Heinz Beck draws inspiration for his dishes from a variety of sources, including famous painters and Italy's mountainous landscapes. Fiona Sims discovers more about the three-Michelin-starred chef's culinary philosophy and methods
Rome's most famous chef is German and he cooks in an American hotel. Yet the Italians can't get enough of him. In fact, Heinz Beck, chef at La Pergola restaurant in the Cavalieri Hilton in Rome, is one of the top chefs in the world, not just the Eternal City - the three stars handed out by Michelin in November 2005 helped see to that. Over the years he's chalked up a host of other awards and accolades too, including a 93/100 rating in Italy's prestigious Gambero Rosso guide.
If you need to pigeonhole him, then Beck is up there with Ferran Adrià and Pierre Gagnaire, two of his heroes. In his own words, his style is a "light cuisine of Mediterranean flavours". Not that this tells you much apart from the fact that Beck wants you to know straight off that his food is healthy, relatively speaking, and that he is inspired by flavours from all over the Mediterranean, not just Italy. "I'm very open-minded with my dishes," he says.
Beck captures big flavours in a distillation and challenges textures with clouds of foam - which, incidentally, he reckons he was doing long before Adrià, who is widely credited with its creation. He also hydrogenises and freeze-dries liquid nitrogen is in constant use and the water bath continually trembles. "You name it, I do it," he jokes.
He runs a happy kitchen, too - one of the calmest I've ever seen. "I hate noise," he says. "And anyway, it's not possible to produce this level of quality with staff who are scared."
He has one woman in his 13-strong brigade, who have been with him much longer than the industry average. And yes, there are stages for the taking - but forget working two weeks, it's a minimum of six months or nothing. "Then I can form them, give them something to believe in, which is good for the next generation of cooks," he explains.
So what drives him, and where does his inspiration come from, particularly considering that he comes up with 80 new dishes every year? "My inspiration comes from so many different things. If you're creating that many new dishes you can't only be inspired by great produce. It comes from many directions. You have to train your brain to find inspiration from everything," he says, leaving me none the wiser.
I'd heard that he was an art lover perhaps he draws inspiration there? Maybe the Sistine Chapel even, which can be glimpsed from the terrace of the restaurant. "Yes, painters inspire me. Mondrian, Matisse I like them all. But inspiration must come from wherever you go," he says. "If you take art, for example, it has all the emotions you need when you're creating dishes - you're thinking about contrast, volume, combinations, etc. An appreciation of art can even help you to decide which plate is right for that dish which colours go really well together. But this is only the third part to a dish, you understand? The first is its creation, the second is how it tastes, and the third part is how it looks. If the taste of the dish isn't working, you're lost."
Beck has even drawn inspiration from Italy's more mountainous landscapes - in particular the snow falling on pine trees, which you could see (sort of) in one of his dishes that includes turnip tops and a bacalau (salt cod) "snow".
He shows me how to make this. He buys his salt cod ready-desalinated, cuts it into pieces, softens a sweet white onion in olive oil, adds full-fat milk and cream, then "cooks" the lot in a Thermomix before freezing it in liquid nitrogen just before service, returning it to the Thermomix quickly to turn it into "snow".
It's some garnish. And one that also appears later in the season when the turnip tops aren't around, alongside amberjack fillet poached in garlic-flavoured oil - a dish inspired after a visit to a steam bath in a spa and served with a tomato sauce and cannellini beans. A handful of cherry tomatoes are cooked with extra virgin olive oil and peperoncino until the tomatoes just collapse, before straining the lot through a towel - "finer than muslin I want a transparent sauce" - while he carefully removes the skin on the cannellini beans, which he says are "too indigestible".
"The dishes have to taste good, but they must be healthy too," adds Beck. "I think everybody should be cooking like this now. It's about making your guests feel happy - not leaving your restaurant bloated and unable to sleep. A chef mustn't cook to satisfy his own ego - he's there to service his guests. You want them to leave feeling better than they did before."
Only a fat pasta parcel (a fagottelli) filled with a heady explosion of liquid butter and Parmesan, served with a parsley sauce and topped with caviar, threatened to send cholesterol levels soaring, but it tasted all the more luxurious surrounded by its healthier compatriots.
For all the fireworks, Beck's food is still approachable. "For me it's important that the customer isn't stressed out by any of these preparations. I want them to eat it, not think about it too much. Does it taste good? Yes it does. That's all they need to know," he says.
When he was growing up Beck wanted to be either an artist or a cook. His twin brother also wanted to be a cook but his father wasn't happy that both sons wanted to become chefs so he tossed a coin and Beck won. Beck's brother is now a hotelier near Sheffield.
Beck, now 44, has been cooking since he was 16. His early years were spent working in his native Germany, with a stint in Mallorca at the two-Michelin-starred Portals Nous. And from 1991 to 1993 he worked under Heinz Winkler in Aschau, Germany, who had two Michelin stars (now three), and who remains Beck's biggest mentor. He's been at La Pergola since it opened in August 1994.
So has he any advice for other budding three-star chefs? "You will only become famous doing your own style of cooking - you won't be big if you just copy Ferran Adrià," he says. "All chefs have to find their own way. But that will only happen if you believe in yourself and what you're doing - only then will you become big. But in the end we're doing this for the guest, not for us. If you feel heart on a plate, it's better than perfection." That bit got lost in translation, I think, but I know what he means, and Beck's food certainly has no shortage of heart.
On the menu at La Pergola
Beck at Banfi
Want to experience Heinz Beck hands-on but can't spare six months as a stagaire? Then head to Tuscan wine estate, Castello Banfi. Beck has set aside some of his days off in 2008 to appear in the kitchens of the top Brunello producer to show off some of his techniques - albeit on a simpler scale. (See www.castellobanfi.com for more information, including dates).
Beck, in partnership with his old sous chef Guido Haverkock, who is heading up the one-Michelin-starred kitchen there, will demonstrate 20 dishes from his 80-strong repertoire that can be cooked at home (just about), adding up to some eight hours of quality Beck time over the three-day break.
The nearest town is Montalcino, 16 winding kilometres up the hill behind, and it's also the name of a wine, Brunello di Montalcino - the youngest of Italy's prestigious red wines, invented in 1888, and Banfi produces some of the best. The estate is huge - 2,830 hectares, making it the biggest contiguous wine estate in Europe. Banfi raised the bar, putting Brunello on the map.
Wine is important to Beck, too. He is also a qualified sommelier, having passed his sommelier diploma two years after he opened La Pergola, and he discusses wine pairing as confidently as he cooks.
"When we started we had no sommelier, and no one building up the wine list, so I thought I'd do it myself," he says. "It's important that chefs know about wine - you need to know what sits best with your dishes."