Enzo Neri has worked at Manhattan’s most famous restaurants, created bespoke menus and opened numerous restaurants from Norway to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan to Kenya. Now he has arrived in Montenegro, as the head chef at the Mudra restaurant of Hotel HUMA Kotor Bay, and it is thanks to his passion and experience that Mudra is set to become the Mediterranean’s best restaurant
My understanding of the idea that food and hospitality are essential ingredients for a harmonious life, full of emotions, is entirely supported by the management of Hotel HUMA, where Mudra is set to open on June 23rd. And that’s why I accepted this challenge, says chef Neri.
You studied IT, yet you went on to become one of the world’s most renowned chefs. When did you realise that your true love and passion was for the kitchen; or was it a chance discovery?
The interest came to me later in life, when I was already 30 years old, and it proved to be the perfect fit for me. As a child, I was encouraged by my art teacher to attend an artistic high school, but my father, who knew my personality very well, opposed this. He was worried about my future and directed me towards the technical school where I ended up studying and, as it turned out, had a significant capacity for the subject. I did very well in science, graduated in IT and went on to work at many hospitals. It was a very good, secure job.
One evening, while out with a friend, I saw a chef I knew from my hometown and asked him loudly: “Patrizio, how’s business; do you need some help?“ His response was: “Yes, come see me tomorrow morning and I’ll put you to work!”
Well, the next morning I was suffering from a hangover. I fought through the distress of the morning and went to see Chef Patrizio at his restaurant. I spent the rest of the summer in his kitchen, learning and enjoying myself! I knew I had found a world in which I could thrive.
I went travelling around Ireland after that summer, and when I late returned home I went to the Scuola Bufalini in Città di Castello to enrol in a cooking course. Unfortunately, I was a year too late and had to really convince the administration I could catch up with the other students. Being accepted into this school, in such an unusual way, was a turning point in my life. This turn of events forced me to work particularly hard, and that was good because being a chef is not a walk in the park – it is more like being at war!
All of my interests converge in the kitchen. Art, colours and textures; science and chemistry; and a lifelong desire to create things with my own two hands, things that impact people’s lives and emotions. Food does this even more than a painting or a sculpture.
You’ve worked with many distinguished chefs throughout the world. Who influenced you and your work the most?
You learn from everybody and every day throughout your entire lifetime. I was influenced by many: Gualtiero Marchesi, Anthony Bourdain (especially after reading Kitchen Confidential), Elis Murciano, Fabio Trabocchi, but also my grandmother, colleagues and people in general.
I have the greatest sense of respect for and devotion to my mentor Marco Bistarelli, who taught me the basic skills and gave me the necessary knowledge to develop what is today my own style of cuisine. Furthermore, I was also influenced by art, history and love, as well as the emotions I experience mine in everyday life.
Besides passion, what makes a great chef? Is it technique, experience, innovation?
Passion is the key to every success in life, but it has to be complemented by knowledge and experience, alongside new techniques. I always considered innovation to be part of evolution. Modern cuisine, the kind we have today, would not be here if we hadn’t pushed ourselves to experiment and if we didn’t dare to try to do something with new ingredients. I agree with the claim that innovation is crucial to the continuing success of any organisation.
Mudra is not about me, it is about all of us who are not here to compete. We are here to spread emotions, share love and create experiences on this growing market
You’ve worked all over the world, and now you’ve arrived in Montenegro. Does this represent an unmissable challenge for you?
I would rather say that I had a great opportunity to develop and open the flagship restaurant of a worldwide brand with origins in Italy, as an executive chef. That restaurant was located in the heart of Manhattan, right beside the famous New York landmark of the Flatiron building. I’ve also worked for other great restaurants – not only in New York City but also in London and Dubai. My consulting experiences, besides those you’ve mentioned, also extend to the Caribbean, the United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, Cyprus and, more recently, Georgia, where I’ve spent the last 16 months redeveloping two outlets for the Radisson Group.
Montenegro is a really beautiful country and is linked in may ways to my Italian roots. Considering the many years that it was under the influence of the Venetian Republic, it is easy for me to feel much of Italy in this country. Still, my work is more related to people than to geography and borders. I always thought that people who appreciate food are easier to love.
Is it true that the best way to get to know a country and its people is through the local cuisine and dining habits?
People are tied to their traditions and habits, which represent the characteristics of locals. Food and dining ceremonies are a way to understand and learn about their culture. The choice and sources of ingredients are linked to the territory, climate and environment. In order to develop a restaurant in a new country, you have to know the local habits, otherwise, you would run a huge risk of making mistakes that I would compare to attempting to sell fur coats in the Caribbean.
How did you manage to make traditional Italian dishes that are beloved by many even more perfect?
I would not define them as perfect. I would rather say that the origins of my dishes come from a thought or memory that I elaborate on and develop by using my experience of tradition, territory, culture and technique. My dishes resemble a rich paint palette that I assemble to create both optical harmony and clean flavours. Sometimes a dish can be nothing more than the memory of an aroma from the home that I grew up in, which I revisit with respect and sensibility.
You possess many prestigious culinary awards. Is there a place for another one in your collection?
Being recognised for your hard work is always an honour and a pleasure, and I received more than a few accolades throughout my career. The next award I would love to receive is positive feedback from my guests at Mudra. Having the chance to get a quick compliment immediately, in the kitchen, from my clients, makes me feel very satisfied and is the reason I love my job so much.
Master of Italian cuisine Gualtiero Marchesi, while at the Kingsway University of London, told me a story of how he refused 3 Michelin stars from the prestigious red guide and how he would rather be judged solely by his clients.
Being known as someone who doesn’t compromise when it comes to the quality of ingredients and the know-how and dedication of associates, have you found all of this in Montenegro?
The quality of ingredients is definitely important when it comes to cooking, and sometimes and in some countries, this has represented a challenge, for example in Georgia. Here in Montenegro, however, I have found good stuff that I love to play with. I often go to the local market in Kotor and choose what I like right on the spot. This has been so much fun!
Have you tried traditional Montenegrin cuisine, such as its prosciutto-style ham, Njeguši cheese and “priganice”? What do you like the most?
I love the local cuisine and products. I found the cheeses to be very interesting.
What is your absolute favourite dish?