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June 19, 2024

Chef Pietro Leeman: Vegetarian cuisine is at the centre of sustainability

Schenelle Dsouza 
India’s prominent real estate developer – Lodha Luxury is known for its extravagant real estate developments. However, the brand has expanded its expertise to offer more bespoke experiences for the discerning consumer. This entails exciting collaborations, beginning with celebrated Michelin Star Chef Pietro Leeman.
Chef Pietro Leeman made his culinary debut in India with Lodha Luxury, curating an exclusive sit-down dinner for 50 handpicked Lodha Luxury residents.

 

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Fondly known as the Italian vegetarian, Chef Leeman is often regarded as the first chef to introduce vegetarian cuisine to the world of Italian fine dining. He opened his vegetarian restaurant, Joia in 1989, envisioning a transformation of vegetarian cuisine that would lift up vegetables and vegetarian food to a premium, fine dining level. And so, Joia became the first vegetarian restaurant in Europe to receive a Michelin Star in 1996.
Prior to the event, LuxeBook had the opportunity to converse with Chef Pietro Leeman and Vinti Lodha, Advisor at Lodha Luxury. Vinti Lodha shared her thoughts on the collaboration while giving us a gist of Lodha Luxury and its many bespoke experiences.
Can you give us a glimpse of Lodha Luxury’s bespoke international experiences?
Lodha Luxury is an exclusive luxury real estate brand headquartered in London with a commitment to meeting the gold standard for luxury living for the most discerning individuals across the globe. We specialize in crafting the world’s most exceptional residences, positioned in the most prestigious neighbourhoods, from Mumbai’s famed Billionaires’ Row to the prestigious Mayfair district in London. These residences are equipped with luxury hospitality services and offer curated experiences across food, wellness, art, and design.
Can you tell us in detail about Lodha Luxury’s partnership with Chef Pietro Leemann?
At Lodha Luxury, our objective is to bring unparalleled international experiences right to the doorsteps of our residents. Our in-house hospitality experts, Saint Amand, follow a food philosophy that focuses on nourishing, planet-conscious cuisine that is good for the body, good for the soul, and good for the planet. This philosophy resonates deeply with the essence of Chef Pietro Leemann’s culinary expertise. His renowned restaurant Joia, Europe’s first vegetarian Michelin-starred establishment and one that has held on to the Michelin star for over 30 years now, aligns perfectly with our ethos.
What does the experience with Chef Pietro Leemann entail and how does it align with Lodha Luxury’s experiential offerings?
Chef Pietro Leemann will host, for the first time in India, a select group of Lodha Luxury residents for a lavish 5-course sit-down dinner. His menu is a showcase of innovative, plant-based dishes that echo his culinary brilliance. This experience seamlessly integrates with Lodha Luxury’s holistic approach to offering residents unparalleled, meticulously curated international experiences.
Vinti Lodha, Advisor - Lodha Luxury
Vinti Lodha, Advisor – Lodha Luxury
Can you tell us in detail about some of the other bespoke experiences offered by Lodha Luxury? 
Lodha Luxury is renowned for curating a realm of exclusive events that provide our residents with unique opportunities and experiences. Whether it is curated culinary experiences, exclusive collaborations with international luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Balmain, Bovet, and Christian Dior, or art viewings with the most celebrated artists, we are always looking for ways to create memorable engagements for our residents that are exceptional and bring the Lodha Luxury experience to life.
In our conversation with Chef Leeman, he spoke candidly about his journey with Joia and vegetarian cuisine as well as sustainability and innovation in the culinary industry.
Can you tell us about your culinary journey, what inspired you to focus on vegetarian and vegan cuisine?
I became a vegetarian when I was 20 years old. And my reason for making the switch was a combination of both, health concerns and my friendship with animals. I opened Joia when I was 29, and I travelled a lot during this time. I lived in Asia, China, and Japan, and I travelled to India as well for a short holiday. When I was in Asia, I discovered that food is important for the conscience and the evolution of our lives. And I wanted to be a vegetarian, and so I opened my restaurant in a vegetarian style. So apart from health, my friendship with animals, and the health of the planet, it was also for spiritual reasons. We become what we choose to eat; the choice of our food is very important, and so eating what we believe is better for us is very important. And for me, the vegetarian choice is the better choice.
Lodha Luxury
Photo Courtesy: Lodha Luxury
What is your perception of the food in India? How similar/distinguished is it from your usual style of cooking?
I opened Joia more than 30 years ago, and I get a lot of Indian guests. Over the years, I’ve observed the change in the spirit of Indian guests. In the sense that previously, they were much more traditional and very attached to Indian cuisine. Moreover, they also liked cooking in a particular way that was very traditional. But now, the people from India have evolved, and are discovering new styles of cooking. The vegetarian cuisine in India, for example, is very interesting because it resembles the spirit in me. It can be an interesting exchange when we are open to the opinions and ideas of people from different cultures. India has changed a lot since I first visited it 35 years ago, and I would say that it is more modernist. It may not be the exact correct term to use, but it is moving in a more innovative direction where India still maintains its identity, which is very important. If you become like everybody else, you’re no longer interesting, but if you preserve your identity then you evolve in a better way.
How do you incorporate sustainable practices into your culinary philosophy?
I would say that vegetarian cuisine is at the centre of sustainability. Not eating animals serves the planet and the sustainability movement. When I started my journey, I already believed in sustainability and maintaining a good relationship with the planet, and animals, etc. But it was still very early when I began. People could not really understand the sustainability movement and what it implied, mostly because no one was thinking about sustainability. But I wanted to change that by presenting a cuisine that represents sustainability. Joia is a representation of the change that is happening. I get called for conferences everywhere to speak about my cuisine, sustainability, the impact of vegetarian cuisine on life etc.
So apart from cooking, I also represent the culture of change. In my restaurant, I use everything organic. I buy my ingredients directly from farmers because I believe that farmers should be close to the people who are eating their food. I also take care to use less electricity and plastic. And taking these small steps helps me feel better.
How do you approach creating dishes that are not only visually appealing but also emphasize flavours and textures?
That’s a bit of a secret (laughs). No, that’s not true. The taste and the flavour go very deep in the person – in the guest, and the taste highlights the elements and the true quality of the food. And so at Joia, we work a lot with the taste, because my mission is to get more people to become vegetarian. So if I propose to offer them a visually beautiful dish, but the taste is not good, I will not succeed in what I do. So we always ensure that the food is tasty. In a country like India, you have spices. You work a lot with spices and the Italian flavour palate is often salty, sweet with some fresh herbs etc. So when cooking, I use the five tastes – salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami.
I work a lot with the contrast and guests will get to experience this at the event. There will be a wide range of dishes that are very complex with some acid and some sweetness. Very modernist, and that for me represents the future. Because if we cook vegetarian, we must know how to manage the taste because the taste is at the very centre of vegetarian cuisine. And the taste changes just as the seasons change from autumn to winter to spring, the cuisine too can change during the year, and in a very interesting way.

