Theo Penati, who is the first Italian Michelin-star chef to be introduced to the South African and the Cape Town food scene, recently opened a branch of his family business, Pierino Penati, in Bree Street.
And while the restaurant has a full-time chef from Italy, diners who visited the restaurant last week had the opportunity to eat food cooked by Theo himself, as well as chat to him during his visit.
At Pierino Penati Cape Town, Theo offers champagne pairing menus, authentic Italian cuisine with imported Italian ingredients and seasonal menus.
“I love Cape Town, I’ve been here a few times on holiday before I decided to open up a restaurant here.”
And this time, he has brought with him his team from Italy to come and experience working in the city, and vice versa. “I want to start a training programme, where I can take employees between Italy and South Africa. People in Italy know about Cape Town, but they never came here, so my team from Italy will spend a couple of months here, and some members of the team from Cape Town went to Italy to work there. That way, they get to experience different cultures.”
The first Pierino Penati, named after Theo’s grandfather, was opened in Italy in 1940, specialising in authentic Italian food. Theo is a third generation Michelin-starred chef, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.
“My grandfather built the restaurant in 1940, and then my father took over in 1974. Now, years later, I’m continuing the family business.”
He said when he was young, he did not want to work in the restaurant. “I grew up in the place, and my father was already a chef. I was in the restaurant all the time. So I decided to study accounting. I loved numbers because it’s sure. Ironically, my first job as an accountant was in the office of a chef, and he taught me the ropes. He asked me to help make things in the kitchen. Accounting still comes into play, because I balance ingredients with my experience with numbers, and I told my family ‘you win’.”
Theo had to learn very fast, as most chefs were already established. “When I realised I wanted to be a chef, others were already chefs. Food in the world was changing so I travelled from country to country to learn faster.”
Theo said Cape Town was like one world in a city. “Back where I come from, it’s very quiet – all green hills and fields. I found a location for my restaurant in Villa 47 – here this one building is my entire village.”
He said he was interested in flavours and ideas of Italian food in the city. “In Cape Town, there are different food palettes – you can get almost anything. You can get pizza and pasta anywhere as well, but this is true Italian in the city. There is a lot of mixed culture here, and a lot of authenticity too.”
He said with his restaurant, he aimed to bring Italy and Cape Town together. “Cape Town is very close to Italy. There are similar ingredients, such as wine, extra virgin olive oil and good tomatoes sometimes. So it feels like home here. There is also a small Italian community, so we fit here. It leaves a song in your heart.”
He said being the first Italian Michelin-starred chef in South Africa was liberating but also difficult. “I like to say I am the first, but it is also the most difficult to be the first because I have to set the scene. However, I have the luxury of making mistakes. I make mistakes all the time back home, but here in the city, I need to understand food more.
“For example, in Italy, we have cauliflower in winter, so when I see cauliflower, winter ideas come to mind. When you come to Cape Town, there is cauliflower everywhere, even in summer.”
While he said he was starting to understand food in Cape Town, he still learned every day. “In the city, restaurants have salt, pepper and condiments on the table – people love salt here. Back home, we may just have a chilli or some natural ingredient on the table.”
He said another challenge is that chefs need to understand their customers.
“You want to make things to please them, but you don’t want to completely change your dish. When people make food in different countries, it adapts according to their customers.
“For instance, if someone makes bolognese and it is bitter with tomato, someone says ‘it’s too bitter, throw sweet chilli in it’, and then they start making bolognese with sweet chilli in it. So the dish is objective, but the taste is always subjective.”
Asked about his favourite dish, he said he had none “As a chef, you cannot have a favourite because every dish tells a story in your life, and you associate it with that dish.”
He does, however, eat out as much as possible, and said there were many great chefs on the Cape Town scene.
And although Theo is not always at his Cape Town branch, he said he and his staff work as a team, always eating together and trying out new things to keep the cuisine authentically Italian.