We were lucky enough to catch up with Enzo Carbone while he’s in Shanghai unveiling a new menu at his restaurant CAPO. The Italian chef began life in Naples, laying tables at his family’s trattoria, but since then he’s traveled and worked around the world, before arriving in China in 2001. Named an “Ambassador of the Culinary Arts” by the Premio Guido Alciati Turin in 2015, Carbone still remains passionate about bringing great food to different parts of the world.
Hi Enzo, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. You grew up in a family that ran a restaurant business in Naples. Tell us what your childhood growing up in that environment was like.
It was very exciting because everyday was a mess! I used to say to my father, “I’ll just stay [at the restaurant] for a little while”, and then my mother would take over and my sister would come in. Every time I came into the house I was being educated about running the business, but the amount of commitment didn’t concern me at the time.
My siblings and I spent a lot of time alone, so at an early age we learnt how to cook and look after ourselves. This made a great impression on me as a child because I appreciated the time we spent together as a family, at the dinner table, and the sacrifices that my parents made to bring us up in this environment.
Now my sister is a chef in one of the oldest Jesuit churches in Naples, serving more than 45 priests, which is a lot of work and preparation especially during festivities like Easter and Christmas. These days when I go back home to Italy, the ceremonies are still going on so I realise that to be a Napolitain means a life of dedication. You have to live life for passion, but at the same time understand your family commitments. When we were growing up, our parents were busy with the restaurant most of the time, so we had to try and balance it up by spending more time together as a family in the evening.
At what point did you decide you were going to be a chef?
Well, in the beginning my mother was a little bit concerned because I was very involved with the front of house at the restaurant, doing things like preparing the tables and serving. She’s a traditional woman and in her world, it should be my sister who set the tables whilst her and my aunties were busy cooking. But I was always first in line to set the table. For us, eating at the table is like a ceremony where your mother, father, sisters, brothers and grandparents sit together and enjoy the time.
One of the reasons I became a restaurateur is that I have this type of memory and I love the feeling of seeing friends or business people together enjoying the moment, not only the food. It’s more about the experience you have at the table. For sure the food is an important element, but I think it’s more than that. This is even more special in a city like Shanghai where you have so little time to share and even five minutes at breakfast can be treasured.
…fifteen years ago in China when I was working at quite a high-end restaurant, I noticed that people were eating spaghetti with chopsticks!
You’ve worked in an impressive number of cities around the world. Tell us about how that journey has changed you and the food you create.
I could go on till tomorrow about this. I feel very lucky that I’ve been in the right place, at the right time, with the right people. I was very lucky. I started in Italy then I moved to Switzerland where I studied, and from there I went to New Zealand, England and Asia, including Singapore, Hong Kong, and China, and now I’m based in New Zealand. After living in so many places I learnt about the challenge of seeing others from a different culture, I learnt about respecting different religions and daily routines. You have to try and understand it, but not judge, and I think it makes you a better person.
For example, fifteen years ago in China when I was working at a pretty high-end restaurant at the Grand Hyatt, I noticed that people were eating spaghetti with chopsticks. I never tried to change things. If you have a culture of so many thousand years, you can’t just change overnight. I present the authentic flavors from home and if people want to eat with chopsticks, well, I don’t mind at all. Living in different places opens your mind to different experiences.
Even when I take my kids to Chinese restaurants, I sometimes have to ask for a fork. And many Chinese restaurants these days do have forks and knives available. So food is about exchange.
I think there are a lot of similarities between China and Italy, even if we use different techniques to prepare our vegetables, our noodles and dumplings. The Chinese people also enjoy their time as a family in the same way that we do in Italy, and there is a lot of similarity in the way they celebrate Chinese New Year and how we celebrate Christmas. I quite like this type of culture, this integrity and the respect for the family.
I also remember when I first went to Switzerland, I was shocked that they were eating escargot. I said to myself, “Oh my god, how could you eat something like that.” But when I tried it for myself, I actually loved it. So it’s important to not judge, to assimilate into a culture, and to make an attempt to understand the value of what is behind the food and the people.
You’ve said in past interviews that the opportunity to come to China was life-changing. How has it changed your life?
When I came here, 15 years ago, I was living in Pudong and the whole city was being renovated. It was out with the old and in with the new. There was a vision of doing business, harnessing competition, communicating through branding and sourcing new technology. I was working with a very international team at that time and we were constantly keeping track of how the country moved. It completely changed my view of how I see food. Before I just liked cooking, sharing my passion and food was part of my daily routine, but in Shanghai I started to see it as a business. Our team was very dynamic and novel for the time. We were able to bring things to China, which were quite difficult to get hold of before, and we opened new doors here. From a business point of view I’m still changing.
