Good quality, aromatic and sophisticated food are the imperatives in fine dining for Annie Féolde, one of the most famous female chefs in the world. She reigns in Tuscany and Tokyo, pouring her passion into the cuisines she and her team prepare.
Féolde was in Abu Dhabi this month to announce Gourmet Abu Dhabi, a 10-day international food festival organised by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority and beginning on February 5. She brings her signature rustic-refined food to the festival, where she will both cook and teach. Emirates Business talked to her in the capital.
How has the credit crunch hit the luxury restaurant business? Are bookings down?
A lot. Our business has dropped about 20 per cent due to the ongoing global financial crisis. Bookings are also decreasing as fewer people come in because they have less disposable income in the present situation. It has become increasingly difficult to run such a high-quality business.
Your signature style has been described as 'rustic-refined'. How did that come about? Was that something you intentionally set out to do?
Italian cuisine always used to be and is rustic. But it can also be sophisticated. If you take the best point out of it and make it more important, you take the essence out of an old rustic recipe and transform it into a more sophisticated dish.
Are you in the hospitality business because of family connections?
Yes. My grandparents ran hotels on the French Riviera and my parents worked with a famous hotel. So that's why I'm in this business – because of family.
As a woman chef, how hard is it to make it in a male-dominated world? Does your gender work against you?
The answer is very easy. It's not just about being clever or talented – but also about a woman's many different roles. Most women have many things to do without having to wake up at six o'clock in the morning to go to the market and then only being able to come back home at one or two at night – as chefs must do. Men can do this because they have their wives beside them. But having said that, I've never faced a problem in the business because I am a woman. I've had a good time, really. And again, in Italy, there is a tradition of women running kitchens.
You opened a restaurant in Tokyo several years ago. Is that still running?
Yes. We opened it 17 years ago. And on the back of that, we opened one more in Japan, in Nagoya, about two years ago.
When you opened in Tokyo, the Guide Michelin felt you had spread yourself too thin and you lost a star. Is it hard to stay competitive if you run more than a couple of restaurants as top chefs do today?
The Michelin rating system operates differently in France and in Italy, and the situation you're referring to happened 17 years ago – and now things have changed. At that time, Michelin Italy apparently believed it was not so good to expand businesses abroad. But now everybody does it. So it is the question of timing, position and the country you are operating in. Now, all the chefs like me have businesses outside their countries. There is a very good and simple reason for that – a single country unit does not give us enough money, therefore we have to have another because the high quality we serve up is very expensive to maintain. We call it our window, and then we have to have another, a second business.
In recent months, we have seen more restaurants across Europe – particularly the UK and France – going out of business. What are the reasons behind this – the smoking ban, the recession, or something else?
Well, not being able to smoke in public anymore is only a question of transition. We took this decision at our restaurant in Tuscany before the law was passed in Italy, because it isn't very nice to smell someone else's cigarette while you're eating. So we organised separate seating for smokers. Restaurants who do not have enough space are badly affected by the law – but they will find a solution. So, yes, the smoking ban has affected some businesses, but it's the recession that's causing restaurants to go out of business.
Who does the cooking at home?
Me. All the time.
Your ideal dinner table would have which famous people – past or present, fictional or real – around it?
I cannot give you any name or any fictional ideal person, but what is most important for me is to be at a dinner table with people who are nice, warm, intelligent, and those who have some knowledge about cooking. In this way we can understand each other well and have a good time. That is my ideal dinner.
PROFILE: Annie Féolde Chef, entrepreneur
French-born Annie Féolde is the first woman chef in Italy to have earned three Michelin stars, the highest accolade in the culinary world.
Raised in a hospitality family in southern France, she took up a government job and gradually fell in love with cooking – which took her to Tuscany in central Italy. There, she met her husband and business partner, Giorgio Pinchiorri, owner of the famous Enoteca Pinchiorri restaurant.
A self-taught chef, Féolde began serving her food at Enoteca Pinchiorri in 1979, mostly to accompany her husband's fine grape beverages. By the 1990s, the restaurant was at the top of most gourmet lists.
In 1994, she opened a restaurant in Tokyo – and lost a Michelin star in the process. She won it back in 2004.
Today, she and her husband run the restaurant in Tuscany and two in Japan. She also attends global conferences and cooking events, sharing her expertise, and conducts professional classes.