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The Michelin-starred AALTO Restaurant in Milan embraces cuisine centered around the freedom of movement and the excellence of ingredients. Originated by Chinese-born Claudio Liu, who grew up in Italy, its kitchen is led by Japan-born Chef Takeshi Iwai, who has been living and working in Italy for 14 years.
Located in the futuristic Porta Nuova district on the first floor of the Torre Solaria skyscraper, the Maurizio Lai-designed space combines natural materials and cultural references to tell the philosophy of Iwai's idea of "Free Cooking." Rooted in creativity, research, and borderless creation, Free Cooking delivers unforgettable cuisine.
This ideology, and the combined diversity of the culinary duo, is exemplified through an array of impeccable dining elements—from the Poliform-designed space to the open-minded vision harnessed in the menu’s dishes. With contemporary authenticity, Liu and Iwai embody relentless curiosity and a shared passion for the world of gastronomy.
Whitewall spoke with Iwai to learn more about his personal cooking philosophy, what's on his latest tasting menu, and how the pandemic pushed him to deliver his best.
WHITEWALL: What ideas do your menus for AALTO Restaurant embody?
TAKESHI IWAI: My menus designed for AALTO are based on wanting to develop and make known the concept of "FreeCooking"—creative, researched, and borderless. A cuisine that draws from an infinite heritage of ingredients, techniques, and references without limits of time and space. I like to play between different cultures—all of them. There are two options: the tasting menu is for those who love to take risks, it represents the most creative expression of our cuisine and defined flavors; paper instead has more comforting dishes. But both tell who we are, they are two expressions of free cooking.
WW: The restaurant shines with an array of visual design elements, including sleek and sophisticated furniture by Poliform. How does this ambiance inspire you to create in the kitchen?
TI: The architectural aspect of AALTO expresses a perfect consistency between context and content. Designed by architect Maurizio Lai, the space, located on the first floor of the Torre Solaria in the futuristic Porta Nuova district of Milan, has high-tech elements that combine with natural materials: leather, brass, canaletto walnut wood, gray-green porphyry from the only quarry in the world in Trentino.
An interconnected place where matter, surfaces and cultural references come together to best tell the philosophy of Free Cooking that we carry out with the brigade. Precisely this concept for me is a source of inspiration, as it allows me to express with the utmost freedom my personal idea of cooking, also proposed through the insertion of refined material elements and original decorative details. A whole of expression, which is found in every detail of the experience.
WW: What is your personal cooking philosophy?
TI: My very personal cooking philosophy is built around the quality of the products and the continuous search for new ideas. The goal is to always present creative cuisine in which raw materials, techniques, recipes, and cultural references speak of an interconnected and global world without boundaries of time and space; in which my personal inspiration creates meetings and combinations such as a freehand drawing on a white sheet. Always looking for taste, perfume, balance, elegance.
WW: What ingredients help you tell this story?
TI: Two elements that are never lacking in my kitchen are acidity and perfume. I often insert an acidic element that I use to enhance the flavor and give balance to the dish. For this reason, I love to use lemon or lime in my dishes—fresh lemon juice is never lacking in the match line to add a note of acidity. I like lime, and often use its zest to add aroma to dishes. I also use a lot of oils flavored with herbs or plants that are important to give balance and scent to dishes.
WW: The restaurant focuses on fine, quality materials and attention to detail. What is one dish that you must order that executes this balance?
TI: Definitely one of my signature dishes is the Spaghetti alla Tsukemen. Suggested in different versions at each menu change, this dish is a bridge that connects Italian pasta culture with gestures from Japanese and ingredients from around the world. Tsukemen is a traditional Japanese dish in which soba noodles are eaten after being soaked with chopsticks, one bite at a time, in a bowl of broth.
In the new menu of AALTO, I proposed spaghetti, cheese, and pepper with grated Oysters "bushi" (prepared by drying and smoking oysters as a typical Japanese processing that is done with tuna; the Katsuobushi) to be dipped—the Japanese way—in an eel broth in saor, complete with pine oil, juniper, pork cheek, coffee oil, celery, and lime-kosho (prepared by fermenting a lime zest paste, chilli, and salt as a typical Japanese yuzu dressing, yuzukosho).
The peculiarity of this dish is that the guest can mix the toppings to change the taste of the dish at each bite. I studied the stacking in detail so that, at the first bite, the guest tastes the spaghetti cacio e pepe alone, the second dip with chopsticks in the bowl of eel broth in saor, and then can add the condiments to taste, served apart in the bowls.
WW: Is there a special dish you've created for the summer season's tasting menu?
TI: Cannolicchi, white asparagus, and chamomile is one of the eight courses that make up AALTO's summer tasting menu. To prepare this dish I lightly burn the cannolicchi and join them with fermented white asparagus, salted chamomile buds, sour cream, and tagete oil. Tagete is my fetish ingredient. One day I discovered it by accident and now I would use it in all my dishes.
Fermentation is also a technique that recurs in my kitchen. It is part of Japanese cuisine that for me represents my soul and my memory, but also of Italian cuisine whose study and deepening has been fundamental for my professional career. I use it to get the desired taste from the ingredients I select for my dishes season after season.
WW: How has COVID-19 impacted the way you view the experience of dining?
TI: The kitchen at AALTO never stopped; we continued to do research and work on new dishes to offer to guests at the reopening. This gave us a greater opportunity to work as a team to offer the customer an ever deeper and more engaging experience. I believe that this situation has allowed us even more to give our best.