 

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How do you tackle the challenges faced when curating vegetarian cuisine? 
Even though Joia is a vegetarian restaurant, we get a lot of non-vegetarian guests too, because the food is good, and my creativity is very unique. I don’t really follow the style of other chefs. Mine is the Pietro Leeman style, and that is very easy to recognize. The people come to enjoy a culinary experience at Joia, and they may or may not become a vegetarian through the experience. But that is my mission, to help people understand the variety of vegetarian cuisine.
When I was younger, I worked in some very important restaurants all across Europe. In Asian cuisine, I discovered that Japanese cuisine is focused on static and purity. Whereas in Chinese cuisine, the texture is very important. So after I discovered these facts, I decided to follow these directions, combining my experiences and different cultures to curate my own creativity in an aesthetic way. So in terms of taste, it is also very expansive and very democratic. And offering a combination of these helps keep the cuisine fresh and expansive.
In your opinion, how has the perception of vegetarian and vegan cuisine evolved over the years, and where do you see it heading in the future?
When I opened Joia, about one per cent of the population in Italy was vegetarian, maybe even less. Now we are almost ten per cent. So there is a rapid growth in the number of vegetarians; more of the young generation in Europe is becoming vegetarian. So in the future, there will be more vegetarians. It is believed that in about seven or eight years, 30 per cent of people will be vegetarian. We don’t talk about India in this scenario because a majority of Indians are vegetarian, almost 50 per cent of the population I would say. But in Europe, the number of vegetarians is growing at a steady rate with countries like Israel and Italy seeing more vegetarians each year.
Vinti Lodha and Chef Pietro Leemann
Vinti Lodha and Chef Pietro Leemann
And as mentioned before, Joia is at the centre of this change. I can see my guests enjoy their meal. Now Joia is a fine dining restaurant and you may think we get only elder guests, but that’s not true. We get a lot of young guests too because they got my references from other places to communicate with me about vegetarian cuisine. So I am very active on social media now because that is the best way to communicate with youngsters. My Twitter and Facebook pages are in Italian. But I have these in English as well because there are people from all over the world, America, England, and so on. And yeah, English is very important and communication for me, is very important. So I work a lot in this direction.
What advice do you have for young aspiring chefs looking to explore and excel in the industry?
So there are two things to keep in mind. One is to enjoy cooking. Many of the chefs, I mean, the younger generation of chefs are becoming more vegetarian-friendly. I have 12 cooks in my kitchen. There are many young chefs ask to come work in my restaurant to learn about vegetarian food and enjoy what they learn. The second thing is to cook with quality and passion.
I would urge the young generation to follow their passion because that is what makes life better. If you do it just for money, it is a shame and a waste. So working with passion is very important.
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Schenelle Dsouza

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