Hello, good morning! Could you please introduce yourself and briefly explain to us how you came to where you are today?
My name is Rosa Vanina and I am the chef of "Pianoterra" restaurant in the 11ᵉ arrondissement in Paris. I have been a chef for twelve years now, although I have quite a different initial background. I am a cellist by training and I worked a lot in cinema and production of cultural programs for Italian television before I arrived in Paris. So, this relationship with culture on the one hand and gesture on the other, has brought me to food – which is something in which the practical and manual side come together. A gesture is necessary for me to find a sense in my work. The musician in me felt like there was a lack to being fulfilled.
So – this is my first restaurant and this restaurant derives from a collaboration and meeting with my partners from LAN (the architecture studio located on the top floor of the same building). Umberto, one of the two partners of the studio, was my client during the period when I was still a private chef. After being in Paris for ten years, he told me he dreamt of a restaurant very close to his office. So the fundamental thing was the proximity to the studio. He said to me: “As soon as we find a place, do you want to be the chef?” I found this very exciting. A new adventure after ten years, it suited me perfectly. And the incredible thing is that we found a space on the ground floor of the studio almost immediately afterwards. In Italian, “Pianoterra” literally means ground floor. It’s that simple!
People think sometimes it has to do with a piano, but no. The LAN architecture studio is on the fourth floor. They were longing for a relationship with the city, spreading into the neighbourhood, as the architecture upstairs felt disconnected from the address, also due to the beautiful but secluded rooftop, that allows views onto the whole city. They desired a permeability with the neighbourhood, to get in touch with the people, so that's how our project was born.
“Pianoterra” has this ambition to bring architecture to the street level and not to the fourth floor of the street and in a closed, secure and impassable place. And so, everything you see around, are works linked to architecture. Either architects or architectural photographers have offered us their work for the restaurant, they are not for sale. But it's exactly this idea of offering a permanent gallery for people who come to lunch that we are looking for. And the next project we plan, very much related to architecture, is a cooperation with the bookstore “Volume”, which is a bookstore in the third arrondissement that is dedicated to architecture. They are going to do a bi-monthly selection with a particular theme and the first one will be “architecture and design of the local”, hence the relationship between architecture, design and the local, which is also something very interesting from a food point of view.
So, the idea is not necessarily to put in relationship the local and food, but rather discover the cross-cutting themes that affect us enormously, which are related to production and precisely to the fact that things shall be clean, close, and respectful of the environment. Architecture and nourishing, food, gastronomy.
On a similar note – the lunch menu is vegetarian, so that everyone can share this meal. For me, sharing a meal does not mean that everyone has their own plate. It is rather the gesture of serving shared dishes and distributing food across the table. It is a gesture that is full of meaning.
It is important to me, in this moment of sharing, who is the person who get’s up, who takes charge of spreading the food and feeding the table? It’s not trivial and it’s a real sharing moment in that sense.
Given that I am Italian, I inevitably make food that is inspired by my childhood memories. My parents are Sicilian, so my mother has handed over her passion for food to me. Siciliy is extremely far – so how to avoid the folklore that is automatically tapped into, when people come to eat Italian food? It comes via honouring the suppliers and the local products, for me. And to embrace the beauty of improvisation. Like my local producer around the corner, for example, who makes fresh Mozzarella every day. They are Italian, but use French milk. I like the idea very much that the “savoir-faire” travels but not the food.
And I prefer to use seasonal vegetables – you saw squash, zucchini, coming from Ile de France. And exactly this does not match the idea of folklore you expect, such as eating eggplant at an Italian restaurant. Well no. In fact, in winter there are none.
You've already started talking about all the themes that we would like to discuss with you, so that’s great because it confirms our pathway. You have already briefly explained this – what does “Pianoterra” mean to you personally?
For me, personally, it's really related to the space, or notably it’s exact location. So “Pianoterra” reminds me of where I am, in relation to the city. In the past, I worked a lot with different landscapes. I worked at Filicudi, a small Aeolian island, in Salento, and for me, the place I work in is extremely important for what I will produce.
And at this level, it is the name “Pianoterra” that reminds me I am in Rue Popincourt. And all my suppliers, I see them every morning. They are the people who have taken over the supply for the city, so they do it for me.
I don't have any suppliers who come with trucks to deliver to me. I go to them. They have already taken this step of bringing the food to a city like Paris and it is with them that I organise my things with. Whether it is the fishmonger who is in the street next door or whether its all the fruits and vegetables. So for me, it's a form of responsibility, it's the city that feeds me. This is the coherence that I found: there is no other landscape than that of the street.
This is very clear. Earlier, you spoke about a permeability that you create, establishing a connection together with the architects. Also – we read on the website of LAN architects, that it is your aim to bring architecture to the street and the street into architecture. And do you think that “Pianoterra” is achieving this goal?
