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Grand Designs: Architect-Turned-Chef Ilaria Zamperlin Helms Aqua’s Italian Kitchen

Grand Designs: Architect-Turned-Chef Ilaria Zamperlin Helms Aqua’s Italian Kitchen

With a background in architecture, Aqua’s executive chef Ilaria Zamperlin hopes to complement the restaurant’s view of the Hong Kong cityscape with equally dazzling Italian fare. 

“I consider architecture, cuisine and tailoring the three most ancient art forms,” Aqua’s new executive chef Ilaria Zamperlin tells me. While she might not be designing collections for the next fashion week (“just yet,” she corrects me with a grin), the helm of Aqua’s Italian kitchen has already ticked two of the three boxes – and with remarkable flair.

As the restaurant’s first female executive chef, the architect-turned-chef has had an illustrious career during the past two decades, which has taken her from chilly Northern Europe to the scorching Arabian desert and now to Asia’s World (and possibly most humid) City. Not only was she shortlisted as Future Great Chef of the Year by Gault Millau UAE, but her collaborative project with the one-Michelin-star Vito Mollica also won Newcomer of the Year and Favourite Italian Restaurant from What’s On Dubai. 

Although cooking has been her full-time passion and profession for more than 20 years, Zamperlin had vastly different plans for her life when she was a young girl living in the Roman countryside. She was born with a gift for drawing and sketching, so it didn’t take long for her after-school hobby to make its way into the classroom. 

 “Naturally, I used to draw a lot,” she says, “so when I was in middle school my mother encouraged me to enroll in a vocational high school specialising in the arts.” There, she’d come to fall in love with architecture, inspired by the hundreds – if not thousands – of historic buildings dotted around her native city. Indeed, as they’re surrounded by such awe-inspiring monuments as the Colosseum, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, St Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, it’s hard to imagine any Roman not becoming an architect, historian or archaeologist. Architecture is what Zamperlin majored in as she moved into higher education but, as it turns out, those years in university changed her career trajectory completely.

“I studied architecture for three years in university in Rome, and then one summer, I travelled to London for an English course,” Zamperlin recalls. “Summer school is quite popular in Europe, and I’d only planned to stay in the UK capital for a month or two. As most other students did at the time, I was looking for a part-time job while I was there, going around restaurants and asking if they were hiring baristas. It was something easy – I’d never cooked professionally in my life, so the kitchen wasn’t an option.”

Eventually she landed on an establishment that, though it had no openings for baristas, the restaurant manager urged her to descend to the basement level and meet the chef, who was looking to hire a pastry commis at the time. 

“When I got down and saw the kitchen, it was such an eye-opening experience,” she says, “because back in the early 2000s, we didn’t really have TV shows like Chef’s Table. I’d never seen anything like that. Eventually, the chef came to speak with me and told me he needed a pastry commis. I told him the only baking I had ever done was at home with my mother! I was hired on the spot and asked to start the next day. And that’s how it all began.”

Within a few months, this part-time job took over more and more of her heart, until she eventually realised London was where she really wanted to be, studying the culinary arts instead of adding to Rome’s skyline. After a short trip back to Italy to break the news to her parents and pack the rest of her belongings, she returned once again to Britain, this time determined to make her culinary career work. 

“I worked in pastry for a couple of years – and to be honest it’s still one of my biggest passions – but I discovered that I actually had talent for the kitchen as well, so I just kept on going. From pastries, I moved into the kitchen and kept learning along the way.” 

For Zamperlin, “along the way” translated to working at some of London’s most renowned Italian restaurants, where she managed to gain a wealth of knowledge from other chefs and mentors, though she still considers herself self-taught, having had no formal training from any cooking academy. Her adventures in London would lead her to spearhead the opening of Oswald’s private members’ club in Mayfair before saying goodbye to the city she’d lived in for roughly a decade.

Her next stop was Dubai, where she took on the role of chef de cuisine at the extravagantly exclusive Bvlgari Yacht Club, working occasionally with chef Niko Romito. “The Bvlgari hotel is one of the top establishments in Dubai,” Zamperlin tells me proudly. “It’s an impressive location and I had great colleagues. I had such an amazing time there and I learned so much across those few years. It was very formative.”

