What do we set out to do in life? Become something? Save the world?
What happens when life has different plans?
Gianantonio Candiani is a man with quite a bit of travel under his belt. His studies and teaching career have taken him to many parts of Europe and Africa until his travels brought him to us, to Nepal. We went down to one of his restaurant, PIANO PIANO, in Lazimpat, to capture the story of a teacher turned chef.
When asked how he made this jump, he interjects immediately, “I wouldn’t call it a jump. I started working in bars and restaurants at the age of 17. At this very first place I was only allowed to collect glasses and i did that for a whole year and then I was finally allowed to wash the glasses! It’s where I developed an understanding of how the hospitality business works and how much you need to know before you can even think of opening your own place.”
He chuckles as he admits, “I used to go to the Farmer’s Market in 1905 to enjoy a few glasses of wine and every Saturday morning. Until one day, I asked myself ‘Why am I here to spend money instead of making money?’” He recalls starting out with easier dishes such as salads, lasagne, and ravioli. Naming his stall Pastapur, he started getting amazing responses. People kept asking him when he would open a restaurant of his own.
“I never wanted to open a restaurant,” Candiani shares, “Having been in that business, I’ve been a waiter, a kitchen porter, a floor manager, a cook. It is simply never-ending.” But a small change made him think bigger than the tin metal boxes at Pastapur. A little life. When his wife got pregnant, he felt the need to build something more solid or as he puts it, “We wanted a roof and not just a table at the market.”
When you come to one of my restaurants, I will serve you with what I perceive and know to be Italian food. Most people that come here have a vision of Italian food which is just gathered from television shows or other restaurants outside Italy.
So, what can you expect when you walk into one of his restaurants? Candiani humbly says, “When you come to one of my restaurants, I will serve you with what I perceive and know to be Italian food. Most people that come here have a vision of Italian food which is just gathered from television shows or other restaurants outside Italy. People are not used to authentic and real Italian cuisine,” he continues, “In many Italian restaurants, or, at least, how they call themselves, cooks in the kitchen think that by putting a lot of garlic everywhere, by flooding the recipes with cream and by covering them with tons of parmesan and by throwing in a red and white table cloth you have Italian food and an Italian restaurant. This is exactly what we avoid.”
“From the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep, I think of the creation of a dish”, he smiles, “Every dish we prepare here, combines my experiences and showcases the abilities of the people working in our kitchens. I don’t mind if the glasses are different or if the table is uneven. We can fix that. But the food always comes first.”
It’s certainly this diligence that earns Candiani the pleasure of boasting a huge number of returning customers at PIANO B. Despite making pasta in his three kitchens: PIANO PIANO, PIANO B and of course, his own, he insists that his job never gets repetitive.
“It actually gets more and more challenging!” he remarks, “Since we have so many local and returning guests, we try to make sure they always find something new, always changing and, hopefully, improving. We change the menu for our customers. Both the restaurants keep a fairly short menu with about 24 items in total, of which 12 are starters. We keep pushing ourselves with using seasonal items and decorations. Mushroom, strawberry, tomatoes, basil, whatever is in, we can turn it into something beautiful.”
Candiani seems to have built himself a home away from home. “This is the longest I’ve ever stayed in one place, it’s really quite something,” he muses, “I’ve been away from home for quite some time now. With my team here, which became like an extended family, every night we discuss what went wrong and how we can correct it. We are always prepared to make sure anybody’s first time here is their most memorable dinner in Nepal.”
He takes pride in his team and especially the waiting staff: “I don’t want my guys to be servants, they are the face of the enterprise. I make sure they know what they are serving, that they can be smiling, confident and fast.” This training creates a solid foundation for both his restaurants, which actually couldn’t be more different.
The cozy atmosphere at PIANO B is made to reflect an “osteria”, a typical old-style wine bar. It is easy and homey. It spells out comfort right from the decor to the food. Meanwhile, PIANO PIANO takes a more up-class and stylish form, with a sleek design and minimal decor. You can see Candiani happily serving and entertaining his guests with his chef’s apron and a disarming smile.
When life has different plans, you make a plate of pasta and you do a damn good job at that.