One of the main contributors to TASTE BUDS online culinary magazine, Chef Diego Stefan currently leads the team at Davino Mediterranean restaurant at Villa del Palmar Cancun Luxury Beach Resort & Spa in Mexico. Born in Padua, near Venice, Italy, the young chef enjoyed a rich culinary career prior to joining the Cancun resort, having worked in Italy, Bermuda and Las Vegas as well as Five Diamond ranked resorts in other parts of Mexico. He was also selected from over 3000 contestants worldwide to be among just 10 Latin America semi-finalists for the San Pellegrino Young Chef Award 2014. We took some time to interview the young chef to see what inspires the dishes he serves.
What first inspired you to become a chef?
My parents are restaurateurs in Italy, so you could say I have gastronomy in the blood. From about 12 years old I began working in restaurants, so by the time I came to study gastronomy formally in Italy, I already had a strong basis.
How did you end up living in Mexico?
I supposed it just happened really, following a chain of events; you know, a friend of a friend is looking for a chef somewhere, then a friend of a new friend needs you somewhere else. I first left Italy in 2006 to travel in China where I learned food carving skills such as how to carve vegetables, butter and ice. Then I headed to Las Vegas and later Bermuda where I worked with a chef who invited me to work with him in Acapulco. From Acapulco I arrived to Playa del Carmen and the rest is history here at Villa del Palmar Cancun.
What attracted you to become Chef Patron at Villa del Palmar Cancun in Mexico?
When I met with Mr. Gallardo, the resort manager, I was inspired by the vision he had for the hotel as well as the vision he shared with me about Tafer Hotels & Resorts as a hospitality group. I was really excited about the projects planned for the future and the focus on luxury, not only at the Cancun resort but also at the resorts being built in Riviera Maya and Los Cabo.
What is your specialty?
Being from Padua, a city near Venice in Italy, you could say that my obvious strength is Italian cuisine; however, at Villa del Palmar Cancun I would say that my passion is more focused towards Mediterranean food. Which is why managing Davino restaurant is such as pleasure as the focus is on Mediterranean cuisine not just Italian. Obviously, we offer delicious pasta and pizzas, but we also serve dishes that are a fusion of ingredients from North Africa, Greece, Egypt, Cyprus and so on, as well as being influenced by French and Spanish cuisine.
What is your distinguishing feature as Chef?
I am really responsible and I think discipline is a really important aspect of running an excellent restaurant. As a chef in charge of keeping lots of different aspects running like clockwork to ensure that “wow” factor for our diners, for me responsibility is the key. Then comes creativity. Each chef has his or her own creative flair, but I think that without discipline, creativity can be wasted, especially when you are in charge of a restaurant.
Also, something that represents my cuisine is “freshness.” Not just how fresh our ingredients are or that the dishes are made freshly in the moment —that should be a given— but the freshness of the flavors and light crispy textures. Like mixing fresh fruit in savory dishes, whether that be main courses or salads. For example, one of our most popular salads is a dish that combines watermelon with goat cheese, while another is with orange and ginger.
Which chefs inspire your work?
Most recently I have been inspired by Heston Blumenthal for his innovation and creativity. He is a British Chef who runs and owns a Gastro Pub called The Fat Duck in London with 3 Michelin stars. Also, I have been following a new emerging female chef called Helena Rizzo, who has a restaurant in Sao Paulo called Mani. I think what I love about them is their ingredient-led concepts.
What is your favourite ingredient?
Coconut! I love the different textures you can get from coconut. For example, it can be really soft and buttery, crunchy and fresh or really hard and dry. It is also very versatile, ideal for using in creamy sauces, for grating, for accompanying salads or for eating naturally on its own. And that is before we even get to its delicious taste and aroma.
What dish would you recommend for guests visiting Davino restaurant?
On the menu we have a delicious Short Rib, which you might think is something you will find in a lot of fine restaurants, but Davino’s version is really special. Firstly, it is cooked for 12 hours in a sauce made from 25 different ingredients, blending spices, herbs, broths etc. It is then served on a bed of polenta made from blue cheese and a touch of truffle. It is one of those dishes that never fails to impress. Also we have a new dish that has just been added to the menu, which is ideal for vegetarians: Portobello Gratin with Pesto. In fact, our members may like to order from our brand new vegetarian menu at Davino that is designed especially for those who do not wish to eat meat. We have about 20 new dishes.
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