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Salvatore Cuomo: Authentic Neapolitan Cuisine in Manila

June 10, 2016

An espresso arrives in a thick-walled demitasse. It’s dark and rich, and certainly nothing like I’ve ever had before. The experience—and the company—is equal parts gratifying and daunting. I’m sitting down with celebrity chef Salvatore Cuomo, who recently opened his flagship restaurant in BGC last June 2. Neapolitan cuisine, one of Italy’s oldest, most artistic, and most delicious, comes to Manila in the form of a gregarious Italian-Japanese chef with a twinkle in his eye when regaling his audience with stories about his cuisine and culture.

We’re sharing a table in the middle of his modern-but-industrialesque restaurant, enjoying the early afternoon lull after the bustle of lunch time.

Salvatore Cuomo

Salvatore and Makoto Onishi, crowned the best pizza maker in Naples in 2003, handcrafting pizza at the open kitchen.

Salvatore, what’s your best comfort food? I like eating sushi when I’m in Japan. Outside of Japan, more meat maybe? The technique is very important when making sushi: you should always go to the place of its maker. The way you press the rice and the way you use knivesthese can change the flavor of the sushi.

Chefs love their knives, yes? Knives are the chef’s, what is it in English… [pauses] soul. Without soul, you cannot make good things, whatever it is that you do. Let me show you my soul. [brandishes knives] It’s looks like nothing, but it’s almost everything for us chefs. It’s my soul and my business kit. [laughs]

Salvatore Cuomo

Salvatore and his Sakai Takayuki Hammered Damascus knives.

You’ve been very successful so far. What’s your secret? You’ll never have success if you don’t like what you’re doing. If you want to succeed, you will have to invest a lot of your time. I spend over 16 hours a day here in my restaurant—fortunately, my hobby is to cook so even if I cook the whole day I am still happy.

This job is very exacting, and very particular. Many have asked me, how can you be successful as a chef? Success will depend entirely on you. You must understand when the right time is to make everybody happy. That is the way it works.

Salvatore Cuomo

It looks nice, what we do. We go around the world. A lot. I fly over two hundred times a year. Today, I make pizza for you; tomorrow, Obama, or maybe Clinton, or diCaprio. The point is, it’s all the same for me. The passion must still be the same. Famous people promote me, absolutely, and I’ve had many opportunities to meet many people—actors, athletes, politicians—not connected to my business, but my business is my customer. My customers are the reality of my success.

You’re scheduled for the electric chair tomorrow. What’s your last meal? [laughs] Something made by my wife. I want something with the essence of love. Anything she makes, it’s okay. [shrugs] It’s not easy to be the wife of a chef, you know. If you ask people about the best food they’ve ever had in their life, what would they say? Everyone will say the same thing: anything made by their mother. The point is, we want the love that comes with the food made by someone you care for.

But when it comes to food, I am a lover of all kinds of egg. Normal eggs, caviar, salmon eggs—everything except the, what is it? Balut. [laughs] But I eat all kinds of egg.

What is the best career advice you’ve ever received? My father told me, ‘Be under the rule every time. Then, be the person that makes the rules.’ You can’t come in from nothing and then create the rules, you cannot do that. You have to listen first.

Here in the Philippines, chefs are not valued very much but this is only because the market doesn’t know their significance yet. This industry is the most amazing business to exist, and it’s the biggest market you can have. Everybody needs to eat. To live, you’ll only need to do two things: drink water and eat something. In my case, one of these is business for me. To be a chef is not only to cook, you must understand the bigger picture—but it takes time to teach all this.

Salvatore Cuomo

What’s the best way for you to relax? When I’m in the kitchen, I am not stressed. When I go to my office and deal with over two thousand people, then it’s stressful. But when I have to cook, and it’s really a hobby for me to be in the kitchen, I’m relaxed. Many don’t believe that and say it’s just lip service but it’s true.

So what makes you happy? When you’re looking at the face of your husband or your child after they eat, you’re happy when you see them happy, yes? It all becomes worth it. It’s not exactly the same when you ask how the food is, because they can’t (or won’t) say that it isn’t good. But you can always see the truth on their faces. When you see that they’re happy with the dish you made, you’ll want to cook again, and better. It’s the same system we have here in the kitchen.

Salvatore Cuomo

A classic margherita.

The formula of my business is very easy. Take water for instance. If I set up shop in front of the Niagara, nobody will buy water from me. But if I take the same thing and go to the middle of a desert, then the value of water will be the human life. You must be where you need to be. This is why I like pioneering the business in different countries. Shanghai, Japan, Korea—these places were very different a quarter of a century ago. Everything revolved around American pizza: Pizza Hut and Dominos, that’s where it was. Now it’s completely changed, and everyone wants to understand Italian pizza and our culture. I hope the Philippines will go this way moving forward, too.

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