Find out how Sardinian chef Simone Tondo has fine-tuned his Italian cooking in Paris. Interview conducted by Hilary Armstrong
When Sardinian chef Simone Tondo left home at only 14 to pursue his culinary calling in Alghero; when his father spent a small fortune on the El Bulli cookbook for his 15th birthday; when he uprooted himself at 21 for yet another new city – none of this was with a view to a career spent slinging pizzas and rolling pasta. “I didn’t study so hard to be just an Italian chef,” asserts Simone, whose restaurant Tondo opened in Paris last summer. “It was never my dream to just cook pasta. I’m an international cook. I cook everything that’s good.”
“Everything”, vis-à-vis the Tondo menu, means anything from Sardinian fregola to dashi, za’atar to clafoutis. It’s the very reason Simone’s in Paris. “My head chef [Cristiano Andreini], who used to work with Ducasse, told me you only learn by seeing new things and the place to go for that is Paris. Paris opens your mind. You smell food everywhere.” (Read our foodie guide to Paris here)
Simone couldn’t have chosen a better time to arrive in the City of Light. The Paris he discovered in 2009 was not the one that had seen off previous Italian invaders (Gualtiero Marchesi, the godfather of modern Italian, being the highest profile casualty).
It was an open city, in thrall to the new ‘bistronomy’, a youthful, sometimes anarchic movement that swapped haute cuisine for off-the-cuff cooking and matey service, in the process shifting Paris’s gastronomic epicentre from the centre to the edgy 11th arrondissement. Simone dived right in: at Rino with Giovanni Passerini, at Petter Nilsson’s pace-setting La Gazzetta, Inaki Aizpitarte of Le Chateaubriand’s Le Dauphin and Sven Chartier’s Saturne.
Lyon-based Italian food writer and curator Andrea Petrini, founder of Gelinaz!, in whose culinary ‘happenings’ Simone has partaken, explains the background further: “Simone was one of the first young Italian guys to come to Paris. If you look at Paris – and Copenhagen too – you have lots and lots of Italians; one could say there’s an Italian diaspora. Why? Because there was an economic crisis and because, in Italy, despite what you might think from reading international magazines, it’s not a very open kind of cuisine. You have to stick with tradition. The new places in Paris brought a new perspective, new possibilities.”
Paris was ready for a change, too. For Simone’s first restaurant (with British chef Michael Greenwold), Roseval, a buzzing 20-cover boîtein the up-and-coming 20th arrondissement,opened in 2012 to rave reviews. A year later, it scooped ‘best restaurant’ in France’s iconoclastic Le Fooding guide from under the noses of the homegrown talent. How did that go down? “It was cool,” recalls Simone. “We were young guys, everyone was super-positive.”
Two years later, to everyone’s surprise, Simone shuttered Roseval. He was ready for a new challenge. To wit, Tondo, launched last summer, 10 years after Petter Nilsson’s iconic La Gazzetta at the same address. Tondo marks a step change not only for new dad Simone, who turns 30 next January, but also for ‘bistros-gastros’ in general.
It’s a large, beautiful site, with mosaic floor, velvet banquettes, tablecloths (linen having been declared démodé at the height of bistronomy) and room to move. As Tondo’s British restaurant manager Stephanie Crockford (ex-Fera at Claridge’s) wryly notes: “In Paris, it’s hard to find a restaurant where you’re not sitting in the lap of the person next door.” The vibe is “New York-y”, says Simone, with a touch of Chiltern Firehouse.
Menus include a €25 lunch, the €60 carte blanche and the newly introduced à la carte, supported by a thrilling list of predominantly natural wines.
Simone looks to a future of “restaurants sans origines”. It’s telling that his mentors – Petter Nilsson, Giovanni Passerini, and also Argentine chef Mauro Colagreco at Mirazur in Menton –have all been outsiders actively engaged in exploring the notion of territory on foreign soil.
At Tondo, Simone cooks on an Italian foundation with French produce supplemented by Italian ingredients: cheese and anchovies (“the umami stuff”), lardo, hazelnuts, capers, truffles…“Olive oil for sure, but also butter since I discovered the right way to use it. Petter Nilsson used to serve raw fish with brown butter at La Gazzetta. I was shocked! But with some acidity – at Roseval I did tuna with redcurrant, brown butter and a little vinegar – it can be very interesting.”
At Tondo, the menu dances across continents, beginning perhaps with focaccia or with brioche run through with pecorino and guanciale. Next might be the current bestseller, vitello tonnato, rosy slices of slow-cooked veal with a tuna, caper and anchovy emulsion sprinkled with – here’s the twist – za’atar and peppery nasturtium flowers.
Or, from Albenga, Italy’s best courgettes, barbecued, alongside red mullet with pancetta tesa melting into the skin. You may find pasta, if you’re lucky tagliolini with sea urchin in fennel broth, and almost certainly there will be borrowings from Japan, Simone’s current obsession, such as white asparagus with ‘ricotta au miso’ and sabayon.
But whatever direction the menu takes, guests always, always finish with a light-as-air choux bun filled with whipped cream. And what could be more Parisian than that?
Simone Tondo in short
Sushi. I didn’t have sushi for the first time until I was 15. I love it. In Paris, I go to Sushi Okuda for unagi (eel) sushi.
Gin and tonic, made with a good gin. I like Belet.
Most memorable meal
Relæ in Copenhagen. I had lunch at Noma then went to Relæ for dinner, thinking it would be impossible to surpass the lunch at Noma. It surpassed it easily. I really enjoyed ‘beetroot steak’, a piece of beetroot cooked like a steak.
Chef or food person you most admire
Pierre Gagnaire, because he’s a nice man. Of course he’s a great cook, too. And Massimo Bottura, another nice man.
I can’t start the day without a little bit of Nutella. But my son can have good nocciolata – just nuts, no palm oil.