When chef Pietro Leemann opened Joia—an all-vegetarian restaurant, with a menu that’s 80% vegan and gluten-free—in Milan in 1989, he couldn’t possibly have imagined the vegetarian movement the world would experience in the years to come. At the time, people thought he was crazy. It’s been 34 years since then. Joia received a Michelin star in 1996, and Leemann is now regarded as the chef who introduced natural, vegetarian cuisine to Italian fine dining.
The acclaimed chef, who is in Mumbai to host a curated vegetarian dinner for Lodha Luxury, spoke to CNT India about what vegetarian cuisine means to him, what he loves about India’s approach to food and how the food we eat can change us. Edited excerpts below:
In 1996, Joia went on to become the first vegetarian restaurant in Europe to earn a Michelin star. What was running a vegetarian restaurant in Italy like back then?
It was a big challenge. Many people thought I was crazy because they didn’t even know what it meant to be vegetarian then. The first two years were quite hard. But I had worked with many great chefs so I could keep cooking and convincing people. If what you’re eating is tasty, you can eat vegetarian food; you don’t need meat or fish. Italy has a lot of vegetarian dishes in its cuisine, like rice and pasta, but people don’t think about that. The food I cook at Joia is not purely Italian. In life, people have different ideas and they fight about their ideas. Through food, you never fight. You can speak to other people and share your culture with other people through your food.
A restaurant kitchen is typically perceived as a busy, fast-spaced space. How do you incorporate the slowness required for sustainable processes like conscious sourcing and seasonal menus into your restaurant?
In life, the greatest richness is to have time—time to enjoy your life, your food and where you live. There are many restaurants now where you go at 8pm and you have to leave by 10pm. I don’t do that. I have one seating and I play music at Joia. People should have time to enjoy but also to understand. My menu is a journey of taste. I take nature and I give people an experience around it. That is true slow food. Slow food needs emotions. If a kitchen is flat, you don’t have emotions. A kitchen should be smart, with different tastes and interests. You can be interested in food, but you can also be interested in art, cinema, and theatre. If you are focused on just one thing, life is partial. It’s much more interesting if we are interested in different cultures and languages. We should try to cultivate beauty. Beauty and taste are the same thing, no?
What is your approach to plant-based food at Joia?
My language is very wide. In my cuisine, you will find influences from Japan, South America and more. The food I cook is democratic because everybody can sit on my table—vegetarians, non-vegetarians, and people of any culture or religion. For me, the enemy is fast food. Fast food makes everything the same. The meaning of a beautiful life is diversity. When everyone thinks in a different way, it’s much more interesting. When food becomes flat, we lose culture and it’s a shame. My mission is to encourage people to become vegetarian, but also make them different and open-minded. When a person is open-minded when they’re choosing their food, they will be open-minded in every aspect of their life. What we eat can change us, so our choice of food is very important.