Courage and determination are needed to be part of her kitchen-laboratory. Isabella Potì, a very young and famous pastry chef from Lecce, is in fact like a runaway train. Strong as the flavours of her Polish roots, sweet and surprising as the desserts she creates. After the Michelin star for “Bros’", many new projects are in the making. A stroke of genius: whoever enters her restaurant must turn off the smartphone. Find out why.
Your consecration came very early. You’re Head Chef & Partner at the Bros' restaurant in Lecce, recently honoured with its first Michelin star. At only 24 years old, nonetheless. Everything leads me to think that you discovered your passion for cooking as soon as you started walking. While your friends were playing with their Game Boy, your favourite game was to make cakes. Tell us something about your childhood and the beginning of your adventure as an aspiring chef.
I spent little time with my family. The strongest memories are related to the period in Poland with my grandparents, in close contact with the Polish culture; I used to watch my mother and my grandmother prepare traditional dishes and, above all, desserts. Even as a child I tried my hand at preparation, but with few results. Growing up with that memory, I chose to specialize in cooking by attending the hotel management school in Lecce, an obligatory step for those of us who come from the South, where the chances of emerging with a degree are very limited. I already had a strong motivation and clear goals. So, once I completed the studies, I left for the most important European kitchens. It was tough, uphill, but extremely motivating.
My idea of cooking starts from the taste and its enhancement. A process according to which the technique is part of it, but not the protagonist. We don’t perform simple style exercises, but rather we imagine the flavours and combinations that we have inside and that we have fun crossing with the seasons and even micro seasons.
Your education has been enriched with important experiences abroad. What did you learn by living away from home?
The art of getting by. I got to know new cultures, learned new languages, suffered some humiliation, and, yes, even those humiliations were useful. We grow fast, in a world of men where being a woman is not an exception. In the kitchen, you have to work hard and without sparing yourself.
You are a girl from 1995, a millennial who looms over a world of adults. Have you ever felt any kind of prejudice during your ascent?
When you’re a young pretty girl and you’re so in sight, the bad things are very often free and come from people who don't even know you. Social media gave us the opportunity to get known, but they also made us very vulnerable. I was lucky, and I believe the secret was to appear for what I am, communicating in my own way and never overdoing it.
You stated that "cooking is a discipline very close to chemistry". Can you explain better what your idea of cooking and creativity is?
The kitchen has a lot to do with transformations, it's like a laboratory. Everything is studied and executed according to precise standards and rules. My idea of cooking, shared with Floriano (Chef and Owner of Bros', as well as Isabella Poti’s life partner, E.D.), starts from the taste and its enhancement. A process according to which the technique is part of it, but not the protagonist. We don’t perform simple style exercises, that in our over-structured world are the rule, but rather we imagine the flavours and combinations that we have inside and that we have fun crossing with the seasons and even, when we can, micro seasons.
In 2017, Forbes magazine has included you in the ‘Forbes 30 Under 30 list’ for ‘The Arts - Europe’ category. This means that you’re considered one of the 30 most promising young Europeans in the art field. Having established a recognition, in a cultural moment in which influencers are very popular, can you also be an example for your generation?
As mentioned before, social media is a very nice tool. It gives us the opportunity to let ourselves be known and, at the same time, influenced by behaviors and attitudes. I always try to be myself on social media, showing what my daily life is, my work in the kitchen, my days off, my collaborations outside the gastronomic context. When we begin to have such a great following, we’re certainly responsible not only for ourselves but others.
"Let's focus on the Bros' restaurant menu. What’s your cooking vision? And what are the dishes and products that most embody your identity and that you would recommend to a new customer, for the first time sitting at your table? "
With Floriano, from the beginning, we’ve had a common idea of cooking. He has always been the mind and I’ve always been the hand that turned ideas into reality. He has always had an incredible gift, being able to think a dish from the beginning without ever having prepared it, and I’ve always been able to find the right combinations and doses that could embody it correctly. It's a combo that has always worked. We focus on seasonal ingredients not by force of the territory. Many vegetables, few items on the plate, minimalist approach, extremely strong tastes. Among our dishes we definitely recommend ‘Ricotta forte and ricci’ and ‘Linguine Pistacchio Liquamen’, as well as the ‘Timbale of pasta, duck and truffle red fruits'.