She then worked with Vito Mollica at the one-Michelin-star Chic Nonna, where she earned all her accolades while learning all she could from the renowned chef. “Working with Vito was another very formative experience,” she explains. “He was a proper mentor to me: he was knowledgeable, passionate, but also calm. It was a privilege working with him.”

Having conquered Dubai, she set her sights on Hong Kong, another global gastronomic hub, and though she’s only been here for half a year, she tells me it’s been a blast. “I came to Hong Kong because I really wanted to experience living here,” she emphasises. “I’ve travelled around Asia quite a bit, but travelling and living are very different. Both as a chef and a human being, going to these countries offers me a chance to learn about their heritage and cuisines.” 

And if new experiences were what she craved, that’s exactly what she got. Joining Aqua gave her a new outlook on how creative restaurant concepts can be, given the establishment’s intermingling of Japanese and Italian cuisines. 

“At the beginning, I was a little surprised by this approach, because I’ve never worked in a restaurant that offered this type of experience before,” she admits. “But I like to put myself in my guests’ shoes, and it makes a lot of sense when you think about how much more choices they have. Whether it’s pizza, sushi, pasta or tempura, they can have it all. It’s a very interesting concept, and I think there’s a lot of room for me to work even more closely with the Japanese kitchen here and create more harmony in the menu.”

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Since Zamperlin has joined, she’s created a whole host of new dishes drawn from her own heritage and travels, such as Sicilian red-prawn carpaccio, Alaskan king crab with caviar, eggplant-filled Tortelli alla Norma, braised duck plin ravioli, champagne and lobster bisque risotto and dover sole mugniaia style. The common denominator across these vibrant dishes, she says, is what she calls “elevated Italian simplicity”, a philosophy that informs everything she does in the kitchen.

“The Italian kitchen is very simple: the key is to use ingredients of the best quality,” she explains. “It’s about taking those ingredients and transforming them with your cooking. We don’t use any crazy sauces or things like that. It’s all about simplicity, refined by exceptional ingredients. Elevating Italian cuisine with minimalism, simplicity, elegance and quality – that’s what it is for me.”

And what of her architectural talents? After two decades in the culinary world, is that part of her life something she still misses? “Yes, I still miss architecture a lot,” Zamperlin admits with a pensive smile. “Sometimes, I think, ‘What if?’ But the truth is, I’m very happy with the choice I made. There are so many similarities between architecture and cooking for me. The process behind the two fields is very alike. Whether you’re designing a new building or creating a new dish, you’ve got to study, to research and to look at what your competitors are doing. In one field you’re thinking whether this type of wood will go with that type of stone, and in the other you’re considering whether this ingredient will pair with that flavour profile; the process to get to the final result is, to me, almost identical.

“Though what I’d love to do, maybe in a few years’ time, would be to design professional kitchens,” she tells me, excitedly. “I’ve worked in London, Dubai and now Hong Kong, and wherever I go, I notice that the designs and layouts don’t really work well. Whoever designs these kitchens, whether it’s an architect or engineer, doesn’t really understand how the space should work because they’ve never worked in one before. They don’t understand the job, the movement and the flow. I have experience in both fields, so I’d love to combine both my skill sets and design better professional kitchens.”

While she’s got this aspiration somewhere on her to-do list, for now, it’s full steam ahead with Aqua. So far, time has been scarce, especially when it comes to helming a completely new team and kitchen while getting used to living in an entirely foreign country. But with a pedigree like Zamperlin’s, it’s no surprise she remains ambitious as ever. 

“Aqua is really best known for the view and ambience it provides,” Zamperlin admits without soft-pedalling. “But I want to change that. I hope we can start shifting the spotlight on to the food and the drinks. I hope guests can remember us not just for the view and location, but also – or more so – for the quality of the dishes and flavours. That’s my vision for Aqua.” 

Source: Prestige Online

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