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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Chef Antonio Mellino on his new Italian eatery at the Five Palm Jumeirah Dubai

Mellino recently opened his first establishment in the emirate, with a beautiful and luxe Quattro Passi taking pride of place

Antonio Mellino at Quattro Passi in Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Antonio Mellino at Quattro Passi in Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

The secrets to success in the restaurant business are three-fold, says Italian chef Antonio Mellino. You can’t skimp on quality ingredients, you can’t do it without a solid educational background and you can’t afford to be too rigid in your approach.

Mellino’s success would indicate he knows what he’s talking about. A two Michelin-starred chef from Italy, he opened his first restaurant in 1984, the original Quattro Passi, on Italy’s beautiful Amalfi Coast, after years building it himself.

It was his dream restaurant, and once he got it up and running, he never looked back, following it up with a Quattro Passi in London in 2014.

Mellino recently opened his first Dubai establishment, with a beautiful and luxe Quattro Passi taking pride of place at the Five Palm Jumeirah Dubai.

“My career started as soon as I go into culinary school,” says Mellino. “I went to school for five years in Italy before I started work. This is the foundation, this is what anyone who wants to work in this industry should do. Never underestimate the importance of education.”

Mellino’s path to success began in hospitality, on Costa Cruise liners for 11 years all over the Caribbean, where he honed his skills in a busy floating kitchen.

“It was an amazing, beautiful experience on the cruise, and then I worked in many different hotels and restaurants. But my dream was to open my own place, with my family.”

Eventually, Mellino was able to buy a plot of land with the help of his father, brother and sister and he began to build his dream.

“I build it all myself, with my two friends. We started in 1975 … everything by my hand, and didn’t open the pizzeria until around 1983.”

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Until 1990, Quattro Passi was predominantly a pizzeria, and a few antipasti dishes. “It was just a little trattoria, between Capri and Positano, in a little sea bay called Nerano. It is famous all over the world, the rich people like to come to pay and park their yachts and come to eat in our restaurants. For me, it’s good business.”

Slowly, Mellino’s menu began to evolve. “I like to make it my own,” he explains. “Everybody around me make good, regular trattoria food, so I had to be a little different. The basics are there: we have fresh ingredients grown here, we have fresh fish every day, but it all needs a little extra touch.”

For eight or nine years, Mellino he poured his all into his restaurant. “I had big dreams … I want to be known for my food. I want to grow.”

In the early 2000s, restaurant received its first Michelin star, and it was the drive he needed to keep pursuing success.

“The trick is you must never stop. I keep going. Every year, something new, every few months, create something new. In 45 years of my working in this industry, I never stop … experimenting. Do a new dish. A new decor. New this. New that. Don’t get boring. And of course, the menu.”

The second Michelin star came eight years later. “It is the ultimate gratification,” says Mellino. “What chef doesn’t want a Michelin star? It is the appreciation of the work you have been doing for such a long time. You go to university so you can get a degree. In this business, you open a restaurant so you can get a star. It’s this need to have something tangible in your hands.”

The problem, however, says Mellino, is a star might be incredibly difficult to acquire, but unbelievably easy to lose.

You can’t get too comfortable. A star doesn’t mean you sit back and you are done. It means you have to work extra hard to keep it.”

Coming to Dubai to open a Quattro Passi was a natural evolution for someone who is both business orientated as well as always up for a new adventure.

“This is the place for amazing restaurants, this city,” says Mellino of Dubai. “The opportunity came knocking for me to open my restaurant here and I say, why not? I like it. I like the people here. They are friendly, they like to live, they like to eat.”

Getting ready to open was not without its hurdles, says Mellino. Sourcing fresh, quality ingredients in Dubai was of the utmost importance to him, how to find suppliers he could trust.

“Italian cooking is simple: it relies on few ingredients, but they have to be good quality, fresh, the best. Slowly, I find Italian suppliers, I find the best burrata, the fresh mozzarella, the right pasta. I find local fresh ingredients that are right for me. I cannot open until every single thing is perfect.”

Seabass and white Alba truffle by Antonio Mellino. Photo by Sandro Michahelles Fotografo
Seabass and white Alba truffle by Antonio Mellino. Photo by Sandro Michahelles Fotografo

The result is a Mediterranean kitchen presenting southern Italian fare; food that pays homage to the simple ingredients of the south. A signature dish, for example, combines linguini with zucchini and zucchini flowers in a white sauce that Mellino has been perfecting for 10 years. “There are very rich ingredients … and I am always working to make it lighter, without losing taste. It is all in the technique. The dish is not new. It is the technique and how I approach it that is new.

The menu will change with seasons. “You can’t make crazy things when it’s not the season for the products, because it will not be fresh. You need everything to be fresh

… The dishes are simple and familiar, the trick for me is experimenting with new techniques when I cook,” explains Mellino.

And pursuing an education first and foremost is of the utmost importance, maintains Mellino. “You cannot become a chef without going to school and learning the basics. That doesn’t work anymore. Experience is important, but anyone can read a recipe and create it with a little intelligence. Your edge is the education,” he says.

But despite a chef’s prowess, and regardless of how diverse the menu might be or delicious the dishes that are served, no restaurant can maintain its success if flexibility is underestimated, cautions Mellino.

“You must be aware of your clientele, of who you are serving, of what they want. Don’t make everything rigid, don’t say you cannot eat here without a jacket because I have a Michelin star. This will make your restaurant empty. You need to understand who you are feeding, you need to create atmosphere,” he says. People want to be comfortable, to relax and enjoy the restaurant setting; that’s what makes them come back.

Like all ambitious chefs, Mellino hopes to earn a third star. “My dream was to open the best restaurant in my area, I worked for 45 years and now I am in a city like Dubai … this makes me very very happy.”