The creativity and genius of Enrico Croatti, along with the entrepreneurial vision of the Zambotti family - owners of DV Chalet Boutique Hotel & Spa and of Ristorante Dolomieu - and the trust they placed in Croatti, have gifted him with a truly memorable experience in haute cuisine here in the heart of the Dolomites.
Executive chef Enrico Croatti is leaving the mountains to chase new dreams.When did your passion for the culinary arts come about?
It all started when I was 12, in the kitchen with my mother, Franca, sticking my hands into a mound of tagliatella dough. The feel of the dough and the smell of the ingredients enchanted me in a way that continued to grow day after day. The more time passed, the more I became aware of it, until the day came for me to pick a secondary school and I ticked the box next to a hotel-management school against the advice of my mother, who said that it would be too great a commitment, since it would also have taken up all my Saturdays and Sundays.
I was so hungry to become a great chef that I burned right through several of the necessary stepsI was so hungry to become a great chef that I burned right through several of the necessary steps. On the weekends while I was in school, I would work for free so that I’d go back to school on Monday a step ahead of my classmates. I don’t see that decision to have been a job. It was my vocation, my life.
Tell us about your background and the master chefs you worked with before coming to Madonna di Campiglio.
I would summarize those years with an image of travel. After leaving home, I took on a few positions of responsibility as a head chef in my home region, Romagna, before taking that first step into the mountains, at Hotel Miramonti in Cortina, where I became familiar with luxury hotel management. From there, I flew to Los Angeles, in the United States, with the plan to stay there for an internship of just 3 months, but I ended up staying for 4 years under the guidance of Gino Angelini.
And the encounter with your mentors?
Life is about making choices, and I always look to the future, never the pastAfter three years running an important restaurant in Rimini, Il Soleiado, at Hotel Le Meridienne, which I was already running at the age of 20, I wanted to experience more and, above all, to get to know someone specific, Gino Angelini, also from Rimini and for whom all of my peers with Michelin stars worked when they were young.
So I sent him a long email to introduce myself, and it just so happened that he read that email right away and replied, “I’m interested. Call me.” For the first 20 days, he put me to the test like you wouldn’t believe. We eventually developed a certain bond, and in the end he offered to make me executive chef at his restaurant Laterza.
When he told me this, it was as if an iceberg had fallen on me. It was an incredible experience, both for work and for life, and helped me to understand what it means to be a chef. After four years of internships and work, I came back to Italy despite some of the crazy offers I got to stay in the US. Life is about making choices, and I always look to the future, never the past.
Those years in America were important ones for my training, for my desire to grow, and for my determination and tenacity to overcome challenges.
Osteria Angelini isn’t for everyone. It’s about great skill, tradition, and rigor. Each and every dish has to be perfect. As soon as I got there, they put me in front of a huge stove without even showing me the menu.
It was me and the whole world, and I had to understand what to do right in that moment, either run or roll up my sleeves and grit my teeth. America had me saying to myself, through tears at times, “Enrico, you can’t do anything.” But in those early days when Angelini would see my frustration, he would say,
“When you’re done here, one of two things will happen: either you’ll be finished, or nothing will scare you ever again.”
I didn’t think much of it at the time, but now, with every year that passes, I understand more and more that he was right and that everything he did for me, putting me to the test, was working towards one final declaration: “You were born to be a chef.”
“For two years in downtown Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to familiarize myself with traditional Japanese cuisine, which I love. Before entering the kitchen, I would meditate with my mentor and would stay by his side for up to 15 hours a day.
France has also played a part in your career over the years.
For a chef, French cuisine is a fundamental step. I’ve learned the traditions, the classical techniques, and the - at time - rigidity of this cuisine, as well as the respect that French chefs have for their produce and for defending their history.
That human side of him took me by surprise I eventually met with the great master Paul Bocuse [one of the pioneers of nouvelle cuisine and considered to be one of the world’s great chefs, he is the only chef to have maintained three Michelin stars without interruption for 50 years]. It was a dream come true. He has since passed, and that meeting for me was an extraordinary moment in my life, both professionally and personally. It helped me to understand the value of being humble. I still remember how monsieur Paul, the papa of the kitchen as we call him in France, would greet all his customers at the entrance to his restaurant and would wander among the tables asking guests if they would like a photo with him. That human side of him took me by surprise.
When did your life and your career bring you to Madonna di Campiglio?
