“I do me best” – One Italian Chef’s commitment to staying true to himself, and his love for cooking his favourite dishes in Singapore.
Stepping into Trattoria Mimo, an unassuming restaurant tucked away along Clover Way, I felt as if I was walking into the dimly-lit set of the Sopranos. I was told by the man himself that he was only free at 9am, and I only had a short time to speak with him before he had to start lunch preparations at 10am for the restaurant’s 12pm lunch opening. The man carried an air of confident ease, exuding that “Tony Soprano” flair as he walked up to me and extended his hand.
I felt intimidated for a fleeting moment, if I could admit. It’s not every day I come up close shaking hands with an Italian man who seemed straight out of a Godfather scene and whose large hand seemed to swallow my entire palm.
“I’m Mimmo, nice to meet you,” he said, in a voice faintly Italian-accented that was both rich and warm, giving flight to my self-perceived tension and awkwardness.
We sat by the corner table in the cosy restaurant, as Chef Mimmo began his story of how he has come to be one of the few Italian chefs in Singapore who has lived in Singapore for more than 20 years.
Chef Mimmo’s life began in San Marzano, Italy, in a farming village below Mount Vesuvius, famed for fresh produce and in particular, tomatoes. From a tender age, Chef Mimmo was “schooled” by his grandmother in the kitchen, and in the “art” of tending to herbs and keeping them fresh. He speaks fondly of his mother and grandmother, whose cooking inspired his love for food and subsequently the making of food.
“Italian food is simple, it’s family food,” Chef Mimmo speaks plainly as he reminisces about his childhood where Sundays were set aside as family days for a day of family bonding over mother and grandmother’s food.
“To be a chef is not just about being a good cook,” he says, “It’s about being patient, and always having a willingness to learn.”
Despite already heading restaurants catered to big events by the time he was 18, Chef Mimmo felt he could learn even more travelling around and enlisted in the army, where he had a short stint in Somalia. Throughout his extensive travels, he was always learning to appreciate different cultures and different styles of cooking. Eventually, he found himself in Asia, and settled in Singapore where he felt he could really appreciate the different cultures here.
“A good chef is one who is comfortable doing what he truly loves to do,” he says candidly, “I do me best.”
Chef Mimmo’s philosophy on succeeding in a multicultural Asian Society like Singapore is to learn how to appreciate the different cultural influences on food and yet stay true to the skills and influences that have arisen out of his own heritage. The self-proclaimed meat lover says his best dishes always have to do with meat because that is precisely what he loves eating most.
Ang Mohs do not always seem to have it easier making a living in Asia, contrary to popular belief as Chef Mimmo seems to suggest. He cites some of his lowest points as a chef as the initial phases of starting his restaurant, where there were people who neither understood nor appreciated his hard work. His disposition changes quickly when asked about his proudest moments.
“Time will tell when you don’t give up and you keep putting in the hard work,” he says gently, “Today I have my business doing well and my family here with me, and this keeps me going.”
Chef Mimmo’s love for his family and the theme for family in general is not hard to see, from how he keeps his restaurant small and cosy; and the way he summarises his style of cooking, “Nothing fancy, just old simple family food, with the freshest ingredients.”
Trattoria Mimmo sees a huge bulk of regulars who dine and mostly enjoy personal friendships with Chef Mimmo. And as it is for most chefs, the greatest affirmations to be received are the ones from die-hard fans.
Before i know it, time is up when Chef Mimmo’s assistant casually pokes his head out of the kitchen, and Chef Mimmo heeds it.
“I have one last sincere advice for aspiring chefs,” he blurts out as we rise from the table in farewell. “Personal hygiene is always the most important. Please store your food properly and safely.”
A parting remark that seemed a little out of the blue, yet an ever-essential admonishment for chefs and diners alike. The kitchen might be a place easily hidden from view where small lapses can go unseen, yet it remains the same private place that good little habits gradually build into greatness. I could not help but think about “the private kitchens” in my life, which admittedly are due for an overhaul.
“Hard work, passion, and integrity,” seem to be the philosophies Chef Mimmo embodies and cooks by. May I, and everyone alike, share in these too.
Photography by : Chua Junting | Crispcontrasts Studios