After three months during which half the world – and all of Italy – has lived between four walls and behind a screen, interviewing a chef on Zoom instead of in their kitchen or restaurant doesn’t feel that strange. I would have liked to see a few dishes, just to see whether my olfactory system could conjure up the scents of Salento’s typical ricotta scanta even through the phone’s camera. Instead, when Isabella Potì appears on my screen, she is indeed on the premises of Bros, the Michelin-starred restaurant where she is partner and head chef but is still working on the new menu. On the finishing touches, to be precise: it had been announced on her Instagram with six teaser posts a few hours beforehand. The latest posts on a profile that shares personal photos, collaborations with Nike, the multifaceted image of a chef who wants to be more than that. A marketing strategy that is rarely seen in the world of haute cuisine – except for Bros. The menu is called “Brothers of the Universe” and the image chosen to represent it – part of the “campaign”, we would say in other sectors – is Titian’s Adam and Eve in the Earthly Paradise. I am shown a preview and although there are no waiters on hand to help me translate the Salentino dialect used, I spot that “recotta scante” which is something of a signature dish for Isabella and the Bros territory.
The new Bros menu is represented on Instagram by Eve picking the Forbidden Fruit, which is an apple, after all. This is also the first menu to be developed since Bros, like so many other restaurants, was forced to close.
At Bros, every menu is like an album release. But instead of the different tracks, we are releasing food and dishes. This is the summer menu as we skipped spring, although we will only change the menu twice a year from now on: Spring-Summer and Autumn-Winter. As you can see, we are returning to nature.
Was nature the leitmotif of your lockdown?
Floriano and I live in Scorrano, so yes. We really engaged with day-to-day life in the countryside. We are normally always in the restaurant, so we experience the country as restaurateurs and chefs but suddenly we were using the vegetable garden to feed ourselves. We would pick chard, courgettes, and peas every day, forging a far stronger connection with the plant world. This actually led us to make a personal choice not to eat meat and dairy products on a daily basis anymore but to follow a flexitarian diet. This menu, the next two menus in fact, will be vegetarian.
Is there still a backlash against your use of digital and your decision to combine food service with contemporary marketing?
Yes, from both the chefs in the old guard and journalists. But for us, it has always been our point of difference. It’s actually not that uncommon, you quite often see chefs who call communications agencies to create a story. We already have our story and we try to base our communications around that. And speaking of digital, we will be holding our first food talk this year, Metaland, and it will be held digitally instead of here in Scorrano, with all the speakers attending online.
You are Italo-Polish, how has your identity impacted your creativity as a chef?
My identity has given me so much, it has allowed me to have a broader vision. Poland and Italy are two very different worlds, especially when it comes to taste and cuisine. They both use preservation techniques, for example, but using different fermentations: Poland uses lots of fermented milk, sauerkraut, and salt-based fermentations such as cucumber in brine. In Salento, it’s all done with oil and vinegar and products are left to dry in the sun. But Bros is very Salentino, so I keep the Polish parts separate.
Your own private Poland.
I used to go to Poland in the summer holidays with my siblings, to a park in one of the most beautiful areas near the border with Belarus. It is called Białowieża and it is a beautiful, absolutely tiny little spot. There are very few cars, the houses are kept up to certain standards by law, and then there’s the forest and the natural reserve. I lived in close contact with nature from a young age, I think it’s fair to say that this bond with nature comes more from my Polish side. Then there are the fermentations, the cellar dug into the rock…
What are the cornerstones of your cuisine nowadays?
I try to be as ethical as possible, avoiding products that have travelled hours and hours to get here. I’m not anti-globalisation but I try to be careful. In the restaurant world nowadays, you might find a restaurant in London with an identical menu to one in Italy, especially among Michelin-starred restaurants.
How does a Michelin star change the way you work?
It changes your visibility, it’s like a label. It’s not ideal but you do get labelled in this sector, in the same way that actors do. There are those who win an Oscar and then those who don’t. It doesn’t mean that there is necessarily a difference in quality, but customers care about it, they trust what the Guide says. Our clientele travels and goes on gastronomic tours; they are connoisseurs of good taste.
How does the creative process work for you?
Both Floriano and I seek isolation. We shut ourselves up at home in Scorrano and chat to Aunt Cesarina or Uncle Antonio, asking about the traditions of that specific period. We start from flavours rather than just ingredients: lemon, vinegar, fresh summery flavours.
Before Bros, Salento was not really considered a spot for fine dining.
We were the first to have a Michelin star here, so we changed history in Salento, which hadn’t really seen any fine-dining or gourmet food until then. We marked a change in the Salentino food world. What we want to do now is keep customers who come to dine with us even longer, for approximately 8 hours. We want to extend this cycle.
There has been some negative press about you. Do you think this has anything to do with your gender, as well as your age?
Both. The food world, and food journalists, are of a certain mould. What we do has an impact so I would expect it to be controversial and criticised.
The only way to avoid all that would be to be simply a chef and nothing more.
I think that a chef who stays in the kitchen has a short lifespan nowadays. You have to be entrepreneurial; you have to communicate your work. Especially since we are in southern Italy and we want to bring more visibility to this area, we don’t want to be restricted to the kitchen.
Words by Davide Coppo
Photography by Luca A. Caizzi
Starring Isabella Potí