At Bros’, you suggest customers not to take pictures during their experience. An alternative choice that, in a certain sense, refers to a return to the past, when technology didn’t exist. What message do you want to express?
It’s a thought we’ve developed in the design of the new spring menu that started on April 4th. We wanted our guests to be able to immerse themselves, without distractions, in the path laid out by us to experience the Bros ’experience to the full. In recent years, technology and social media have powerfully entered our lives and we can no longer enjoy a moment like a simple dinner without spending it with a phone in hand.
The complicity between the members of a brigade is fundamental for a positive and functional work environment. In addition to the technical skills, what do you think the new recruits need need to have in order to be selected? How do you nurture the relationship with staff members instead?
The attitude for us is more important than the talent and technique acquired. It takes a lot of courage, strength of will and determination to work at Bros'. It’s not an easy school, the rhythms are very tight. The boys are all very young and united, like in a family: the environment outside the service is very playful.
You have Polish origins on your mother's side. Are there flavours of Poland that you carry in your heart and that you bring back to the kitchen?
"Certainly, I carry with me the strong acidity that distinguishes the Polish fermentations. Polish cuisine is mainly made of vegetables, most are put in oil and vinegar. It’s a very strong flavour, that I carry with me in the kitchen. "
As a pastry chef, combine these three emotional states with three equivalent desserts and describe them: surprise, ecstasy, peace of mind.
Surprise: Fucking Cold Egg, a layered dessert enclosed in a very cold metallic little man. At the base salted caramel, a sour lemon cream, crumble, egg yolk marinated in salt and sugar, milk mousse and vanilla. Ecstasy: Lemon soufflé, flower ice cream with a lemon stamp engraved with the B 'by Bros logo. Peace of the senses: A tutta mandorla (Full-Almond), composed of raw almond mousse, covered with white chocolate and finished with bergamot gel, almond ice cream, anise and almond milk granita.
During your journey, before affirming yourself as a chef, has there ever been a moment of particular difficulty when you thought about giving up or even pulling the plug for a while?
In three years, since the opening of Bros’, we never stopped: we pulled straight ahead like a train. In the last few months, we’ve managed to get a great victory for us and our kids, getting 2 days off a week. Now, we can really pull the plug.
Chefs are often imagined as resolute and infallible despots. This is because making a mistake can have a very high cost in your work. But minimizing this stereotype, when you were still a beginner, did you ever happen to combine some disaster in the kitchen? While now how do you manage an error during the service?
Of course, cooking is a perfect science and it has often happened over the years to make small mistakes. Now, I can face them with a different spirit. Dramas are of no use, in the kitchen you need cold blood and a spirit of immediate problem solving.
We saw you participate in TV shows and pose for photo shoots. How do you find yourself on the set and what’s stimulating and different from your natural habitat, the kitchen?
It’s very funny. It's a completely different world, that has intrigued me immediately, but my world remains the kitchen. The rest is something very light for me, which manages to bring out a more carefree Isabella and less ‘ice girl’, as many have called me in the past.
Without the white chef's apron, including an elegant suit with jacket and trousers or a sports outfit with sneaker and T-shirt, what best represents your personality?
It's difficult to choose. Surely the chef's outfit for me is like a second skin, but a sports outfit is perhaps the one that best represents me, at least in my days off it’s a must!
How do you recharge your batteries during your days off?
I spend a lot of time with my friends and families, consisting of myself, Floriano and our three dogs. Now, we also have a black cat, it's called Baghera! For several months, I’ve also managed to register for horse riding, Floriano's family has a riding school and I couldn't wait to have some free time to go there.
Hazard a prediction. How do you see yourself in 10 years? And what are your next commitments and goals?
We’ve always been used to long-term planning. For us, making predictions is everyday life. Ten years is a bit of a long time to tell, but we have so many projects for the next three. We’re inaugurating ‘Roots’, our autarkic trattoria in Scorrano, Bros' is in full swing and a new restaurant, ‘Pellegrino’, is in planning. We never stop and we certainly won't do it for the next ten years!
When you’re a young pretty girl and you’re so in sight, the bad things are very often free and come from people who don't even know you. I was lucky, and I believe the secret was to appear for what I am, communicating in my own way and never overdoing it.