Canadian-Italian chef David Rocco talks about his idea of wholesome Italian cuisine and how family has inspired his gastronomic journey

SINGAPORE (Aug 5): There are a lot of parallels between the cultures and cuisines of Italy and Malaysia — both countries are intensely community-driven, share an undeniable sense of la dolce vita and, most importantly, worship food with an almost religious fervour. For Italians and Malaysians alike, sitting down to a family meal is almost a spiritual experience, with recipes and rituals specific to each family, and everyone believing that no food rivals their mother’s and grandmother’s.

This is perhaps why Italian food is so well loved in Malaysia — what do you mean, spaghetti isn’t local? — and also why Canadian-Italian author and chef David Rocco is too. “I am especially well loved by the older aunties here,” he quips. “I guess because they are the ones who do the cooking at home anyway!” Rocco is totally at home in KL, and has visited often enough to adjust easily to the heat — both of the climate and in our food.

One of Canada’s most successful celebrity chefs, Rocco is not professionally trained, and instead, draws from his experiences and lessons taught by his family members. “I always understood the power of food,” he says. “Ours was the only immigrant family in our very Anglo-Saxon, middle-class street. We were the ones who ate strange food — in the 1970s, spaghetti and meatballs was considered exotic!

“As the son of an immigrant, I was very aware of how different, and yet how much better, my food was compared with the baloney or peanut butter-and-jelly basics that people mostly ate at the time,” he adds.

Rocco’s mother often had people over and that was his earliest lesson on how food brings people together. It is these experiences that have inspired his work — cookbooks and television programmes that focus not only on food but also the people who make it.

“I like eating with people, and I love learning about what people eat and the stories that come with the food,” Rocco remarks.

This spirit is most palpable in his television series, Dolce Vita, which has moved from Italy to India and Africa, where he experiences the best that each location has to offer. On the shows, he checks out the storied Tuscan fishing lagoons of Orbetello, explores the Portuguese influence on Goan food in India and immerses himself in the sights, sounds and tastes of Africa. Southeast Asia is the subject of Dolce Vita’s next season, which is currently being filmed.

Rocco has published three cookbooks thus far, and although they do not quite reflect his worldliness, they do however exemplify him as a person — a man who cooks by instinct and with heart.

“I don’t colour within the lines — I never have — and I think differently. This has worked for me because cooking is about personal expression and freedom. The benefit, I think, of not being a professionally trained chef is that I can consider things in a very domesticated way. I cook with touch and feel, and my cookbooks were developed with a measure called quanto basta — in Italian, that means as much as you need. That philosophy applies to life in general — just because something is good, it doesn’t mean you want too much of it.”

The local version of quanto basta is secukup rasa, which means to your own taste. This is another similarity between Malaysian and Italian practices.

“My cookbooks are a guide, not a rule book,” he adds. “Try the recipes and make adjustments, or follow them to the T — it is up to you, and how you want something to taste like.” He has one rule, though. “Just make sure you use as good ingredients as you can find, because that is what really makes or breaks a dish.”

Seafood and beef constitute a large part of Rocco’s repertoire, along with plenty of wholesome pasta and rice dishes. Interestingly, there are a lot of meat-free options too, and a nice array of desserts to end the meal with.

At the core of what Rocco does is not a particular cuisine, but the idea of cooking and dining as family. This is why the chefs he most admires are not necessarily helming Michelin-starred eateries, but the ones heading family-run trattorias that serve honest-to-goodness, wholesome food. This is also what inspired his latest cookbook, Dolce Famiglia.

“It was about me celebrating the recipes I had learnt, the impact these people have had on my career and the effect family has on the continuation of important gastronomic traditions,” he says.

He adds that his recipes in the book best represent the chef he has become.

“Good food should be accessible to anyone,” Rocco says thoughtfully. “And I hope to inspire people to look at my recipes, or footage of me cooking, and think that they can do it too.”

Anandhi Gopinath is an assistant editor with the Options desk at The Edge Malaysia