Chef For Celebrities Inspires With Fusion Delicateses
Enzo Neri, an Italian born and bred masterchef, trades the hustling and bustling life cooking for celebrities in New York for peace of mind and a new challenge in Tbilisi, Georgia. Together with his business partner, the Australian Edgar Hyder, he has opened the contemporary Mediterranean restaurant La Boheme in Tbilisi, while consulting large brands on their kitchens and menus in the country he now calls home.
Taking a small bite from some sort of pumpkin dip, an explosion of flavors appears in my mouth. I am neither a huge fan of pumpkin, nor am I a qualified food critic - I am easily impressed with just a good meal. But darn it, that pumpkin mousse is something else. It felt like it was the best thing I had ever tasted. And it didn’t stop there.
Baba ganoush is a dish I have cherished ever since I ate at a Lebanese restaurant for the first time. Goat cheese beetroot salad has been on the top of the list of my favorite salads for longer than I can remember. And pizza is my to go to dish at any time of the day. But the way Enzo and his chefs create their dishes at La Boheme, is another experience, another world of experiencing food.
While Enzo shows us his, albeit, small kitchen, he explains me in perfect English with a rather thick charming Italian accent that he is always looking to innovate.
“I love traditional food,” he tells me, while he quickly assists his sous-chef with some meatball sauce, “but I always like to add a little twist, to innovate what we have and make it healthier.”
The kitchen is equipped with all kinds of tools you usually wouldn’t see in your standard restaurant kitchen. Enzo works with foams, dehydration, vacuum cooking also known as sous-vide, and is a major fan of slow-cooking.
“Beef is always a bit tough, you need to break it down to get tenderness,” he says, explaining that usually people braise beef by hitting it, but where he uses a vacuum technique combined with cooking the meat on a low temperature overnight in a machine. “There are no human errors, you can’t overcook it.”
The kind of style Enzo has mastered over the years is also known as molecular gastronomy, although other chefs have also referred to it as multi-sensory cooking, modernist cuisine, culinary physics, and experimental cuisine.
And if there is one thing which brings sparkles to his eyes, a passion in his voice, and an ability to talk forever, it is his love for food and cooking, which he says is a form of art.
“It’s like painting, if you know the flavors, you can create an artwork,” Enzo says.
Growing up in Citta di Castello, about 180km North of Rome in the province of Perugia, the northern part of the Umbria region on a slope of the Apennines, Enzo had always wanted to become an artist. But his father had told him that there was no money to be made in art, so he chose to study medical engineering and worked a wellearning job in Rome in the industry.
“I was making good money,” he says while handing me a glass of red saparavi wine on the second floor of La Boheme - surrounded by middle eastern looking stained glass lamps made by a local Georgian artist, “but I couldn’t express myself.”
That’s why he decided to take a sabbatical to learn English in Melbourne, to get out of the repetitive rhythm of his life and try something new. He tells me how he saw classified ads for kitchen work all over town, and he how became intrigued with the idea of working with food. But it wasn’t until a friend in Ireland opened a restaurant that he was bold enough to offer working in a kitchen.
“I started to understand that food is like art, the smell, the taste, the colors,” he says about the experience.
And it didn’t take long before he decided to enroll in one of the most well-known Italian culinary courses in Peruga. During his studies, he approached the chef of a restaurant in his hometown, a michelin star restaurant, if he could help out. As the pasta maker was leaving, Enzo was giving an opportunity to learn from the best, while studying at the same time.
After that, Enzo worked all over the world, in Dubai, London, New York. He won gastronomical awards for his dishes, including one for a tiramisu. One summer ago, he took a break from working in high end restaurants in New York, to take a gig with a billionaire famous for throwing charity dinners for celebrities. Enzo made food for U2’s Bono, members of the band Pink Floyd, Jack Nicholson, and many more.
But the crazy New York restaurant life, where you only work and can’t socialize - Enzo tells me - became a bit too much for the life-loving chef.
“Like Brad Pitt said, New York is not a Community, it’s a business,” Enzo explains me, adding that not only would he work almost 24/7, but also many kitchens in NYC do not have good air conditioning, making the kitchens a “living hell” at times.
But the choice for Georgia was a combination of enjoying his first trip to the country a few years ago and the luck that an old business partner and close friend he met in Dubai asked him to join the opening of a new restaurant in the capital city.
“Tbilisi reminds me of Italy in the 1980s,” Enzo says, “I have more time for myself here, life is more balanced.”
But he adds that’s not the only reason. “In places like New York and Dubai you can learn a lot, experience a lot, but in a country such as Georgia, you have the opportunity to give back as well.”
Besides co-founding La Boheme, Enzo actively consults the Radisson Blu Iveria hotel on the opening of a new fish restaurant in town, works with the high end new wellness center Bioli Medical Wellness Resort in Kojori on the outskirts of Tbilisi, and actively makes time to teach and train students of gastronomy.
And a tastemaker such as Enzo is very welcome in a country which is extremely good in making their own traditional dishes, but is still lacking the expertise to create international dishes according to international standards.
And that is partially the aim Enzo and his business partner Edgar have with La Boheme, whose target audience are Georgians who have travelled abroad and want to revisit their culinary experiences, and expats who miss the taste from restaurants in their home countries.
Seated in the cosy atmosphere of the restaurant on Abashidze, Enzo passionately talks about creating dishes that feed our memories, bring us back to interesting times, or in other words - as Enzo puts it - where food is an experience.
“All the dishes are interconnected, internationally, and when you learn more about its origins and add the technologies that we have today to the recipe, you can create an unforgettable experience.” Enzo tells me with a smile on his face, hungry to share his own experiences and skills with his new home country.