Sweet Smell of Success, Chef Massimo shares his secrets by ParacelsusAsia

Have you ever asked yourself what it takes to run a successful business here in Bali with over 100 employees? When it comes to business Bali brings its very own gifts and challenges, which require a particular set of talents to make it work.  That means hard work and constant presence, plus a genuine  interest in the welfare of every one of your employees. That’s not something you can fake or delegate. Nor is it something that always comes naturally to those of us from Northern Europe, North America or elsewhere in the Anglo world, where we tend to prefer things to run a bit more impersonally.

The other cultural challenge is the opaque way business is conducted. Things are a lot more Levantine here. Whom you know and how you connect is as important as the law of the land. In Western Europe the post-enlightenment tradition, generally speaking, gives you the right to do what you want –  unless that is, there is a specific law that says you can’t. In Southern European countries, the Middle East and much of Asia it really doesn’t work like this.  Here it’s not clear what you can and can’t do and you may even be asked if you have a license to be doing whatever it is you are doing. Both approaches have their pluses and minuses. The first may be clear, but can lead to over-regulation; the second avoids this but can instead lead to a climate of confusion and corruption.

Seated at my favourite local eatery in Sanur recently following an excellent lunch of oven-baked branzino ruminating on such questions I was struck by how much the operation had grown and how well run it was. After the lunch-time rush the restaurant owner Massimo Sacco joined me, while the staff prepared props and rehearsed songs for a performance to be staged  later in the week.  I’ve been eating at Massimo’s ristorante since it opened in 2004 and always enjoyed the food and efficient friendly service.  Massimo comes from Lecce, a baroque gem on the Salento peninsula in Puglie (the Adriatic heel of Southern Italy), and his extensive menu consists very largely of the classic regional dishes from this area.

Having never ventured South of Rome I’ve nevertheless been fortunate to grow up with the food of the Mezzogiorno most of my life. Until my mother re-married and I was removed much against my from the streets of London and rusticated to Dorset, I’d always accompany her on her forays to King Bomba in Soho’s Old Compton Street, a store that had kept Londoners well supplied with Italian provisions since the Risorgimento – followed by lunch, if I’d behaved, at Mario & Franco’s just- opened Trattoria Terraza in Romilly Street.  Living around the corner from us was my mother’s best friend from school, the writer Elizabeth David, whose book on Mediterrenean food published in 1946 brought a badly needed ray of culinary sunshine into the post WW2 world of austerity and rationing that was  London 1954. Impromptu meals around the kitchen table in both houses still provide warm memories.

When I got back to the London in the mid-60s the ‘Trat’ revolution was in full swing.  Good, fresh reasonably-priced natural Italian cooking served informally in stylish surroundings, courtesy of Enzo Appicella, had thankfully consigned red-checked tablecloths, candles and Chianti bottles to the city’s far-flung high streets.

To me the food of the Mezzogiorno is the best way to eat in the world. I like to eat and drink what I like when I like, so the hoopla, trappings and personality cults, not to mention price-tag, that can go with fine dining can get in the way.  Much better to keep it simple – the produce fresh and the prices reasonable… and, run a tight ship. What more can anyone reasonably ask?

If it sounds simple, of course it’s not… and that’s why such places when you find them are to be treasured.

When it comes to running a tight ship with all the necessary qualities I fast forward to Il Pastaio, opened by Giacomino Drago on Canyon Drive in LA in 1994. A bustling restaurant, supremely well run and the food spot on.  I would go there for a late lunch so had no problem getting a table.  Drago was from Sicily, so were his waiters. Their work was amazingly deft. Like professional gun slingers they were, jetting in and out of LA on 3-month tours from Sicily.

Talking with Massimo one is struck by his upbeat style and unfailing friendliness, even when he is clearly very busy. Like any gifted restaurateur he has that uncanny knack of  seeing everything that’s going on around him and still be with you. I mention this and he laughs “yes, you have to have eyes everywhere, see everything. That’s why my staff complain and ask… how do you know that?”.

He’s an interesting man with an interesting story, which goes a long way to explain his success in Bali.

Born in 1968 in Lecce,  his father was a chef with his own restaurant,  so a love of cooking was in the blood from the start and of course he wanted to become a chef. Even in the 1980s Southern Italy was still poor and young men generally had to leave for the North or emigrate to one of the larger EU countries or the US to find well paid work. Massimo’s  father convinced him that to run a successful restaurant you needed to be more than a great cook. He spent the next 5 years up at 5.00 a.m  commuting the 40 km by bus to the hotel management school in Brindisi and hitching back to Lecce late afternoon. He did well there and in addition to a gruelling grounding in the hospitality business, he learned English, French German and Spanish. It was his fluency in languages that in 1987 won him a 2-year contract to work in a top 5-star hotel in the UK, the Grand Island Hotel in Ramsey, Isle of Man. From there he moved onward and upward to the Hyde Park Hotel in Knightsbridge, one of London’s great hotels. Massimo loved his time in London, played hard and worked hard.

