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Updated: May 21, 2014 16:18 IST

A winning toss

SHONALI MUTHALALY
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MASTER JUGGLER: Chef Oriana Tirabassi. Photo: R. Ravindran
The Hindu MASTER JUGGLER: Chef Oriana Tirabassi. Photo: R. Ravindran

Flamboyant chef Oriana Tirabassi talks about competing in a male-dominated workplace, and her hope that a restaurant in India bags a Michelin star

Chef Oriana Tirabassi looks like a woman with a story. With her jet black hair clipped back with a deep red flower, luminous eyes lined with sparkly slate grey kohl and startlingly scarlet lipstick, she's fiercely flamboyant. Which is unusual for a woman chef, competing in a world that oozes with attitude, chauvinism and machismo.

As she casually tosses a pizza in the air at Courtyard By Marriot, she discusses the best way to acquire a sun tan. “I can go to the beach? Wear less clothes?” “No, no, no,” gasp the hotel staff. “Not on Marina beach.” “But why?” she pouts, hypnotically spinning the pizza in the air, as a bevy of chefs watches her with amazement. “I did it in Turkey. In Egypt…” She slathers the pizza with Nutella, (“I love, love, love this!) piling on whipped cream, fruits, blueberry compote and pretty swirls of chocolate.

“My grandmother was a master chef for banquets in Ascoli Piceno, in Central Italy, where I'm from,” she says. “For weddings, hotels would her to make home-made pasta, ravioli, tiramisu… I cooked with her.”

However, Oriana was far more interested in athletics than food. “High jump and long jump.” She was also acquiring a degree in design. But when she was a boisterous 18-year-old, her mother decided to get her married. “And, you thought arranged marriages only happened in India,” she sighs. “His mother had died. So, my mother said: ‘He's a nice guy. Oriana, you little terrorist. You can take care of him'.”

Being tough paid off. As did marriage. Encouraged by her husband, who loved her cooking, she opened a restaurant, Son Amar, and three years later, another. She also had a baby, Sara. “I went everywhere with her strapped to my chest,” smiles Oriana.

Pizza calling

That's when her love affair with pizza led her into acrobatics. “You need to be able to throw to open up the pizza dough, whether you're a housewife or a chef.” She applied for a ‘big' pizza competition in Sicily. “Just to learn. I never ever thought I could win.” No one else did, either. This was the late 1980s, and professional pizza making was a man's world.

“It was all big men, big chefs. The women came… You would see their names on the list, but then they would get scared, and not turn up for the competition.” The men, many Italian food icons, were more amused than intimidated by this 20-year-old in bright lipstick and long hair. “They thought women were stupid, that I was stupid. They'd say, ‘Oriana don't worry — we'll show you how to do it',” she says, throwing her arms in the air and imitating their swagger. “I never spoke. I never slept. I took every secret from everyone, and worked through the night.”

Caught by surprise

She was as astonished as anyone at the results. “The announcer said ‘Surprise, surprise — this year for the first time, it's a lady'.” Till then, her life was in Italy, divided between her restaurant and the Red Cross. “I worked with them for 10 years. I loved it. For four years, I taught children with Down's Syndrome design, fashion, cooking…”

Ultimately, it all came together in LA in 1994, where she was ranked Number One at the Pizza World Championship, becoming the first woman to achieve the title in Las Vegas. “So, I started training for pizza acrobatics.” Today, she's a chef-acrobat. Her dances and spinning with dough, has taken her around the globe. “I've opened 240 restaurants till now — everywhere. I don't remember how many places I've visited.”

After a bitter separation from her husband, she sold her two Italian restaurants, and started travelling the world, ending up at JW Marriot in Mumbai, where she runs Mezzo Mezzo. “I chose to move out of Italy because there's so much pain there. So much.”

Oriana says she's got a lot more to achieve. “Now, I want a Michelin. In India. It's time they came here.” Modern Italian food is going to be her calling card. “It's important to follow tradition — but with an open mind. See what's going on in the world. Put in your stuff, your style. You never see the same sun again. Change is necessary.” Chef Oriana is reworking the menu at Rhapsody, and will be cooking and performing there till May 10. Call 66764000 for reservations.

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