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In Conversation With: Chef Cassanelli

Ocean Independence speak with Chef Cassanelli, head chef at Restaurant Lux Lucis, to discover how his motivation and style have evolved and to understand firsthand the significance of his menus.

Originally from Modena, Italy, Chef Valentino Cassanelli has been delighted to make beautiful Forte dei Marmi, in Tuscany his home. As head chef at Restaurant Lux Lucis, set on the panoramic terrace of boutique Hotel Principe Forte dei Marmi, his cusine is filled with enthusiasm and character. On a passionate mission to tell his story through innovative dishes, Chef Cassanelli strives to showcase exquisite local flavours through wonderful local produce, a perfect example being his tasting menu "Via Vandelli, On the Road". 

Amassing top-level experience in London, Chef Cassanelli joined the ranks of some renowned establishments such as Mosaic in Mayfair, Locanda Locatelli in Marylebone and Nobu on Berkeley Street. Moving to Milan he worked alongside Carlo Cracco, then joined the team at Hotel Principe, opening Lux Lucis in 2012 and achieving a coveted Michelin Star after five years. Forming a strong bond with Sokol Ndreko, Maître Sommelier, their regular collaboration ensures a pairing that treats wine as an ingredient, offering guests an experience that is deeply connected throughout their culinary journey at Lux Lucis. 

Ocean Independence speak with Chef Cassanelli to discover how his motivation and style have evolved and to understand firsthand the significance of his menus.

 

OI: What is your relationship with the ocean?

VC: Having been born in Emilia, far from the sea, I recall wonderful summer holidays in Romagna where we had so much fun. First times away with friends, first loves, so many firsts in fact! This is a reason why the sea for me is synonymous with experience and travels. Its never-ending power, magical influence, energy, and smell are all elements that I can recall. And now that I live and work by the sea, I'm so happy.

OI: Tell us about your earliest memories of flavours and aromas

VC: Looking back to my childhood, I used to help my grandmother make tortellini and lasagna, since I was, I think five years old. I remember stealing the filling from time to time: it was impossible to resist my natural curiosity for flavours. Every day, I’d watch inquisitively everything that was going on around me – I was a child hungry for the future. I hold dear in my memory the comfort of home, the smell of broth and ragù, and the culture of sharing food, experiences and time.

OI: Tell us about the food you have experienced when you have travelled - what excites you?

VC: During my travels, I try to go deep into the cultural approach of the local gastronomy of the places I’m visiting, which means I enjoy exploring not only the actual ingredients, but all the various techniques used to preserve them, to cook them, to bring them together on the dish. I can still remember a magical crab cataplana on the coast of Portugal, an incredible blowfish omakase menu in a restaurant in Osaka, and my first experience with eggs and tomatoes in Tuscany. Wanderlust and a love of food affect me so much!

Triglia al pino marittimo
Pizza all’ostrica e cervello di vitello
Bottone di canocchie, ortiche e creste di gallo

OI: When and how did you consider becoming a chef?

VC: Since my childhood, the passion has always been there. Then it grew and I simply fell more and more in love with food through my experiences. In particular, as mentioned, I used to spend a lot of time at my grandmother’s side: she was tirelessly cooking for everyone, and these were traditional recipes prepared with great love. From those days, I started to appreciate the happiness and pleasure you get from cooking for others. And that became the main motivation for me to become a chef.

OI: Tell us about your experiences over the past two years

VC: Like everyone, these have been difficult months for us. Our life standards, business model, personal priorities: everything had to change. For sure, we have become incredibly flexible, while constantly challenged to keep thinking positive. But we adapted what we could offer, to ensure that our guests had a wonderful experience with their needs met, whilst also fitting with current regulations. During the summer 2020, we reopened our newly refurbished beach restaurant Dalmazia. For that season only – it was a special treat - our fine dining restaurant, Lux Lucis, which is normally set on the panoramic terrace of the hotel, moved to the seaside, with a special weekend pop-up hosted at Dalmazia. The response was great, as we embraced this new and exciting position. Last summer 2021, as per our seasonal reopening, Lux Lucis was back again on the top floor, and our guests had been able to enjoy not only new dishes, but also new tea and chocolate tastings, and of course, our usual warm welcome. We will always continue adapting in order to provide the most comfortable, exclusive and safe approach.

OI: Please tell us how your menu came into being?

VC: I like to describe my cooking as a free expression of Italian cuisine. It’s like a concept album for me, through which I tell the story of flavours. The inspiration comes both from my own life experiences and the rich biodiversity surrounding the coastal town of Forte dei Marmi. The territory is the key and the centre of my menu, following the seasons. We have two tasting menus, which we continuously renew: Via Vandelli, On the Road and Tuffo nel Territorio.

Via Vandelli is an ancient route connecting Modena to the Tyrrhenian Sea. So, it basically represents my life story, from Modena to Versilia's coast. As a passionate traveller, through this menu, I deliver a journey across the regions, sharing feelings and flavours. I geolocate the dishes where the idea and the main ingredient come from, along this road, mixed with techniques and my unrestrained creativity to give them new life. Tuffo nel Territorio means literally a dive into the territory: we immerse ourselves into the flavours.

Over the last few years, I have been focusing on developing our already good relationships with the local producers further. For example, Molino Angeli is planting ancient grains that originated from this territory and he makes superb flours out of them. We collaborate with them to rediscover and learn how to best use these ingredients. The difference can definitely be appreciated in the dishes.

OI: Do you identify anyone particular to thank for your amazing career?

VC: Being a chef is not simply a job but a lifestyle. All the factors of my life and the people I have met, and meet every day, are reflected somehow in my food. Food is culture, and I’m pleased to be part of this world with my identity. For this, I have to thank all my team in the kitchen, the dining room, and at the bar. Special thanks go to Sokol, Rocco and Alberto, and then to Cristina Vascellari, CEO of Principe Forte dei Marmi and the first motivator of Lux Lucis Restaurant. And I could never forget to thank my wife Cristina for supporting me and sharing my passion with an independent, critical point of view.

 

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