Carlo Cracco is a chef that divides opinion. To some Italians, his mastery of technique makes him one of the country’s best cooking exponents. Others, meanwhile, are taken back by his provocative approach to traditional recipes. This weekend, Melburnians get their chance to make up their own minds when the controversial figure joins this year’s Melbourne Food & Wine Festival.
“I’m very pleased with the invite,” says Cracco, over the phone before his visit to Australia. “In 2009, we had a great response from the local gourmands and some now come to visit my restaurant in Milan. It’s always a joy to cook for them.”
As a judge on both Hell’s Kitchen Italia and Italian MasterChef, Cracco is something of a household name in Italy, yet television is only part of the story. His career began in 1986 under Gualtiero Marchesi, the first restaurateur in Italy to be awarded three Michelin stars and someone considered by many as modern-Italian cuisine’s most influential chef.
From there, Cracco went to France to train under French culinary stars Alain Ducasse and Lucas Carton before spending the next 15 years cooking in Michelin-starred kitchens throughout Europe (a stint at Florence three-star Enoteca Pinchiorri was a highlight). Eventually, he settled in Milan where he opened Cracco Peck in 2001. Courtesy of a two Michelin-star ranking and placing in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2007, the restaurant has enjoyed plenty of media coverage since opening.
As is often the case with high-profile chefs, not all of this attention has been complementary. Cracco’s role as a spokesperson for potato chip company S.Carlo has raised eyebrows while the mayor of Amatrice took exception to Cracco’s decision to add garlic to the town’s famous Amatriciana pasta, a recipe that traditionally should be made using just guanciale (cured meat or salami), white wine, pecorino, San Marzano tomatoes, ground pepper and chilli. It wouldn’t be the only time the chef has ignored tradition.
“The Wrong Milan”, Cracco’s take on the cotoletta alla Milanese (breaded veal cutlet), illustrates his whimsical approach to cooking. Featuring a slice of raw veal sprinkled with lemon zest and crowned with a separate bread “crust” crisped in ghee, it’s a dish that draws both praise and criticism. Off-beat flavour combinations are another Cracco trademark: sea urchin finds companionship in coffee powder and veal kidneys while mastic (a Greek alcohol) features in a creamy mushroom pasta. He’s equally enamoured of everyday ingredients, in particular, eggs. From Benedictine eggs on bran and shiso to a marinated yolk taglioline (where the egg becomes the pasta), this household staple is an ideal canvas for Cracco’s imagination.
In addition to presenting at masterclasses this weekend, Cracco will also cook alongside Melbourne Italian exponent, Guy Grossi. Cracco remains tight-lipped on what to expect, but says he’s interested in incorporating Australian flavours in his menu. Will his curious, creative approach to our own larder ruffle feathers in the same way as he has in Italy? We’ll be watching with interest.