Having spent more than 40 years working in the restaurant business, achieved two Michelin stars, and earned a reputation as one of the finest exponents of Italian food, acclaimed chef Antonio Mellino could be forgiven for seeking an extremely well-earned break from the culinary arts
Yet after spending a few hours in the company of the Italian chef it is clear that his passion for food is boundless. Mellino is hugely engaging and boasts an infectious smile as he reminisces on an extraordinary career that has seen him go from working on cruise ships to owning renowned restaurants in Nerano, London and Dubai.
Known for his meticulous attention to detail and creating dishes of rare beauty and vibrancy, Mellino has taken Italian fine dining to new heights. Yet his philosophy is a simple one as he states that “ingredients must speak for themselves”.
Mellino strongly believes that it is the ingredients that hold the key to achieving delectable dishes. In his mind food needs to be prepared simply and skilfully. This belief can be traced back to his childhood when the Mellino family would gather around the table and enjoy fresh fish caught by Antonio’s father, Raffaele, and prepared by his mother, Flora.
“Cooking is definitely a family passion and I first got to know the role of the kitchen by watching my mum prepare big family meals,” says Mellino. “We were a big family and on Sunday everyone would come home and my mum cooked for everybody. It was very simply food, so normally pasta with ragù.
“But we also ate lots of fish as my father was a fisherman. In fact, all the family worked in the fishing industry so we would sell some of it, but always keep some back that we could eat ourselves. We would have the most amazing fish at least fives days a week and we also had our own vegetables that I still use to this day in my restaurant. I was very lucky that Nerano was so famous for having lots of fresh ingredients.”
Developing a love of food from his family, Mellino would hone his skills in Naples after enrolling in culinary school. Following his graduation in 1974 he chose a rather unlikely next step, working on huge cruise liners touring the Caribbean.
It may seem a strange place to cut your culinary teeth, but Mellino insists that the years he spent on the ships helped him improve his skills inside the kitchen and learn valuable lessons in regards to running a successful business.
“The ship was a very good school for me because there were a lot of different cuisines,” remembers Mellino. “It was a very important first step as it made me ready to open my own business. Over there it was a like a city on the sea so you had so many ingredients to work with. I grew up on those ships and it was a real eye opener.
“I saw how the big machine works as we were feeding huge amounts of people every day. So it was a real learning curve and it definitely taught me lots of lessons for when I opened my first small restaurant. But it also taught me that even on a large scale the best idea was to keep things simple and not over complicated.”
Armed with new knowledge and confident he could run his own restaurant, Mellino returned to his home town of Nerano and in 1983 was able to open Quattro Passi. Located on the stunning Amalfi Coast, he chose to use the local ingredients that he knew so well and designed a menu full of traditional dishes.
Staying true to his philosophy the focus was on simplicity. Therefore, products from his own garden would be used as would seafood caught by the local fisherman. But what would quickly stand out to all those dining in the restaurant was Mellino’s ability to create visually stimulating dishes that simultaneously delivered with intense flavours.
“First you see the food so you need to see good things,” he explains. “I hate seeing a big mess on the plate so you have to think about the presentation and of course the taste. These two have to go together. So when I organise a dish I think about the various elements and not only how the will taste together, but how they will appear on the plate.
“I also prefer to only have two or three things maximum. And that is because if I am cooking fish then I want to taste the fish. I don’t need 20 different creams, no, not at all. If you buy the best fish there is no sense to touch it to much, the simpler it is, the more you will taste and enjoy it.”
Not only did customers rave about the food on offer at Quattro Passi but critics were similarly enthralled. The restaurant still holds two Michelin stars, though Mellino places more emphasis on the opinions of his customers than he does those judging the awards.
“In my opinion you do this work because you love it,” states Mellino. “It’s not about the awards and the business side, I cook because I love to cook. The world is so small now thanks to the internet and social media so you cannot worry too much about what people write.
“For me, the best thing I can see is a clean plate. That tells me everything I need to know about my food. If a guest leaves food on the plate you worry that they didn’t like it rather than them just being full. But ultimately everything I do is with a lot of heart and passion, and I think people understand that.