So, the circumstances lead to the fact that the restaurant is still very young. Also because of Covid, we were never able to really develop the project with “Volume”, which should have happened a year ago but was stopped by closure. So now we're going to start on January 18, and that's when I think we're really going to put into practice this experience of permeability and that it doesn't just become a gallery, or something static. It’s not a decor, in fact. Rather, there will be action to make the space come alive. There will a happening, such as flipping through a book or buying one and this space will live in another way. But we couldn’t develop it yet or react to whatever will happen. I haven’t experienced this yet, being able to bring to life this aspect.
On the same note - does “Pianoterra” really work in its designated function – as a collective social space, connected to the neighbourhood?
The thing that is very beautiful is that someone came and told me it is very heterogeneous. There are all kinds of people who come here and I love this. Because I change the menu every day twice a day, I have people who come very often. So it can happen that at the same time I have one of the most important French artists, next to a couple of very old people, where the gentleman calls me in the morning saying: “I can't eat salt” and so I make him a menu that is completely different. And so I might have a person who doesn't eat gluten and who comes because I make risotto, as he tells me before coming. So – there is this relationship that for me is beautiful, between people of a certain type and people who are really neighbourhood customers, who come back regularly and who receive custom treatment. This is also what I learnt as a home chef – to accommodate various needs. This is also a reason LAN opened up the kitchen towards the room and towards the street. It’s really out there. I am completely exposed. It is also so people can come and talk to me, if they don’t like something on the menu.
In fact, in Siciliy, with Greek heritage, we always say that the guest has to be treated extremely well, as it could be a goddess hidden behind them, right? So I treat everybody who comes here like someone very important – at least for the first time. After that, you earn it!
So, if they’re not nice the second time… No, I’m joking.
And how do you think architecture and cooking are related?
In a very different way, we are both reating a space for sharing, I think.,, And – it's the relationship to the space around us. You can't make food the same way anywhere. This is very important. I don't do the same thing depending on where I am. And one of the things that for me is very important is the idea of eating the landscape. When I was at Filicudi, for example, the idea of eating what is around you was essential. It was very much associated with the moment when we look at a landscape while eating.
I cooked with what we had around us. The water of the sea surrounding us became an ingredient, for example. Yes, it's about responsibility.
This restaurant, was it a co-creation process between you and the architects?
I am convinced that my partners, Benoit and Umberto, they would never have imagined the restaurant like this if it wasn't also for me. From a calculation stand point, for example, having a kitchen in the basement or at the back of the room would have allowed for more tables. But they knew that for me the idea of contact with the customers was fundamental. If they took that away from me, they took away the interest of this job for me. So even if this shared space is in fashion right now, it would not have been argument enough for the business side of things. So the fact that Umberto knows me very well and respects me and my interests, surely led to the fact that they so carefully adapted the space to my needs.
For you, what is the most important thing in designing this space? What's counts the most for you?
For me, it’s excatly… this fact, that I am not excluded from the space. And by not being excluded form the space, I too share the same space with the people inside. Something that is, I assure you, not obvious. Cooking is by nature not very nice to see – from time to time. So sometimes it is not perfect, as it is real. And we are in a real communion of space, and what the room feels, I feel. It is impressive – sometimes I ask Juliette: “Why don't I feel anything? What’s going on? Is there something wrong?” And if I were excluded, I would never feel these things. And sometimes it's bubbly and it fills me with energy. And sometimes the lack of this sensation allows me to react. So it's really an energy that's shared.
I would like to come back to the paintings and drawings you mentioned earlier – by photographers and archietcts – How do these details, the colours, the materials, the furniture, the style – how do these things influence the experience in here?
The idea is that many – for example, the colour you see here… in fact all these colours take up the colours of LAN – the colours of their office at the top of this building, such as the sky, and they reproduce them here at the bottom. So, you see, all of the exterior colours of LAN are linked to the roofs of Paris. And something beautiful they do is to bring these colours form the top to the ground floor.
So, you are Italian by origin, right? And do you have any specific memory from your childhood that influenced your interest and also maybe your passion for cooking?
I have a strong image of my grandparents’ house. Of my grandfather's and my grandmother's house. She had a huge wood oven in which she made the bread. And he often arrived from his garden – in Sicily, this means a small country lot with citrus fruits, olives, lemon trees, olive trees, where there is hardly no water, so everything is very intense. So he arrived with his harvest and this was always the basis of our meal, coming home from the beach. A taste of almonds and oil.
My cooking and my tastes align with this. The bread I use, for example, is a small fermented bread, locally made in small quantities every day at Rue de la Folie-Méricourt. It has the taste of an old bread and this touches me very much. It smells like bread and in the afternoon the kitchen is like filled with perfume.
And my olive oil I buy directly from a producer next to Mount Etna, in Sicily. I buy it directly from the producer that I've known forever and I don't stop this, because it is the basis of everything for me.
