The ever-growing landscape of Queenstown's dining scene has a new attraction, Sasso. Meaning "stone" in Italian, Sasso Italian bistro is the creation of two local businessmen who both share a love for Italian cuisine.
Mark Rose, CEO of The Rees Queenstown and David Matthews, a British property developer, felt Queenstown was missing a modern Italian dining option so they've sunk their teeth into renovating the historic McNeill's stone cottage, in the centre of Queenstown village. Marble counters and a wooden bar have been sourced from Italy but when it came to selecting the chef they wanted to find a local as passionate about Italian food and wine as they were. Enter Chef Sal Grant. Having worked alongside prominent hospitality figures like Antonio Crisci at Poderi Crisci on Waiheke Island and his nephew Sergio Maglione at Toto, Grant is inspired by all things Italian and we caught up with him to find out how a boy who grew up in Paradise Valley, close to Rotorua, ends up with such a passion for Italian food.
Can you remember the first time you decided being a chef was for you?
When I was about 9 years old I was helping my grandma in her kitchen which was large and busy and always full of ingredients. The pantry shelves were overloaded with food and recipe books and there was a large kitchen table to work on - the perfect setting for a kid to get seriously motivated about food and cooking. So when Grandma asked me the proverbial "What are you going to be when you grow up?" I said, "I'm going to be a cook." She immediately gave me a lamb casserole recipe to make for dinner that night for the entire family. I made it straight away without any help from her. I just followed the recipe and it turned out to be pretty good - good enough to win over Grandma and the rest of the family. Their praise for my lamb casserole was all the encouragement I needed to really get into cooking.
Was she your first food hero?
Yes, my first inspiration was my Grandma - she is a magnificent cook - but since then I've worked with and sought inspiration from lots of exceptional cooks and chefs around the world. A personal favourite is Antonio Carluccio - he is the Godfather of Italian cuisine. He cooks naturally with ease and handles ingredients with a lot of love, attention to detail and pure passion - true rustic style. (Antonio Carluccio was born in Italy but set up shop in London where he went on to write 13 books and make numerous television programmes including the hugely popular Antonio Carluccio's Northern Italian Feast andSouthern Italian Feast.)
We hear the term "rustic" applied to Italian cuisine a lot - what does is mean to you?
Quality ingredients, prepared simply. For example we'll be serving fresh burrata, which is an Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream, which we simply char-grill with pumpkin, thyme and a splash of balsamic vinegar and it is so unbelievably delicious.
You've worked in some of New Zealand's best Italian restaurants - what attracts you most about Italian cuisine?
Delicious ingredients simply executed with tonnes of passion.
If you want to create an authentic Italian meal, what are the essential ingredients you'll need?
Buffalo mozzarella, ripe tomatoes, fresh basil and high quality extra virgin olive oil.
Traditional or new spin when it comes to creating a dish?
Often I'll use a traditional recipe as a starting point and then tweak it using some of my own techniques and favourite ingredients to put a fresh spin on my version. Our timpano dish on the menu at Sasso is made with local smoked goat's cheese from Gruff Junction and really takes the dish to another level. It's our modern take on a traditional dish.
How well does our local produce align with the traditional Italian recipes?
We have exceptional local produce in this country and when locally grown Wakatipu herbs and vegetables are incorporated into a traditional Italian dish they add another dimension, creating an exceptional southern hemisphere flavour.
Favourite three ingredients you'd take to a desert island?
Olive oil, garlic and a bottle of pinot grigio.
Lastly, who would you most like to sit down and dine with?
Antonio Carluccio - I imagine it would be more of a culinary journey than just a meal. Failing that, Marilyn Monroe who could sing happy birthday to me.