“I do not cook for money; it is purely because I love it. So in my opinion you have to enjoy what you do and not worry so much about how others view your food.”
It is clear that Mellino’s love for food has not waned in the slightest in the last four decades. Just three years ago he launched Quattro Passi London in Mayfair, and recently has been in the United Arab Emirates where a third chain of the restaurant has opened at the FIVE Palm Jumeirah, Dubai.
As with the launch in London, the veteran chef was hands on when it came to making sure every single detail lived up to his exacting standards in Dubai. Mellino designed the kitchen, helped to train the staff and of course perfect the menu.
“Known for his meticulous attention to detail and creating dishes of rare beauty, Mellino has taken Italian fine dining to new heights”
And though he will not be spending all of his time in Dubai, he is making himself readily available to help with every aspect of the restaurant. “I was here in the beginning to organise the kitchen, design it and train the staff. And I just seem to keep coming back despite talking to the guys who work for me every single night.
“They send me reports and we talk on the phone every couple of days. But I still enjoy coming to the restaurant and being hands on. Every opportunity to come to Dubai I take it as I like to change the menu slightly with the seasons. Luckily you can find almost anything in Dubai now so we are working with great produce.
“There are also a lot of Italian suppliers here and I also have a friend in Portugal who is sending me all the best produce. So every chance I have to come here I take as I love tasting new items and making changes to the menu. And now if for some reason I can’t come, one of my sons can come instead.”
Like their father, both Raffaele and Fabrizio have fallen in love with food. Both trained as chefs and embraced the family business. And if there is one thing that rivals Antonio’s passion for food, it is his excitement at being able to work alongside his sons.
“Raffaele is in Miami and Fabrizio is back in Italy,” Mellino says with a glint in his eye. “It is a privilege that my sons do the same work as me and I am very proud of both of them. The younger Fabrizio trained in Lyon in France and has worked with a lot of big chefs. But we can’t be together all the time as we argue to much.
With a huge smile, Mellino adds: “We fight all the time but it is good. It happens in every family and he wants to do his own things. Plus he is too much French because he trained there. He is working 20 hours because that is the French mentality, it is very strict and straight. In Italy we are more relaxed and we like to take a coffee break and then lunch, these can last three hours. But I am truly very happy and proud of both of my sons.”
Yet despite having two talented sons, a trio of successful restaurants and fast approaching 50 years of culinary experience, Mellino has no intention of slowing down or becoming less hands on. He readily admits that food is always on his mind and he cannot help but conjure up new dishes.
Even during his trip to Dubai there has been no time for relaxing, instead he has been working tirelessly with his team as he makes sure every dish meets his exacting standards.
“I have only been here two or three days and I am already thinking of changes to the menu,” admits Mellino. “I am always thinking about food and I love still being involved in every aspect of the machine because who knows for how many more years I can do this.
“But I have spent all my life in the kitchen so at my age we have to start giving someone else a chance. You have to have trust in people and it is time for a new generation. Luckily I have trust in my sons and the people I work with. I can explain things to them that I want and I like giving them the chance to grow.”
But for now both Raffaele and Fabrizio know that their hard working father is still the top chef in the family. And despite some heated discussions around the family table back in Italy, it is Antonio who still knows best.
“When we are all home and all three of us are cooking, we talk about everything from the food to the restaurants to the whole business,” says Mellino. “We talk, we fight, but ultimately I am very proud as they are both very smart and intelligent guys.
“I have passed down all my experience to them and it is gold, the same as putting money in the bank. This way I know that my story will continue and it will stay in the family.” And with one final smile he adds: “I think I was very smart to create this team.”
It certainly seems the legacy of Quattro Passi is in safe hands and the family’s passion for ‘simple’ cooking will never diminish. And that can only be good news for all those fortunate enough to taste Mellino’s food whether in Nerano, London or Dubai.
“When I organise a dish I think about the various elements and not only how the will taste together, but how they will appear on the plate”
WORDS: ADRIAN BACK