Interview with Mauro Zanusso

Stephen Robinson, Mauro Zanusso

In December, we had the opportunity to sit down with Mauro Zanusso, chef at The Ritz-Carlton, Xi’an, who has just recently arrived in Xi’an in November, moving here from Shenzhen.

Can you tell us something about your background as a chef?

A passions for cooking was instilled in me since childhood. At a young age, I would walk the main street of Biella, Italy and would become excited looking at the pastries in the window. I told my parents at that point that I would become a pastry chef. My father supplied food to restaurants, so I was in and out of restaurants from a very young age.

I learned to cook professionally at a culinary institute in Italy names after the famous designer Ermenegildo Zegna, named so because it was close to his factories in the Oasi Zegna area. In school I learned that pastries require you to be more exact in measurements, and don’t allow for as much flexibility, so I gravitated towards the hot kitchen side of things. After school, I spent 5 fulfilling years in London before globetrotting. Being Italian, it was always easy to find a job as a chef, as our food is famous worldwide. China is the 10th country that I have brought my culinary expertise to and amongst these, India, China, and Japan have provided me with the most growth and achievement.

What is it like working as a chef in a brand like The Ritz-Carlton?

Ritz-Carlton is a luxury brand that is recognized worldwide for its incredible legacy and heritage. This reputation helps to instill in the employees a level of professionalism and commitment that helps us deliver the best possible experience for our customers.

As a chef, working in The Ritz-Carlton is an amazing professional achievement and working for this brand gives me the confidence to push for the next step. It also makes it easier to attract top talent, regardless of where you are. We have an excellent culinary team and staff are more likely to stay, as working here is an excellent resume builder. This has helped us deliver a better experience for our guests.

How long have you been in Xi’an? What do you enjoy most about the city?

This city has an ancient feel to it that was not present in my last city, Shenzhen. Everywhere you go, there is a sense of history. People are also very friendly here and the local food is very tasty and more flavorful and rich compared to Guangdong food. I have already been to many places, though I know it is just a small part of everything there is.

How has the local food culture influenced your menu here at the hotel?

As a chef, I have learned that wherever I go, I need to adapt our culinary offerings to the local community while at the same time trying to maintain the traditions of the cuisine that it belongs to. This is one of the biggest challenges for a chef, as you must decide which parts of your portfolio you will offer up in each place.

I love Asian flavors, they are very fresh and vibrant, so we try to incorporate them where possible. The Here at The Ritz-Carlton Xi’an, the culinary idea to blend local flavors into international cuisine. At Xi’an Kitchen we offer an excellent buffet in an ultra-luxury setting, when you can try different types of cuisine and where local Xianese dishes are served alongside international ones. Our Chinese restaurant offers up some of the best Cantonese cuisine, while Tasuro serves the best highlights of Japanese Teppanyaki.

What other cuisines, chefs or ideas do you draw inspiration from?

If you keep an open mind, any cuisine can be an inspiration. I do enjoy the versatility of Asian cuisines, as the flavors are bold and interesting. Often very different from those in Europe, and can lend an interesting twist to classic dishes. I have learned a lot about decorating food from my time in China, and in Japan I learned about how to treat the best ingredients. I like to experiment and try new things. There is a tendency at sometimes to be safe, to fall back on old standards, but to me this is not interesting. I prefer to try and fail than to be comfortable.

I am also always looking for alternative sources of inspiration, especially when it comes to ingredients. In big hotels like The Ritz-Carlton, our suppliers often want to offer us the best (and most expensive) imported goods, which can lead to blindness when it comes to high-quality local products. Recently, I went to try different varieties of Yunnan ham, which is very similar to bacon. It was delicious. I also saw domestic porcini mushrooms that were as good if not better than the imported ones, but our suppliers didn’t want to sell them because they were not imported. There are many such products that are available here that are waiting to be discovered, and don’t have to be shipped so far.

As far as chefs, I would say that there is no such things as a best chef. Techniques are shifting all the time and there is always something more to learn. Often, chefs will get stuck on their old ways and techniques, which leads to them being surpassed by those who are more flexible. Also, with the internet, it is easy to see what others are doing and learn from them. The main thing is to always be learning and adapting, taking things to the next level whenever possible.

What challenges have you faced working in China? What is different about working in China?

Obviously, COVID was a big challenge that we faced this year. The hotel in Shenzhen was shut down for all but the long-term guests, and our staff was reduced down to 6-7 chefs in total. It was very strange. The hotel was like a cold piece of marble, very empty and isolated. It felt like an apocalyptic movie. However, despite this, I never felt unsafe. The lockdown and everything was handled very well by the local authorities, and after some time, we were allowed a limited reopening. I think that the impact of the virus will have a long-lasting effect. Many of the procedures for handling and processing things and cleanliness are still in effect, and I imagine will last for a long time.

Besides this, working in kitchens in China is different than in other places. The kitchen staff is more like family, and trust must be built if you are going to be effective as a manager. Unlike in Japan or Europe, where your job is just your job and you do it, you must spend more time with your staff, eating together, and generally interacting more than you might elsewhere. If it is done right, you will be more like an older brother to much of the staff, and then they will perform with outstanding results and there will be a friendlier atmosphere.

What is a favorite dish that you like to make, either for yourself or others?

I don’t get much opportunity to do hands on cooking anymore, but I have always been passionate about making risotto. Apart from its fantastic flavor and texture, risotto is a deceptively difficult dish to make properly, despite its simplicity. You must understand the rice, the methodology, and other crucial details, which makes it one of my favorite recipes to perform.

Which dish do you most recommend to customers dining at The Ritz-Carlton?

Right now, I would recommend that people try our new menu at Flair, our rooftop bar. We offer up a variety of snacks, salads, premium seafood, caviar, top-quality meats, and delicious desserts to choose from. The dishes have local flavors and a heavy infusion of South Asian signature dishes. The view is also spectacular and the drinks are very good as well.

What do our readers have to look forward to in the coming year from The Ritz-Carlton culinary team?

In 2021, we are planning to refresh our overall offerings at the hotel. At our Japanese restaurant Tasuro, we will be importing special ingredients from Japan that will become the centerpieces of a new and vibrant menu, all served in an environment that will transport you to Japan.

In our lobby lounge, we will be offering new, prime afternoon tea sets throughout the year, with specially crafted cakes and refined individual desserts. We have already been experimenting with this over the Christmas season, and we expect our next one to be themed around the Chinese New Year. We are also working on the idea of a teppanyaki afternoon tea to be served in Tasuro, though that is still in development.

Of course, Xi’an Kitchen and our signature Cantonese restaurant Jing Xuan will continue to serve seasonal menus with the best ingredients on the market.

It was a pleasure talking with Mauro, and we look forward to everything that they will have on offer this year. If you’d like to sample some of his cuisine, head to The Ritz-Carlton. Enjoy!