an authentic taste of Southern Italy, thanks to the passion of chef Iaccarino…

Ciao, chef Iaccarino! Great to meet you. So, tell us about yourself...
I was born in Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi in Naples, Italy. My family is in the hospitality industry and my mother gave birth to me in a hotel. My father and grandfather started teaching me the art of their trade when I was a baby. But I enjoyed food so much that I wanted to go into the kitchen, so I began the rest of my life as a chef. I am turning 70 years old next January but I stay young by eating the same as I cook. Mediterranean way. Lots of pasta, vegetables and fruit, and extra virgin olive oil only. There’s an island in Japan where a lady is 104. She has a special diet. I must go there before I die...
 
What inspired you to become a chef?
The curiosity of food and the curiosity of new cosmopolitan ways of eating. Everywhere there is food and everywhere there are markets. Different techniques are used everywhere and there are different ways to eat. That’s very interesting to me.
 
Where did you hone your culinary skills?
It came from my family’s tradition and the tradition of the place where I live. I also get ideas while cooking and during my life. It’s like the life of an artist. The other day I was watching a film about Van Gogh and, at the beginning, his paintings were sad because he was living in Holland and there was no coloured atmosphere. After he went to the south of France, he started painting flowers and began to employ colours like strong yellows and blues. It’s the same for me.

How many restaurants do you have?
I have restaurants in New Zealand, Macau, Marrakesh, Rome, Capri and Italy. Each has a different style of cooking. Which one do I prefer? I must say Macau because I get to experience the Chinese lifestyle. I have a big respect for Chinese cooking.
 
And what’s your signature dish?
Vesuvio di rigatoni, which is inspired by the volcano Mount Vesuvius in the Campania region. Rigatoni pasta is piled into a small mountain and then filled with egg, mozzarella and pork before being drizzled with tomato and basil sauce. It’s simple but with the right ingredients it becomes exceptional.

Your restaurant in Macau is one of our favourites in the SAR. Would you consider opening one on this side of the water?
Well, I should like to very much! Hong Kong is the most creative and modern city in the world. If the family company asks us to go and set one up, then we will go!
 
How is cooking for Asian patrons different from your Italian kinsmen?
Asian ingredients are very similar to what we use in Southern Italy. Fish and vegetables are used a lot in China and we also have a lot of fish, although it’s a different, smaller type. It’s also different in the way you sell it. In Asia, you finish your meal with carbohydrates, by having noodles or something. We start with it. That’s the only difference. You have noodles and we have spaghetti.

Tell us about your healthy cooking...
I started this innovation 35 years ago when I started my organic farm. Back then, I already felt there was a need for healthy eating. All of my dishes are made with the health of people at the forefront of my mind from the start – and now everyone is doing it. Ten years ago, people were saying our food was too light, but in five years, everybody is going to say it was the right food. People think that good food must be very rich and flavourful, which we also strive for but in a healthier way. We saw into the future and now everybody is doing what I was doing. In Hong Kong, many fine dining restaurants are using organic ingredients.

Which celebrity, alive or dead, would you most like to dine at your restaurant?
Julia Roberts or Nelson Mandela, because Julia loves food and Nelson did so much for the world.
 
What can’t you tolerate at the dining table?
I really don’t trust people who don’t love animals and people who don’t love food!
 
What advice do you have for home cooks?
I think that, in the kitchen, there are no rules. Go where your heart takes you. In this case, go where your taste buds take you...

Don Alfonso 1890 3/F, Grand Lisboa, Avenida de Lisboa, Macau, +853 8803 7722; grandlisboahotel.com.

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