Pietro Leemann: the Italian vegetarian

Pietro Leemann: the Italian vegetarian

by Ollie Lloyd 11 October 2017

Ollie Lloyd talks to the chef responsible for founding the fine dining vegetarian movement in Italy about the challenges of cooking vegetables and our changing attitudes to food.

Ollie is the founder of Great British Chefs.

Ollie is the founder of Great British Chefs. He has been experimenting in the kitchen since he was five years old. Never known for shying away from a challenge, he has taken on some of the most obscure cuts of meat and ingredients that he can lay his hands on. As a marketeer, he's worked in the US, South and Southeast Asia, always taking the scenic route that might involve food trucks, hawkers and elusive soup dumplings.

It’s incredible how much easier it is to eat out as a vegetarian now compared with just twenty years ago. While many European cuisines have plenty of vegetarian dishes at their core, restaurants would almost always specialise in meat and fish, perhaps throwing in a mushroom risotto or simple salad for good measure. Nowadays, however, there are plenty of options for vegetarians and vegans, with dedicated restaurants, diet-specific menus and chefs happy to cater to a constantly growing group of diners with specific needs. And for vegetarians in Italy, it was Swiss chef Pietro Leemann who helped bring vegetarianism into the sphere of fine dining. I talked to him at the Barilla World Pasta Championship about his approach to food and his broader philosophy.

In the 1980s Italian haute cuisine was, in Pietro’s words, 'very heavy and unbalanced’. Chefs focused on traditional cooking, putting meat and fish centre stage; if you wanted to increase the impact and taste of a dish, you just added more butter and cream. In his view, people ended their meals feeling borderline uncomfortable, even if what they’d eaten was delicious. As he worked in various kitchens around Italy, Pietro became more spiritual and moved further and further away from the idea that all good restaurant dishes must feature plenty of rich, decadent ingredients. Eventually, in 1985, he became vegetarian, something all but unheard of for a professional chef to do. ‘It happened when I was working with my colleagues in the kitchens of Gualtiero Marchesi,’ he says. ‘I already loved vegetables and I decided I wanted to become vegetarian. It did come with its difficulties – in Italy meat is so important, both traditionally and culturally.’

After reading about Buddhism and delving deeper into spiritual teachings and philosophies, Pietro decided to scrape together all the money he could and travelled around Asia to learn more. He fell completely in love with China and Japan, fascinated with how different the food scene was. After very nearly deciding to settle permanently in Asia, he decided to return to Italy to try and act on what he had discovered. This culminated in the opening of Joia in 1989, an entirely vegetarian restaurant in Milan.

‘When we opened Joia, people thought we were crazy!’ laughs Pietro. ‘But this was twenty years ago; the Italian restaurant scene was very traditional. Nobody had considered or even understood special diets, macrobiotics or even healthy food lifestyles. It was just not possible to eat as a vegetarian in Italy. The first three years were difficult but we were in the business of teaching as well as cooking, and eventually people began to warm to our ideas.’ This was confirmed when the restaurant received a Michelin star in 1996 – the first vegetarian restaurant to receive one in Europe. It’s held it ever since, and while head chef Sauro Ricci keeps the kitchen in check, Pietro is still very much involved.

Over the course of the interview, we talked about the challenge of cooking vegetables, and how hard it can be to do them justice. He argues that we have grown up not knowing how to cook vegetables properly, and that meat is ‘always the protagonist’. He told me a story from the 1980s about how people were encouraged to cook white asparagus for twenty-two minutes before covering it in fat, flour, salt and lemon juice, and that he had been taught to cook spinach for ten minutes. Ultimately, it became clear to him that people didn’t understand vegetables. It’s another example of how our attitudes to food have changed – what was deemed correct in the 1970s and 1980s seems unbelievable today.

When Pietro was growing up, people thought that eating meat six or seven times a week was vital for brain and general growth. Today it seems that a new movement has taken hold – a movement Pietro truly understands. He believes people now see that if they change their life, things can change around them and their positive approach starts to impact more widely. He feels that people are trying to do what they feel is better for them and that this is driven by beliefs, not fashion.

The team at Joia have held a Michelin star since 1996, and the restaurant continues to push the boundaries of vegetarian cooking in Italy
The food combines the very best vegetables with cutting-edge cooking techniques, attracting diners from far and wide

We recently did some research into the UK’s cooking and eating habits and discovered that ten percent of people in the UK avoid eating meat. However, this increases to twenty-two percent amongst 18–24-year-olds and decreases to four percent amongst 55–64-year-olds. For me, the issue remains that people find it hard to make great vegetarian food and that we lack the skills to cook vegetables with imagination and flair.

Pietro says that we need to focus on texture and think more creatively about how we build our meals when it comes to vegetarian cooking. He acknowledges that planning a great vegetarian meal takes time and requires us to ignore a lot of what we have been taught. We cannot treat all vegetables the same; some require a lot of effort, like the artichoke, but the results are worth it. He suggests that eating them raw is the best way to understand them, and that cooking them simply and fast is best, as cooking vegetables for too long makes them unrecognisable.

As the morning has been dedicated to ten chefs from all over the world creating the ultimate pomodoro dish, the conversation inevitably turns to pasta. Pietro believes there is nothing finer than great pasta and a perfect tomato sauce. However, he doesn’t serve this dish at his restaurant as it is too simplistic and not enough of a challenge. I ask him about any of his recent experiments with pasta and he tells me about a dish he created that involved cooking pasta with chickpeas in orange juice infused with black peppercorns, with incredible results. Pietro sees pasta as a sort of blank canvas from which we can build incredible dishes that don’t rely on meat or fish as the focus – with pasta, vegetables are the natural partner.

There is much that can be learnt from chefs like Pietro Leemann. He is a highly respected chef and has a restaurant that by Michelin’s standards is best in class. There is also something satisfying about seeing someone play the game by their own rules and win. He is a man who has taken on the dominant food culture of Europe at the highest level and come out on top. Today, the people who eat at Joia aren’t all vegetarian; many of them are carnivores who want to see how this innovative chef has made vegetables something to get excited about. I can’t think of a better example of how our approach to food has changed over the past few years.