Tejal Rao: At what age and why did you start cooking?
Iacopo Falai: Italian people always cook, and I learned a lot from my mom. But I always wanted to be a cook. Then, after I was made to clean a case of pigeons, I thought it was so gross that I went into a pastry stage at a three star Michelin in Florence. And I loved pastry: the smell of the yeast rising, the bread baking, it was beautiful.
TR: Who are your mentors? What are the most important things you learned from them? What were your most important stages?
IF: I learned so much from Michel Belin, I’d have to call him my mentor. He’s not so well known outside of France, but he consults and does work for Fauchon’s industrial line. I worked with him for three years, and used so many new techniques. I wanted to learn everything possible from him; I wanted to pick his brain! At first, we didn’t even speak, but it turned into a really strong relationship. And of course, Riccardo Monco at the three Michelin starred Enoteca Pinchiorri, in Florence taught me a lot.
TR: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
IF: I believe very much in lightness, in using a light hand when adding flavors or balancing flavors. For example, if I smoke a fish, I do so only slightly; when I add the acid, I don’t want it to overpower. I don’t cook with garlic, and when I do, it’s only a little. My other big commitment is to making everything in house: bread, pasta, ice cream, everything! There’s a real pleasure in this, even in learning from mistakes.
TR: Are there any secret ingredients that you like to use? What flavor combinations do you favor?
IF: My secrets, I can’t tell you those! I like Campari, the bitter herb flavor, and I like smokiness too. In New York you can find very good organic herbs, which need a lot of care. I’m always looking for how to care of my ingredients, this is the secret. I find that if you concentrate too much on the end result, and lose sight of the process, you lose the beauty. There’s a lot of work before you reach the end result, and you have to enjoy it.
TR: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
IF: I believe in measuring everything so I find my scale and thermometer very important. One carrot is not the same size as another carrot, and recipes without measurements cannot be consistent.
TR:Is there a culinary technique that you have either created, or made your own?
IF: I try hard to be humble, and most of my food is quite classic. But I made the pastillage for Michel Bras’ wedding croquembouche. I put the sugar inside, and this made the crunch uniform. But I don’t want to be one of those World War I soldiers, still wearing the medals so many years later.
TR: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook? What answer do you look for? Why?
IF: I always ask them why they want to work for me. Because it’s so hard, it really has to be their passion or they’ll never survive. They will have to make so many sacrifices: economically, emotionally, physically, and they will have to survive them. If they don’t tell me they love it, I know they won’t make it with me. And also, they’d better shave every morning!
TR: Do you take stages?
IF: Oh yes, definitely.
TR: What tips would you offer a young chef who is just getting started?
IF: I’d tell them to stay true to their passion. If cooking is really their passion they must take pleasure in even the smallest, most menial of tasks like peeling vegetables or picking bones from the fish. If they can do this, if they can enjoy coming early and leaving late, they’ll be happier, more successful cooks.
TR: What were some of your most influential stages as a young chef?
IF: I worked for Luca Carton for only two weeks, but got so much out of the experience. He’s run the same restaurant for 30 something years—a very classic, two star. My other stage at Enoteca Pinchiorri was also a great learning experience. I was there at the time because my mother had to visit the mayor’s office, which was in the same building. She laughed at me when I said that I wanted to work at this three Michelin star restaurant, she said they’d never take me because although I pastry experience, I had zero restaurant experience. But the lady there, she liked me, and they put in the corner right away to make the bread and do the chocolate work. It was very intense, I learned a lot.
TR: What are you favorite cookbooks?
IF: Michel Bras’ is a very meticulous writer. His books have such beautiful pictures, and are a great resource for absolutely everything from flower cleaning to torchon-rolling. The El Bulli books are great as well.
TR: What cities do you like for culinary travel?
IF: I love Barcelona for its modern and old-fashioned cooking—and I don’t just mean El Bulli. I love the concept of tapas. In one night I ate at about fifteen restaurants: clams in one then octopus in another, then squid and so on. When people think of Milan they think grey skies, and grey people but it’s really not so. Venice is also very charming because you must go everywhere by foot or by boat to eat the little croquettes, cod, olives. And at nine o’ clock when it seems like the city has shut down, there’s always a secret party going on inside some random palazza. This is the Italian experience though, I’m not sure what it’s like for tourists.
TR: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry?
IF: Everything is being reduced to small portions and called tapas for marketing. But most of these trends don’t affect Italian restaurants.
TR: Where do you see yourself in five years? 10 years?
IF: In New York! I will always be in New York! I’d also like to open a place in Paris for competition with myself! My goal is to have less economical headache in the future. Right now I’m on my own, and financially, I can’t really count on anyone. I think if you have someone taking care of that stuff, you feel free. At 40, you cannot still be doing this same work. At 25 it’s different. Tomorrow I’m signing a deal for a little space on Lafayette that will serve everything from Falai, from my house. All the bread comes from the same oven, and all pastries are made in the same place, this isn’t just more economical, it’s easier to control and run.
I also have a dream to open a three-star Michelin restaurant. I’d like the kind of kitchen that has real space. I don’t want more tables, just better quality of everything, from the chairs, to the tables to the tablecloths, to the equipment and set up for my cooks.