Madonna di Campiglio left me bewitchedAt times you don’t determine your path; things just happen. And so as soon as I got back from the United States, where the mountains felt so far away, Madonna di Campiglio left me bewitched. One evening, when I’d come up to Madonna di Campiglio to see my aunt and uncle who had a house not far from here, we were having a chat with the manager of a pizzeria and started talking about a family that was about to open a new boutique hotel. That’s where it all began, with a casual conversation and an “on the spot” phone call between the manager of the pizzeria and Tiziano Zambotti. Once contact had been established, we checked each other out, and it was quick and easy to set up an appointment. I didn’t yet see a potential career project in Campiglio, but the future had a few surprises in store.
What sensations did you have the first time you saw the DV Chalet Boutique Hotel & SPA, along with the kitchen and dining hall that were to become the Dolomieu?
The feeling was immediateWhen I met with the owners, the hotel was nearly finished and, looking at it from the outside, I felt the magic of a mountain lodge. Once inside, that spell intensified exponentially. I went to the kitchen and stayed there for about 40 minutes with the lights off, in silence, to try and understand if I could have achieved my dreams, and those of the owners, in that space. The feeling was immediate, and in that half hour or so I saw in my mind’s eye the film that was about to be produced.
The cousine I created at the Dolomieu is one of reason and of emotion.
What drove “Project Dolomieu”, the restaurant that earned a Michelin star in 2013?
The Dolomieu is like my childThat first moment of getting to know each other marked the beginning of ten fantastic years of life, work and growth, and of emotions that are difficult to describe. The Dolomieu is like my child. I was a driver wanting to transmit a changing array of ideas and objectives to its owners. I never stopped, and year after year I would introduce something new. Mr. Zambotti, his wife, and all his family gave me the opportunity and the freedom to build something magical with them. Yes, “magic” is the word I would use - an expression perfectly suited to the “Dolomieu period”.
I had the opportunity to grow the restaurant, to get a Michelin star in 2013, to join Euro-Toques, and, just a few months ago, to become a part of the Le Soste Association. I would call Dolomieu a unity of details, situations and experiences that came, one step at a time, out of the cooperation - the shared dream - between me and the owners to give Campiglio a dining experience that went beyond that of a mere hotel restaurant. So a very special thank you goes to the whole family.
These ten years in the Brenta Dolomites were also ten years of travel and experience.
time for research, for experimentation, and for planningFor us chefs, the months when the restaurant is closed are a time for research, for experimentation, and for planning. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to travel a lot, first in France and then in Spain [including an experience at the three- star Michelin restaurant Akelarre in San Sebastian], where I experienced the highest levels of technique and creativity.
How do you apply what you learn to your cuisine?
After seeing something and understanding it, I go back to my kitchen and rework everything I’ve done up to that point and then take it a step further. That doesn’t mean copying, but rather rethinking. The cuisine I created at the Dolomieu is one of reason and of emotion. Even the most creative experiments and cutting-edge dishes are always well thought out, studied, and tested before being offered to guests.
What has Campiglio meant for you and for your career? Any plans for the future you can share?
The Dolomieu is a part of me and always will beI love Madonna di Campiglio, which isn’t just a mountain town. It’s an entirely special situation that has given me the opportunity to interact with an international clientele, to express myself, to be creative and, at times, to think outside the box. If you’re ambitious and aim high, you need the right guests that will support you, otherwise even the best plans can go up in smoke. Although the Dolomieu has reached a certain level of maturity, as far as I’m concerned the time has come to chase a new dream I have in mind. It wasn’t an easy decision. The Dolomieu is a part of me and always will be, but I felt that it was the right time to leave, because I’m at the right age and have the right energy.
What will you be leaving for your successor?
a kitchen like a laboratoryI’ll be leaving him a Michelin-starred restaurant, a kitchen that is at a level of operations at which ideas constantly arise because it is like a laboratory, created by Mr. Zambotti, an engineer who has the technology and the means to make it so. I’m leaving a mechanism launched with major recognition, seven tables that are a test bed where people come not to go to a restaurant, but to have an experience. The search for an heir has been a focused one, and I have been working with him for the passing of the baton.
The Zambotti family, owners of DV Chalet Boutique Hotel & SPA and of Ristorante Dolomieu, are grateful to Enrico Croatti “for the dedication and affection he has always shown to the business” and have announced the arrival of their new executive chef, Fabio Groppi, a highly experienced chef who will take charge of the restaurant and its Michelin star on July 20, 2018. Originally from the Piedmont region of Italy, Groppi is coming to Campiglio from the gourmet restaurant Escargot, in Costa Rei, not far from Cagliari. Creativity and research are the operative words of his cuisine, together with his focus on using local products.