True Italian in Chang’an

How easy is it to bring authentic Italian cuisine to another country you may ask? Chef Michele Valer speaks of his culinary journey and how it may not be as easy as you think to appeal to diverse cultures & palates.

Stepping inside Grappa’s Restaurant situated inside the serenity of Long Island Golf and Country Club in Chang’an, I was greeted by such a convivial vibe not to mention the stunning views from the balcony facing the renowned Lotus Mountain. Upon meeting Chef Michele Valer, I was shown around the restaurant and entire complex while he filled me in on the forthcoming renovations and his personal story of how he made it to Chang’an. My first and last impression was that he was a genuine, friendly, and hardworking person. This was also reinforced by the sheer number of diners that came by and chatted with Michele just like a good friend would.

With 25 years’ experience in restaurants, Michele realized when he was just a teenager that he could not stick it out as a waiter as it just wasn’t for him. He switched his role to behind the kitchen and in front of the stove and discovered that indeed this, was where he belonged.

The training can also be intense, as it’s more than just the skills, it’s also the teachings of the food culture, with taste and ingredients and maintaining consistency.

After moving from Italy to China, Michele worked in Lijiang, Yunnan and Dongcheng, Dongguan before he became the face and talent behind Grappa’s. What’s funny is that a while ago he had planned on returning to Italy, until he met his wife and settled down with her and went on to have children.

“In all my years as a chef I have learned something from every chef that I have worked with, whether it has been techniques, recipes or even personality traits, but I don’t aim to be like somebody else, I just aim to improve and be the best I can be. I think all of my endeavors have led to me having my own style,” Michele explained.

He continued, “My aim has always been to provide a real taste of Italy with classic dishes such as lasagna, pasta in sauce, and pizza.” However as we know, not all sets of taste buds are the same, especially when it comes to different cultures and their varied preferences. For example, Michele revealed stories of several of his local customers that did not seem to appreciate the cheeses he uses, whereas many of his diners from further afield actually visit Grappa’s specifically for the cheese! How bewildering. Similarly, he has been told his dishes have been too salty before, however it was no mistake—he swears by the way he knows, following the true Italian palette. These cases led to experiments with small changes such as adding less salt or using one type of cheese depending on what previous instances have taught him. It was truly notable, his understanding for such diversity and his determination to adapt to his customers’ requirements when necessary.

“Working with staff here differs very much from back in Italy, as communication can be a challenge. I speak only a little Chinese and many of my staff don’t speak much English. So, you can imagine the difficulties at the start in terms of being productive,” Michele continued, “The training can also be intense, as it’s more than just the skills, it’s also the teachings of the food culture, with taste and ingredients and maintaining consistency. However, they are very hardworking and they do give me respect. I appreciate the fact that they want to learn, they just need to be showed how to do things.”

Something that many of us are familiar with is experiencing these types of differences in culture, communication and methods when in a working environment, meaning that we have to be more considerate and patient at times. Of course, this can be challenging, especially in a role that is very demanding of time and effort, but it means that it’s a testament to your character when you positively achieve the results. Just like with Michele, who struggled at times to create ultimate productivity between staff members and to adapt to a whole new way of appealing to diverse palates—it must have been tough to find solutions to these challenges and stick to them. However, it has made him and his team stronger and allowed for a smooth working environment as well as happy diners.

It’s truly great that despite any cultural differences and instilled ways of thinking or habits, we can all learn from each other to open our eyes and take something new with us to make some form of positive change, whether in the workplace or elsewhere.

Category Who Would Know