My professional story began at the age of 15 when I went to study cooking at school. Following that, I worked for many years at different restaurants in France, Switzerland, the north of Italy. With all that experience I opened Il Mulinazzo restaurant at Sicily together with my wife Sabine — and it received first one Michelin star and then another one. It was the first restaurant with two Michelin stars not just at Sicily, but in all of southern Italy. How did it come about? The secret is to really love the products that your native land is offering you. And your love for the products enables you to develop some new techniques that earn you the second star.

And so, in 2002, I came to Moscow for a few days to conduct a week of Sicilian cuisine. At one of the dinners that I organized I met Igor Vitoshinsky and Mikhail Nikulin, the owners of Portofino restaurant. A year and a half later they opened Semifreddo restaurant and suggested that we collaborate.

Initially, we had agreed that I would spend 40 days in Italy and then come to Moscow for a week. At first, I put a Sicilian guy in charge of Semifreddo’s kitchen. But then Mikhail and Igor began to coax me: it would be better if you came yourself. And in the end, we had agreed. I closed my restaurant at Sicily, basically brought it to Moscow, and moved here myself. That’s how my story with Semifreddo began.

The restaurant was very successful. I was the only chef in Russia to have two Michelin stars. I spent all my time at Semifreddo. I wasn’t just a consultant, I cooked in the kitchen, and my wife Sabine worked in the front. We changed the whole system of service, the system of welcoming the guests to create a truly Italian restaurant worthy of Michelin even though not everyone who worked there was Italian. The service, how you welcome the guests, is no less important than the kitchen. We had to build it all from scratch here.

Semifreddo became Russia’s best Italian restaurant, and I’ve been called the patriarch of Italian cuisine at your country. Of course, I am proud of it. Just like I’m proud of La bottega siciliana that we created together with Mikhail and Igor. We wanted to create a typical Italian place where the guests can eat simple food, something that we eat in Italy every day. It really is an important project for us — to make sure that people in Moscow can go both to a top establishment such as Semifreddo, and to a regular restaurant. And our clients from Semifreddo go to La bottega siciliana when they just want to have some good pizza or pasta. And they come to our Focacceria, which is La bottega siciliana in miniature.

From the very start, I taught the Russian boys at Semifreddo the right way to cook Italian food. They all came to me very young, not knowing anything about gastronomy. Some of them later achieved outstanding results, such as brothers Berezutsky. From the very start, they were in love with the restaurant business, they dreamt of becoming the outstanding chefs. These are the people who were able to transform the Russian cuisine and I am proud that Semifreddo has taught them so much.

Personally, I think that Moscow really lacks vocational schools where 14-15-year-olds could be taught working in the kitchen, serving in the restaurant ¬— the basics of the profession. Learning the basics in a restaurant kitchen is difficult. It’s best to master some techniques, some theory beforehand, and then start to practice, travel around the world, work at other restaurants, watch, add certain things or techniques to your repertoire, like I did when I was young. In this way you learn a lot and begin to understand things about the products, about working with them — and that’s the most important thing.

These days, I mostly spend time in Sicily, but I still work every day. My chefs at Moscow restaurants — Luca, Claudio — I do video calls with them. We discuss new ideas, new recipes. Once a month I fly over to say hi to the guys and make sure that everything is going well.

Together with the owners we are talking about opening some restaurant in another country. Maybe a new Semifreddo will appear somewhere else, or another La bottega siciliana. But nothing is set in stone for now.

Guide restaurants with Nino Graziano participation