From 1989 to 1992 he worked in Germany at the famed Krone Hotel the heart of the Rheingau wine growing area. The Krone is a historic family-owned hotel established in 1496 with wine cellars that extended for miles under the town. The hotel closed down for the winter months, giving Massimo the opportunity to work in the vineyards.

Having mastered the intricacies of the hotel trade Massimo felt the need to broaden his horizons and travel the world. What better way than to join the world’s top cruise line and in 1992 he signed on with Cunard with their round-the-world cruises from home port Miami aboard the Vistafjord carrying 700 passengers served by 380 staff. He was quickly promoted to managing the main dining room as well as two cafes.

In 1994 he left Cunard to join the Silver Sea Group, an Italian cruise line which had just launched their state-of-the-art and even more luxurious Silver Cloud carrying just under 300 passengers with 220 staff attending to their every need at US$1,000 per day.

Massimo came to Bali as a result of a meeting with a wealthy Jakartan businessman on board the Silver Cloud, who had been impressed with how Massimo handled himself and invited him to visit Bali in between cruises.  As a result he stayed on to open what became Bali’s first gelato operation located at Benoa harbour in 1986.

By 1998 he was ready for something more ambitious and moved to Kuta where he helped set up and run Papa’s in the Hotel Alam Kulkul, which quickly established itself  as Bali’s most popular Italian eatery.

It was in Kuta at this time that Massimo met his wife with whom he has two daughters, Jasmine and Jessica now 17 and 14 respectively. The girls are currently studying at the Ghandi School in Renon and the eldest Jasmine,  is preparing herself to study at university in England reading English literature. Jessica shares her dad’s love of food an she may go on to hotel school in Lausanne. Sadly the marriage did not last and the couple divorced although the family remain very close. “It was hard for her. I was working very hard and she hardly ever saw me”, Massino murmers gently.

In part, this was the reason for his move to Sanur 2001 to run the Village Restaurant  for the Santrian Group, which was an intense experience, he remembers.In 2004 the time was right and Massimo ready for his big move. He took on large premises at the Western end of Jalan Tamblingan, just where it turns into Jl. Danau Poso, and established Il Ristorante Massimo and has never looked back.

At this moment one of the senior staff approach the table and asks him a question, something about a magic show. Having noticed  posters on the walls for the famous Italian magician Silvan – among others,  I’m intrigued and ask what that was about? It turns out that among his many talents Massimo is an accomplished magician. He started when he was 16 at school in a show put on to raise funds for a class visit to Barcelona. He sped-read Silvan’s book and his mother made a suit with the hidden pockets. It was a great success.  “We had to release the pigeons in the school grounds afterward and within the year there was a flock of them. The mess was terrible”, he adds. He went on to study magic at the Italian Magic Club in Bologna and kept on expanding his craft ever since. It’s all illusion, there’s nothing supernatural about it. “In fact when a magician claims to have supernatural powers we make a point of showing the trick of how it’s done”, he says.

Massimo’s magic act is well worth catching and he usually performs during the Christmas/New Year period. Part of the spirit of the place and the staff is the feeling of how they all help and pitch-in whether with the restaurant work or in putting on a show.

Today his restaurant business is a considerable operation. As well as serving food and running a very successful gelato business he makes his own pasta, breads, his own mozzarella plus five other local Pugliese cheeses, as well as importing a wonderful extra virgin olive oil from the region and buying real Italian parmesan  cheese by the round. Lately he has greatly expanded his delicious home made dessert and patisserie section.

The restaurant now employs some 120 Balinese, 80%  of them women. His head chef is a woman and her two lieutenants running the restaurant and the office admin are both women also.

I ask him how he does it,  the secrets of how he manages it all so well?

“First,  it is not a business to me”, he says.  “You have to love what you do. Next, everything I do is here. I’ve been asked to set up outside operations but I won’t do it. I can only operate like a family and you can’t franchise family. Everyone here works hard and helps each other. If something is wrong or there’s a problem they come to me

with it and it works well because they know I am totally committed to them and what we are doing here.  I look after their interests and security, pay their taxes and medical cover. When we need new staff  they’re the ones who find the people and handle it if it doesn’t work out.  Then there’s training. That’s vital.  I do it from scratch with everyone. We have an hour-long training on a subject every day after lunch at 3.00 pm.”

You are also  a man on a mission, I remark,  to promote the best of Italian regional cooking and in the evening you wear a chef’s uniform with the insignia of the ICWA   (Association for Italian Cuisine Worldwide).

“Yes, as I say, you have to love what you do and  be true to that. That means keeping it simple, keeping the food real and authentic – but simple does not mean that it’s easy or that anyone can do it.”

We wrap things up as Massimo is called away by one of his female lieutenants and I depart happy in the knowledge that there will always be at least one place in my hometown where I can get good homemade Italian food in a restaurant that just gets better and better and  full of pleasant surprises.

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