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Sunday May 1, 2011

Meet the Boss

Modesto’s Italian owner believes in serving simple and uncomplicated food.

WHEN Modesto’s burst into the clubbing scene 16 years ago, it was the place to be on a typical Saturday night out in KL. Today it is still a favourite hang-out for those who love Italian food and good wine.

For the uninitiated, the restaurant is named after its Italian owner and chef Modesto Marini, who visited Malaysia in the mid 1990s and fell in love with the place.

He met Bob Wong, the local “King of the dance clubs”, by chance. Both men put together their expertise and came up with a unique concept of trendy dining experience, with alfresco dining and clubbing facilities all under one roof.

Heavenly simplicity: When it comes to food, Modesto Marini goes back to basics.

“We had the same ambition to open a restaurant and the rest is history,” says the 42-year-old Italian from Lake Garda, a town located 90 minutes away from Milan.

Marini became a chef when he was just 17. Upon finishing his culinary training, he worked in London before moving back to Italy.

He later spent four years in Singapore and it was during this time that the lanky Italian crossed the border and discovered Kuala Lumpur.

When it opened, Modesto’s took KL by storm – it became an instant success and a favourite venue for KL’s rich and famous.

Since 1995, Modesto’s has become a household name; it received the Superbrand award in 2003/2004. There are currently four outlets in the Klang Valley and one in Johor Baru.

So what sets Modesto’s apart from other Italian restaurants?

“That would be 16 years of authentic Italian food and party!” quips Marini, who prefers to serve simple and uncomplicated food in his restaurant.

The busy restaurateur, who has acquired a taste for Chicken Rice and nasi lemak, talks to Sunday Metro about his favourite subject – food.

> Do you have any childhood memories of food? What is your food mantra?

Yes. Polenta or corn meal, cooked and stirred patiently by my mother. It takes great patience to cook this delicacy and my father would always notice when my mother got tired of stiring and lovingly take over the stove.

Nine different cheeses and seven different kinds of salami would be added into the pot of polenta. The end result is an explosion of flavours. That is something money can’t buy and it is always something I must have when I am back home in Italy.

Now, even my daughter will ask her nonna (Italian for grandmother) for it when we are in Italy. Just thinking of this dish gives me a warm and nostalgic feeling of my childhood.

F1 Driver Jarno Trulli, a dear friend of Marini’s, dines at Modesto’s whenever he is in town.

My food mantra is simple – back to basics. I believe good food comes from good ingredients. If you have fresh ingredients, you do not need any seasoning or overpowering garnishing to mask the natural flavours of food.

> Do you like hawker food? Where are your favourite hawker food stalls?

Malaysia is a paradise for street food and they are delicious, quite unlike anywhere else in the world. I like Chicken Rice and, occasionally, nasi lemak. Due to my abnormal and unpredictable schedule, I normally “take away” my favourite food from places such as Bangsar and Sri Hartamas.

> Which ingredient do you like the best?

Of late, it has to be truffle oil as it is so delicate and refined in taste. The brand is very important. Using truffle oil is only effective when food is fresh and clean in taste, so you can get the best flavours from both the oil and the ingredients used. Again, I like to keep the natural flavours of the ingredients and truffle oil really aromatises the entire dish.

> Do you cook at home?

Yes, I cook at home every week. My ritual is to dine at home with the family at least twice a week if my schedule permits. We like to explore new recipes and new ingredients that we may have picked up from our recent travels. Even my daughter loves being in the kitchen and has her own thoughts about food too. Her culinary vocabulary is also quite impressive!

> What was your biggest challenge on the way to becoming a chef?

That would be adapting to the different demands of the various cultures and races in different parts of the world.

Having worked in London, Singapore, the Maldives and Malaysia, the knowledge of Italian food and cooking varies and you cannot just ignore the demands of your customers.

For example, a true Italian would like to have their pastas done al dente. But some locals will tell you off that your pasta is not properly cooked.

> If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?

An F1 race driver, with Ferrari, maybe?

But really, anything to do with food and people! I have great passion for food. And even if I’m not in the kitchen, I would still be talking about food, so definitely the food and entertainment business, I guess.

> Have you eaten anything unusual?

I thought I had but after watching some food programmes on TV, it all seems quite normal.

> What do you always have in your fridge?

Cheese, cheese and cheese. Different kinds of cheese.

> Who would you call if you had to invite someone for a meal? Who would you love to cook for?

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi! To have a heart-to-heart chat with him.

> How do you get ideas for your recipes?

From my travels, reading, and even ideas from my family and friends.

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