L’ART DE VIVRE
ICONIC GOURMAND| Emanuele Melani
Writing an article about Joia doesn’t mean just talking about an internationally famous and established restaurant, or focusing entirely on cuisine. To get acquainted with Joia and Chef Pietro Leemann’s way of thinking means embarking on a journey, not a simple one, towards understanding a vision of the world, a life philosophy, and an ethical mission.
Because Joia goes beyond gastronomy; Chef Leemann establishes a choice of respect towards nature and oneself through the tastes and colors of his creations, the objective of a search for inner and outer harmony through the taste of gourmet vegetarian dishes created with what nature offers during the cycle of changing seasons.
Becoming more aware of the beauty that surrounds us and of ourselves through healthy and nutritious foods: gourmet vegetarian cuisine, internationally established over time and legitimized by a Michelin star. Its location is simple but at the same time elegant and tidy, where the cuisine is characterized by taste and balance aimed at a person’s wellness, but also focuses on becoming acquainted with new forms of nourishment able to broaden cognitive and spiritual horizons.
Please tell us about your training, in particular the two years that you lived in China and Japan. How did oriental culture and philosophy influence your concept of cuisine?
I am of Swiss origin, and I developed a passion for cuisine around 15 -16 years old when I did an apprenticeship in my country of origin, in Lugano to be precise, in a very important Italian restaurant there. Then I worked at a classic French restaurant in St. Moritz, and later I entered the world of nouvelle cuisine thanks to a job in Italy alongside Gualtiero Marchesi, with whom I discovered new Italian cuisine, and near Lausanne with Fredy Girardet, where I learned French-style nouvelle cuisine. For a personal quest tied to cuisine but also to my life philosophy, I decided to leave for the East, where I lived for three years between Japan, China and India, countries where I could delve into philosophical and spiritual themes, and at the same time, foundations of oriental cuisine. This trip helped me discover and understand how a place’s cuisine is closely linked to people’s mentality. The place where we live in fact corresponds to what we eat.
And this relationship between a person’s essence and reaching wellness through food played a decisive role in your transition to vegetarianism in 1985?
Yes, because food is the first means to staying healthy, so eating properly is true prevention for our bodies. Furthermore, through this we affirm the philosophy of our being, and consequently we determine who we want to be. A person who chooses to become vegetarian doesn’t do it purely for dietary reasons, but rather as a philosophy, for a belief tied to friendship with animals, a link with the natural environment, and a relationship with oneself.
How important is the idea and relationship with nature in the search for both gastronomy and inner self?
So, assuming we human beings are part of nature, everything that we do in harmony with it is good for us and makes us feel good. You and I are better off if we are friends with nature, while if we go against it we feel isolated, and are deprived of wellness within and with what surrounds us. The main idea is to understand nature, and what I fundamentally do through my cuisine is represent nature with shapes, tastes, and ideas that enhance the environment in which we live.
Chef Pietro Leemann
You opened the restaurant Joia in Milan in 1989. What difficulties did you encounter at the time opening a restaurant for vegetarian cuisine?
Undoubtedly, vegetarian cuisine at the time was in its early days. In fact, when we opened Joia, there were three vegetarian restaurants in all of Milan, while today there are about fifty. The difference in what I wanted to propose was the idea of a gourmet cuisine that respects the environment, people, and beings that inhabit the planet, and that it appeals to people who are culturally sensitive to a balance with nature, open to the value of food offered. Together with the spread of both environmental and gastronomical culture, Joia’s success has increased exponentially.
Could you define an Ethical Chef and ethical food?
I think that nowadays many people are trying to make ethical and critical choices, for example buying the right healthy product, or wearing clothes made without exploiting child labor, or polluting less, decreasing the use of cars. At Joia all of our products come from small organic
production from local farmers, with whom we share a relationship based on knowledge and trust, while we ourselves tend a vegetable garden where we grown our own seasonal vegetables. In addition, we are very attentive to consumption, thanks to our energy saving system installed in the kitchen, and we pay close attention to waste. We therefore carry out an ethical pursuit across the board.
Joia was the first vegetarian restaurant in Europe, and the only one in Italy, to receive a Michelin Guide Star. What does this Michelin Star represent for you?
Joia was the first restaurant in Europe to get this recognition; just over two years ago, two more vegetarian restaurants were added in Vienna and Frankfurt, while ours remains the only one in Italy. Michelin in general has a high value, because it is a very credible guide, greatly used by foreign guests, as well as being a mark of quality. This has been an advantage for us as a business in food service, but at the same time it has given value to vegetarian cuisine, allowing it to enter the world of haute cuisine.
Finally, I wanted hear from you how your dishes are created.
At the moment, for example, we are creating the winter menu which will start in mid-December. The characteristic that differentiates Joia’s cuisine is that it starts from ideas, from expressive representations that recall the places and value in nature, art, a recollection of memories. We work with these fundamental beginnings to create our dishes, just as painters do with their paintings, or as composers do with their works. I think it’s very important that a dish doesn’t consist of just a series of cooked ingredients, but that it has its own being and it manages to convey a message from the person who created it. This is the goal we try to achieve through our creations.