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The dream catcher

By: Reading Time: 6 Minutes

On the western shore of Lake Garda, the exceptional chef Riccardo Camanini turned a simple bathing beach into a first-rate culinary Mecca at the age of 42. Here’s why he didn’t make one cent with it for two years – and how bad news became a true blessing.

First things first: No, Riccardo Camanini didn’t help his grandmother make pasta when he was a little boy. And no, little Riccardo didn’t dream of becoming a chef in the days when he was a spaghetti-devouring kid either. Actually, the opposite is true. For one thing, for the Caminini family, food played a minor role and was definitely nothing out of the ordinary; for another, his training as a cook in a small village restaurant in Bergamo could not have been topped when it came to uninspiring dreariness. Still, today, the 47-year-old is considered Italy’s foremost culinary sensation. In his Lido 84, which opened in early 2014 on the western shore of Lake Garda and was a former bathing beach with direct access to the lake, he was awarded a Michelin star in a mere six months. This year he received the prestigious one-to-watch award from the renowned The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List 2019. In a nutshell: Within a very short time, Camanini has turned Lido 84 into a culinary haven for pilgrims, which is now fully booked up to two months in advance and is on the must-visit list of every foodie. But all this success, as Camanini has proven, is the result of hard work, no, gruelling work, high risks and, above all, decades of learning. But who exactly is this extraordinary chef? How did he manage to make his restaurant one of the most famous and promising in Italy without the backing of an investor? And what makes this internationally acclaimed and talked-about gourmet paradise so special?

Bitten by the gastro bug

“Back then, at the end of the 1980s, you had to decide what you wanted to be in Italy at 14,” recalls Camanini. “That was simply too early for me. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. When I first started working at this small hotel restaurant, I was really unhappy.” That started to change four years later. This was because Riccardo’s brother Giancarlo, who today as service manager is the heart and soul of Lido 84, had just met a girl who was – here’s where it gets complicated – the friend of the daughter of an absolute kitchen legend: Gualtiero Marchesis, the founder of modern Italian cuisine. It was by chance that Marchesi opened a new restaurant in Brescia, which is close to Bergamo. “His restaurant in Milan had failed financially and my brother told this friend that I was looking for a new job,” says Camanini. And so Camanini quickly got started on an internship in Marchesi’s new restaurant in Brescia. “I remember the first day when I saw this gigantic kitchen,” Camanini raves. “There are all these stylish and passionate chefs who came from all over the world to work for Gualtiero Marchesi. I was absolutely mesmerized. Suddenly I had a completely different perception of my job.”  For three years Camanini, who was forever bitten by the gastro bug, worked his way up to Marchesi. After his internship he became Commis de Cuisine at the pasta and rice station, six months later Commis de Cuisine for fish; a year and a half later he was promoted to Chef de Partie for fish and two years later Chef de Partie for meat. What impressed Camanini at that time was the characteristic French working style and his first glimpse into the highly sophisticated and refined French culinary techniques. Particularly as Chef de Partie, the young chef with a thirst for learning worked intensively with Marchesi, who challenged and encouraged him as a mentor. He visited Camanini ten times at Lido 84 until his death in 2017. Still, it was through this gastronomic revival that Camanini felt the urge to move on, to learn, to break away from Italy and soak up knowledge from the world’s best cuisines.

Riccardo Camanini and brother Giancarlo / Image: Gerd Tschebular

A young chef in the land of milk and honey

After three years with Marchesi, Camanini finally realized this dream – in Raymond Blanc’s two star Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons near Oxford nonetheless. “It was there that I had my first real experience with French cuisine, but it was short-lived,” recalls Camanini. “It wasn’t because I didn’t like Raymond Blanc, but because it had always been my dream to work in Paris. Paris is for the chef what Hollywood is for the actor,” says Camanini. Through friends who, in turn, had friends in Paris – or something along those lines – the restless kitchen fiend got a position as Commis de Cuisine in the renowned one-star La Grande Cascade run by Jean-Louis Nomicos, Alain Ducasse’s protégé. “I realized there how different, more detailed and somehow more profound the approach to preparing sauces was,” Camanini says, thoughtfully. “I had never experienced anything like this before. This was not like in Italy and other cuisines, where they only reduce a fish bone broth and added a dash of olive oil and a few basil leaves. Italian freshness is simple, but French cuisine has a far more complex taste. A lot of spices were added to the sauces, different types of pepper and vinegar, foie gras … It was the first time I really understood how important it is to invest a lot of time in good cuisine.”