How has the food scene changed here and in what ways do you think Chinese diners have changed?
When I first arrived in Shanghai 15 years ago — on September 11, 2001 in fact — this was a completely different place. I was living in Pudong, and at that time, whenever I told Shanghainese friends, especially people from Puxi, they’d think I was living at a farm or something. The old town was getting torn down and new things were going up. I was fortunate to be working with a very international team at the Grand Hyatt, and it completely changed my vision of the country and how things were moving here non-stop.
In a way, I feel like I’m half Chinese because my wife is Chinese, although she was educated in New York. I think it’s all about education and the willingness to try new things. The younger generations are much more curious for new approaches to food. It also has something to do with the changing city. There’s new branding, more international restaurants, and whereas before there wasn’t the mass market, China has grown very fast. As families have more money, you see more children going overseas to be educated, so our cultures are becoming very mixed and our lifestyles involve trying new things.
Recently we set up shop at a food court in Suzhou, which is a second-tier city not far from Shanghai. At the food court, diners can pick dishes from lots of different vendors, and amongst all the Chinese food there is my stand, the only one selling western food. I see families come to eat at the weekend, children from 5 or 6 years old with their parents who are in their 30s, and they’re enjoying my pizza and roast chicken. The grandparents are also there, but they’re still eating Chinese food. I’m very happy to have witnessed this process occur over the past 15 years. It may be very difficult for the older generations to accept new things; if my mum and dad were to come here and I took them to eat at a Chinese noodle soup they would think, what is that?
Tell us about the menu you’ve put together at CAPO for this week.
Over the last four months I’ve been in New Zealand and it’s given me lots of new ideas and new techniques to present at CAPO. I love lamb so I’ve created an Ossobuco, which is normally made with veal, using lamb shank instead. This dish has been a big hit at one of the top 15 restaurants in Auckland. I want to bring in new, seasonal flavors that work with our meats and seafood, so at CAPO we’ve created a menu with ten new dishes that you can try this week.
Where in Shanghai do you like to eat?
Personally, I prefer a place where I feel comfortable, restaurants where they don’t try to do too much, places that are simple and straightforward. I quite like Din Tai Fung’s dim sum at Xintiandi and Hakkasan, that restaurant on the Bund. When I go out to eat it’s usually for Chinese food, somewhere small and traditional, those hole in the wall places that you can never remember the name of, but know exactly where they are.
If you could choose someone to come and experience your food, who would it be and why?
Honestly, we’ve had a lot of celebrities at CAPO, footballers and actors, but I don’t desire to impress anyone in particular with my cooking. I take pleasure in hosting everybody who comes and I try to give our guests an experience. Our restaurant is about making everyone feel comfortable, it doesn’t matter who they are, and we try to do the best we can. You need to take care of everything, from knowing when to go to-and-from a table, as some people want more privacy than others. One of the reasons I like my job is that I get to meet new people all the time, but – sorry if this disappoints you – I can’t think of any one person in particular.
CLICK HERE TO BOOK A TABLE AT CAPO THIS WEEK.
What words of wisdom do you have for aspiring restauranteurs in Shanghai?
For people who want to startup in the Shanghai restaurant business, don’t do it! Try to do something else because it’s a lot of commitment, energy, hard work, but if you really want to do it you will need the right mindset because there will be a lot of risk.
To anyone who wants to start a business in Shanghai, I still believe it’s one of the most dynamic cities out there and there are still many opportunities. If you’re coming up with a new, creative and innovative business in Shanghai, or any other city in the world, there will always be space for you.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you can spill the beans on?
I do, actually I have a meeting tomorrow so maybe you should come back next week and I’ll let you know.
Is it going to be in China or somewhere else?
As a restaurant group, we have a lot of opportunities to expand in China, but personally I’ve taken the decision to move to New Zealand for family reasons, so I can’t spend as much time here as I could before. Right now, I’m in a transition phase where I want to keep my interests in China because I benefit a lot from it, and I have many friends here who I still feel like I owe more to. So we’re still evaluating various options, but they still need to make sense with my commitments and time constraints. Managing CAPO alone takes up a lot of my time and attention because we’re very much invested in creating something different. Let’s wait and see.
From today to Sunday, grab the rare chance to taste the latest seasonal creations of the award-winning chef. Choose from 3-course or 4-course sets, matched with wine pairings and Capo’s fabulous service. BOOK HERE.