Is there a specific place where you would like to cook or propose a dinner? And could you describe it for us? It doesn't matter where, it can be dreamy too. It can be whatever you want.
Today my dream – and I think the dream of every cook – as I said, is to cook a landscape. When you are in a city, you cannot do this. The idea is that you have products that grow next to the restaurant and these have a story to tell via the image of this landscape. It could be anywhere, but my preference would be a maritime setting, a seascape. And then I do not ask for anything else. Because you can even cook the stones. There is a recipe of the Aeolian Islands where they had nothing but a few raw materials and they made a soup of sea stones. Of these pebbles they made a broth and it was a sign of great poverty and of great intelligence at the same time. And so for me, everything you can cook, you can eat. So yes, that’s it, I think, a landscape. Really of any kind.
We asked you this a little bit before and you were just replying to it – how does the space influence your cuisine?
Well, in my opinion the difficulty here is like all cities. Paris has a problem of supply, as very few things are produced here. So my research is to understand what is produced here. I was talking about mozzarella, for example, and ricotta. I can see things that are made the same morning. This is extraordinary for a city. And the beer that I propose is a beer that is made in Montreuil, for example. So, the idea is to look for products that are local, that are linked to this place, which is the city.
So the scale is Pianoterra, Rue Popincourt, Paris, the 11ᵉ arrondissement, Paris, Île de France, France. So this is the scale I consider being local and within my proximity. And I was looking for other things, which are done in this city. And also: what is their quality? Being local is not necessarily an indicator of quality.It has to be good too.
And afterwards it is the immediate space. Because for reasons of space, some things I use are downstairs, such as the oven. And all this conditions my cuisine enormously. I have to do the things that are here are not downstairs. I need to adapt the way of cooking and the possibility of proposing some dishes as opposed to others. So there are constraints. Space involves constraint. And that has always pleased me enormously. The fact that I adapt to the constraints and consider them as something that is very inspiring and not a limit.
Another link to architecture: it only works with constraints.
That's it. For me it is a situation to solve, not a problem. What are the constraints and how can these be worked with? I'm going to make an offer that will be unique to this space, while other spaces could have different constraints. Here, for example, I cannot fry. So I completely change my way of cooking. I love frying, but here I'll never do it.
What motivates you and what is the most important thing to you in your daily work?
Adaptation. Renewal. The fact that every day – and that's why I need to change the menu every day – outside, the temperature is not the same. Are people going to want a salad or a soup? Each element is actually part of an experience that is more or less enjoyable and the weather is fundamental here. Really, for me, the season and the situation are fundamental. These are really elements that I take into account. And this idea is a little crazy and sometimes makes people who work with me hate me, as at 11 o'clock we still don’t know what we’re cooking. But cooking food like this, is something I absolutely want to defend. It is neither the most efficient or intelligent thing to do, but it is what motivates me to cook every day anew…
It's the idea of putting myself “in danger”, to go out and test things. Sometimes, it's more successful, sometimes less, I admit. But it is always with the intention of following this strong desire to not pitfall into the easiness of reproduction. And that's my real ambition. And I think I can push it even more. I just need to learn. Because a restaurant is different from what I did before. There are other problems and it’s more complex.
And working between Italy and France: what can these two countries, and perhaps also the other European neighbouring countries, learn from each other in the kitchen and maybe also beyond?
France and Italy – I will speak about these because I know them.
Italy, for me, has this incredible strength. An incredible strength that stems from the rural kitchen, to do the best with what you have close to you. This sort of genius of simplicity and ability of putting elements together that grow at the same time, or in the same season, in the same landscape and make something delicious out of it.
French cuisine, on the other hand, is a much more bourgeois cuisine. It’s what it has become today – a very technical kitchen. You have to go through a school to learn the level of technique and extreme refinement. But many products remain a luxury, such as Foie Gras – which are not what we typically want to consume today, as stuffing geese is problematic. It is very linked to gastronomic luxury, also thinking of oysters and caviar.
Many things that represent a sort of a status symbol.
Italian cuisine is much more proletarian in its way of being. But I don't know after that. I surely don’t want to hurt the French… French cuisine is extraordinary, I mean it. Two different types of genius. A technical genius and the genius with the capacity of putting things together, very close and seasonal.
Lastly, we always ask the same question. Imagine a free year, for example between high school and university, a completely free year, which competences or experiences would be the most enriching for you?
For me, there is no doubt – if I were between 18 and 20 years today, I would do a work experience with producers, anywhere in the world. I know this exists. To understand the work an attentive producer makes. Which are the choices we make? It is very important to understand how we produce coffee, pepper – exotic things we use completely subconsciously. And I would not hesitate to work with the hands. I say this because I had an episode of work which was very cerebral and I really think it is fundamental to have a manual part of work. What is the time and the seasonal product, linked to manual work? What is the confrontation of working with the hands? What is the link to the seasons? Something that follows a living order.