The Italian chef Rocco de Santis is a ‘work in progress’
Fresh pasta, creamy desserts and dishes with the taste of the sea. Chef Rocco de Santis takes his Italian roots along to every kitchen in which he cooks. At present, he is working as Executive Chef at Santa Elisabetta, a restaurant in the Byzantine Pagliazza Tower, inside the Brunelleschi Hotel in Florence, for which he earned two Michelin stars.
Rocco de Santis (1979) was born in Salerno and grew up in Campania, a region in south-eastern Italy. He has a great love of the mountains, rocks and sea in his native region and therefore enjoys evoking, with his dishes, memories of the maritime culture in which he grew up and learned to cook. “For example, I like to serve a soup of gambero rosso, panzanella, caviar and olives, a starter of pasta with smoked Provolone and squid or red mullet in a bread crust with saffron. The latter is perhaps my favourite dish: a kind of snack that you can even eat with your hands.
Around the turn of the millennium, Rocco realised that he had to look beyond his beloved Campania if he wanted to become a better chef. He wanted to learn about different preparations and methods and to immerse himself in other culinary traditions. So Rocco moved to France, where he worked in the historic Georges Blanc restaurant, which has been awarded three Michelin stars. Later, he travelled to Switzerland, where he also had a chance to work in a starred restaurant. “My travels have always been about food. Each destination started with a restaurant, an ingredient or a wine that I wanted to get to know. For me, it’s first and foremost about gaining knowledge about my work; pleasure always comes second. All those experiences shaped me into the mature chef I am today.”
Once he was back on Italian soil, Rocco worked on the Amalfi coast, at the Hotel Romeo in Naples and at the Hilton in Rome, among other places. He eventually ended up in Florence: a challenging region for chefs because the people there have been used to high-end gastronomy for centuries. However, Rocco’s Mediterranean cuisine, characterised by the contrasts between sour and sweet, cooked and raw, flavour and lightness, was quickly appreciated. “Since the pandemic, real gourmets have been coming to eat at our restaurant. Excellent customers who used to shun the tourist restaurants in the centre of Florence. As a result, we started paying even more attention to our dishes. We concentrated entirely on the flavour and left out superfluous ingredients. We have also focused entirely on the restaurant; we no longer provide any catering or take on other events. The result is that we have many satisfied guests and we have earned two Michelin stars.”
Tradition versus innovation
Rocco cooks with the flavours and aromas of his home turf, still fresh in his memory, quite traditional but also striving for innovation. “In the kitchen, I constantly try to balance between tradition and innovation. My favourite hashtag on social media is #traditionmoderninnovation. My origins are the starting point for the journey I am on to become an ever better chef. I prefer to use my dishes to communicate my emotions and thus also my origins, sometimes through the simplest of things. Concretely, this means that you can come across ingredients from Campania. More abstractly, you can find my love for the sea and the mountains and my respect for my family and their culinary traditions in my dishes. All those things are in me – so they show up on my plates.” Hard work, gaining scientific knowledge about the cooking process, exchanging ideas with colleagues, comparing dishes and ingredients: these are all factors that contribute to becoming a professional and distinctive chef as far as Rocco is concerned. “My trip is a work in progress. And along the way, I seize every opportunity that presents itself.”
Try preparing the favourite recipe of Rocco de Santis for his red mullet in a bread crust with saffron and a red garlic sauce, that Rocco makes with unsweetened Debic Cream 35%