This might now sound as though Camanini spent his time in Paris exclusively behind the stove. But just as valuable as his hours in the Michelin-starred kitchen were his spare hours spent elsewhere where he constantly went on culinary voyages of discovery and, with his irrepressible hunger for knowledge, absorbed everything that crossed his path. “I used every free second and went to the boulangeries, cheese producers or star restaurants.. I’ve been all over Paris. I was like Pinocchio in the land of toys, only 23 and incredibly happy,” says Camanini about this magical time of his wandering years. But in the end this stay was shorter than expected. After just one year, Camanini was offered a position as chef at Villa Fiordaliso on Lake Garda. For the 24-year-old, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For sixteen years Camanini prepared classic French fine dining cuisine there. “In retrospect, I would say that I should have stayed longer in Paris,” says Camanini. However, even from Lake Garda, the powerhouse knew how to use the little amount of free time he had for Paris. “Villa Fiordaliso was always closed during the winter, so I used this time for two-month stages in Paris.” From the three-star Taillevent led by Michel del Burgo, the gourmet gem Lucas Carton to Alain Senderens L’Archestrate, which was taken over by his protégé Alain Passard and renamed Arpège, the stage list of the passionate cuisine fanatic reads like the who’s who of Paris’ top gastronomy. No wonder, then, that after all these years Camanini started thinking about doing his own thing.

Two years without an income

“Actually, Giancarlo and I always dreamed of opening our own restaurant one day, although mostly we just joked around about it,” recalls Camanini. As fate would have it, some bad news suddenly turned this joke into painful seriousness. In October 2013, Camanini’s father was diagnosed with leukemia. This suddenly changed everything for him. “I spent almost every night of the first four months at the hospital,” he remembers. When he found out that the lido and the property were for sale, he did not wait long before calling his brother Giancarlo. “As a representative, he spent three weeks a month abroad. I said, Giancarlo, come to Italy. The lido is for sale, we could finally open our own restaurant and take care of our father.'” Without further ado, the two brothers quit their jobs and embarked on their entrepreneurial adventure, in which, as we all know, nothing ever goes as planned. “Every day the priority was new, but also the same: solve problems. There were actually only problems, problems and more problems”, Camanini remembers, as he thinks about the time before and after opening Lido 84 on March 21, 2014. “Giancarlo and I are not rich,” Camanini continues. “But we had to get Lido 84 up and running without a partner. We worked like crazy, seven days a week, without a single day off, for two whole years. At that time we did not make a single dime from the restaurant.” Anyone listening to Camanini wonders whether the day at Lido 84 really only had 24 hours. Camanini describes his daily routine at this time. “I started baking bread at 6:30. At 8:30 the chefs starting spilling in, then the fish was cleaned, the mise en place was set up, calls were answered, a new menu was created… And in the evening, after the service, I went to the hospital to see my father.” Six months after the restaurant opened, something amazing happened: Lido 84 was awarded a Michelin star.

Success and the good life

“That was of course incredible,” says Camanini. “First and foremost, the star helped us stay open in winter as well. In the past, at Villa Fiordaliso, I had worked in a very classic way with luxury products such as foie gras, langoustine or caviar. But for a tasting menu that only costs 48 euros, I couldn’t afford this in the long run. So I stopped using all these luxury products and instead opted for fish from Lake Garda and for winter products during the winter. It was a tough transition because I had to stop working with products I had a lot of experience with and rediscover my creativity with products I didn’t know very well”. Camanini’s reinvention did not diminish the success of the Lido 84; in fact, the exact opposite was true. Not only does Lido 84 have its Michelin star, it has also won awards such as the House Special Winner of the World Restaurant Awards 2019 for Camanini’s signature dish Cacio e Pepe in pig’s bladder or the Miele One-To-Watch Award at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, all of which more than justifies Camanini’s creative regional reorientation.

Cacio e Pepe in pig’s bladder / Image: Gerd Tschebular

Dishes such as risotto with celery, clams and aniseed from Emilia-Romagna or the fish of the day, such as trout, eel, perch or other freshwater species, which comes directly from Lake Garda and Camanini serves with honey, tomatoes and shallots: The bistronomic mentality of down-to-earth top products, which are prepared with technical perfection and virtuoso creativity, obviously strikes a chord with the times. And this is exactly what Camanini wants to do justice to as a future employer. “I’d like to reduce the number of covers. What has happened in gastronomy over the last ten years is unbelievable. In the north there are restaurants that are closed up to three or four days a week. This simply makes sense. Creativity flourishes and life becomes more balanced. We don’t want to set up a new restaurant or anything else, but concentrate solely on Lido 84”. Never before has such a deliberate cutback sounded so promising.

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