“Diversity is my strength” – Viviana Varese
MAG met up with the executive chef of Alice Ristorante. “We are a family of 54 people. Ninety-percent of the front-of-the-house staff is female, while everyone in the office is female, and eight of the 24 chefs are women. This without trying to fill any mandatory quotas”.
Viviana Varese, the executive chef of Alice Restaurant, told us about her experience with “diversity.” She has been a victim of bullying and, over the years, has been discriminated against for being from the south, being overweight, and, finally, for being a lesbian. Her difficult childhood and adolescence helped make her the person she is. Her desire to overcome meant she worked to prove herself by the time she was 13 as a skilledpizzaiola, while at 19, she was already a businesswoman, and today she has one Michelin star under her belt and leads a team of 54 people. She grew up in a restaurant family so a passion for cooking is in her blood. Born in 1974 in Salerno, Varese’s family moved to Lombardia when she was seven. After an apprenticeship with Gualtiero Marchesi, she opened her first restaurant in 1999. In 2007, she opened Alice, and after four years, she was inducted into the elite arena of Michelin-starred chefs. Since 2014, Alice has been on the second floor of Milan’s Eataly inside what was previously the Smeraldo Theater. Viviana, and her right-hand woman Sandra Ciciriello, also gained fame with “La Chef e La Boss,” a docu-reality show on the Real Time channel that followed her life for months.
This past July 5, she participated in a roundtable discussion during the LC Diversity Awards, an event dedicated to promoting diversity and guaranteeing rights to all. This was where our chat on the concept of diversity—inside and outside the kitchen—began.
What is diversity?
For me, diversity means uniqueness and growth. Only by accepting differences can we grow culturally and connect with the world. For me, it’s a value-add. I’m for inclusion. My staff is made up of people from all over the world, a microcosm that includes different races, cultures, and sexualities. All of the amazing influences find their way on to the plate as well.
Have you ever felt different?
What is different is how the collective thinks. Others have made me feel uncomfortable and “abnormal,” and therefore someone to be singled out.
What is the current situation in Italy?
I’m very worried because, lately, in our country, we’ve taken steps backward in terms of civil rights. Hate, racism, misogyny, and homophobia are becoming more widespread and pronounced. It seems like we’ve turned the clock back 20 years, and I’m upset to see that some people feel they have the right to show their, uh, more fascist side. I feel lucky and privileged to live in a city like Milan that is open and cosmopolitan where I do work that I like and where, most importantly, I can live freely. I would not be comfortable living in another city, and this is why I think it is necessary to do something right away about this.
What is the situation like in restaurant kitchens?
It isn’t that much different than other workplaces. I have men and women who are now in my team that were discriminated against by my own colleagues, and who had doors slammed in their faces many times. When I choose someone to add to my staff, I look at experience and at potential, but, most of all, I look at the human side. I don’t care about their beliefs or their sexuality.
Your restaurant, Alice, is like a happy oasis…
We are a family of 54 people, between the delicatessen and the restaurant. Ninety-percent of the front-of-the-house staff is female, while everyone in the office is female, and eight of the 24 chefs are women, and without having any “quotas” or preferences in terms of sex. I think I am the only chef to have a woman as my executive sous chef. My alter ego is named Ida Brenna (a sinistra), and she has worked with us for more than seven years. She got her start at Alma and then came to us and has never left.
What can we do to guarantee more inclusion?
I have fought for myself, and, today, I’ve decided to fight for others. I’m part of a non-profit association called Parabere Forum that has 400 women from all over the world, and we work to empower women and give them a voice in the world of food and wine. The idea is to make sure women are recognized and celebrated, and, most of all, not discriminated against or considered second class. Unfortunately, only 4% of chefs worldwide are women, and, thankfully, things are a bit better in Italy.
And for someone who would like to do your job…
To do this job, you need passion, talent, and a spirit of sacrifice. The chef profession is a “mission,” and while it seems very glamorous — due to the many TV shows featuring chefs — it is still a humble job. I advise people to get started as young as possible because between about the ages of 20 and 40 is when it all happens. There’s a period for standing at the stove and then for becoming a manager. It is an extremely difficult profession that requires a lot of physical and mental strength and, most of all, sacrifice.
Is there a difference between a man and a woman in the kitchen?
Absolutely not. I smile when they tell me that you can recognize the “touch of a woman” in a dish.
What are your future projects? Are you also going to take your operations abroad?
I’m working on some new things, but I can’t discuss anything yet. However, they have to do with Italy. One of my short-term goals is to improve the wellbeing of my staff. Now they take turns having two days off per week, which doesn’t happen that often in the restaurant world.
Who has inspired you in your career?
First and foremost, Massimo Bottura, and I would like him to help speak about diversity and inclusion on a global level. He has a lot of influence, especially abroad. Then obviously there’s Gualtiero Marchesi, with whom I did my first apprenticeship, Moreno Cedroni and the Roca brothers – Joan, Josep, and Jordi. I learned a lot at El Celler de Can Roca. Spanish chefs are very generous and give away all of the secrets behind a dish while Italian chefs guard their recipes possessively.
What dish most represents you?
There isn’t just one. Let’s say that my dish is also the one that is most “copied,” and it is the “already cracked” meringue with zabaglione foam, almond cream, crunchy almonds, coffee, and bitter chocolate sorbet with Timut pepper. The most difficult dish to execute is definitely the “super spaghettino,” (a destra) which entails cooking the pasta in broth, in only 2 minutes and 15 seconds.
According to an article in Il Sole 24 Ore (March 26, 2018), there are only 141 female chefs in the world, including 45 Italian women, in more than 3,300 restaurants in 28 countries, totaling only 3%. Our country is at the top of the list in terms of the number of starred chefs in the world: 31%.