Sunday June 16th, 2024
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From Milan to Cairo: In Conversation With Riviera’s Maffioli Ferrari

Now in Egypt at Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at Nile Plaza, this young chef promises to introduce a new level of Italian excellence.

Ziyad El-Helbawy

Allow me to begin this literary venture with a singular grain of truth - I lead a pretty mundane life. Quite monotonous, even. My days all start similarly, and I’ve pretty much gotten my workflow down to a T. In fact, I love having a routine, it is a grounding thing knowing what awaits you, and yet some days one cannot help but feel as though a break is quite needed; an escape from the predetermined. 

And so you could only imagine my joy when I popped up in the office on a regular Tuesday and was told, “Oh, you’re going to Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at Nile Plaza today, you’re gonna have some incredible Italian coastal cuisine at Riviera, and you’re going to interview their new Chef de Cuisine, Stefano Maffioli Ferrari.” Daydream reveries of Eggplant Parmesan and nonna-approved beef bolognese aside, my mind was focused on the real star of the show - the chef. Who exactly was Stefano Maffioli Ferrari? Putting my signature grade-9 stalking skills to the test, I got to work. 

Born and raised in Milan, it seemed Chef Maffioli Ferrari’s destiny was written in the Italian stars from a very young age. On a life-long journey through some of Europe's finest kitchens, including an apprenticeship with Michelin Star maestro Chef Vito Mollica, it seemed Maffioli Ferrari’s culinary spirit knew no bounds. 

Cultivating his skills across Four Seasons hotels in Italy, for Maffioli Ferrari, each new post offered chances to master regional specialties while embracing international flavours. More recently, Maffioli Ferrari's talents took him to Dubai's acclaimed Chic Nonna. There, he revolutionised their Italian menus with clever modern twists. Ever the adventurer, Stefano also draws inspiration from his global travels, experimenting with tastes and textures from afar. 

Now in Egypt at Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at Nile Plaza, this wanderlusting young chef promises to introduce a new level of Italian excellence to Riviera's distinguished dining room. Wherever Maffioli Ferrari's passions may lead, one thing is clear - this is only the beginning of his story, and this is still certainly the beginning of my day at Riviera…

Arriving at Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at Nile Plaza and taking a quick elevator ride three floors up, I’m seated at a - humbly said - exclusive area with genuinely beautiful views of the Nile. And given that it was a somewhat cloudy day, a certain refined autumnal ambiance just added to the whole experience.

Taking in the surroundings, my eyes were met with subtle bleu ciel hues all around, a soothing sensory experience preluding what was to be a soothing culinary experience. Gilded art frames depicting scenes from the Italian coast adorned each corner, and a sky-painted enclave ahead evoked a comforting feeling reminiscent of days spent lazily amidst nature. Riviera has an air of serenity about it, one that seemingly invites a state of utter bliss.

It was only moments after admiring my surroundings that the culinary maestro himself, Maffioli, Ferrari gracefully exited the kitchen and came to greet me. Pleasantries were exchanged and words most enticing were said: “I prepared a few things for you, better to talk on a full stomach, yes?”

And with that, an exquisite upscale Italian feast commenced…

“Risotto saffron chips with parmigiano cream, licorice and tomato powder,” Maffioli Ferrari announces. In front of me, a plate of intricately placed saffron chips dotted with tiny dollops of parmesan and sprinkled with tomato powder and dill is placed. Upon the first bite, my tongue was greeted with a perfect balance of crisp and cream. Smooth, airy, and quite literally melt-in-your-mouth, the saffron chips were quite the auspicious start to the meal.

An Eggplant Parmigiana followed. “Quite classic,” Maffioli Ferrari noted. Perfectly seasoned and cooked to absolute soft perfection, the dish - with the soft eggplant balanced by crispy bits of cheese on top - immediately disappeared from my plate. What followed was perhaps a novel taste to my buds; spaghetti with butter lemon sauce topped with scallops tartare. I’ll admit now that I tend to be sceptical of most seafood, but one swirly serving in, I could feel a lot of my predispositions simply melting away in my mouth. Akin to a warm embrace, the butter lemon sauce accompanied by fresh flavorful tartare was as filling as it was light. It was perhaps at this moment that a realisation dawned: none of these dishes were on the Riviera menu. Mental note taken.

Further shaking my pre-existing notions on seafood, Maffioli Ferrari walked out with a gorgeously presented plate of Sea Bass, cleverly topped with rings of radish placed atop to resemble the scales of a fish. And while indeed the Sea Bass itself was flawless, it was the dishes’ accompaniers that stole the show for me; the sautéed carrots were non-hyperbolically the best carrots I’ve ever tasted, and add to that the bed of green pea purée and brown butter sauce, I was pretty much in heaven.

Stomach full and soul rejuvenated, it was time to sit down with Stefano Maffioli Ferrari - a coffee for him and a milk tea for me - and get to know the man behind the meal.

First of all before we go into the culinary aspect of things, I’d love to get to know more about you as a person…

Well a day in my life pretty much looks like this: I wake up and come to work five days out of seven. [Laughs] But jokes aside, I’d say I’m a pretty normal guy. 

I just arrived in Cairo around a month ago so I’m still figuring my way out around the city. In terms of my interests, I like sports, I love football and I’m the biggest Inter Milan fan - you better write that and mark it in bold. 

You’ve only been here in Cairo for a month, how’s it been so far? Any interesting experiences?

Everyone is so warm. I’m loving it. I just came over from Dubai and the reason I left was because it all felt a bit too…cold, you know? In terms of the city, the people…Here in Cairo you just feel alive. Everyone is just so interactive. There have been some challenges because of the language barrier obviously, but apart from that it’s been lovely.

You’d be surprised at how fast you’ll pick up Arabic, you’ll catch on pretty quick… So you’ve only been at Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at Nile Plaza for a month, but your journey at Four Seasons goes back way longer than that, right?

I started my career with Four Seasons Hotel Florence around July 2015, and I stayed there for around three years. After my stint at Four Seasons Hotel Florence I went to Four Seasons Hotel Megève for the Winter seasons. Then my time at Four Seasons took a pause. Soon enough I found myself in London at the Sofitel. I stayed there for around a year and then came across an opportunity in Switzerland at the Alpina Gstaad.  

I’m a bit of a traveller, a nomad, I like to move around and get my fair share of experiences from all over the world. I sit with myself and think, "This place has given me what I needed, now what’s the next adventure?” I always yearn for more knowledge, more connections, and new challenges as well. 

After Switzerland I moved to Dubai, I was called up by Chef Vito Mollica, whom I trained under and worked with at Four Seasons Hotel Florence. He’d left Four Seasons and opened two restaurants, one in Florence and one in Dubai. He asked me if I wanted to help him inaugurate the Dubai restaurant, I said yes. I took charge of Chic Nonna for a year, then I felt Dubai had offered all it had to offer, and it was time I looked for a new challenge.  It was also Vito who’d put me in contact with Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at Nile Plaza. They’d been looking for someone to take over Riviera, and he’d recommended me. I took the challenge and jotted down Cairo as my next destination.

You’ve had quite the journey throughout Europe and the Middle East, and I want to ask, throughout that journey, what are the things you discovered about yourself - whether personally or specifically in regards to food?

You learn a lot of things, and not just regarding cooking, but you learn life skills that translate into managerial skills too. Aside from just cooking, I wanted to immerse myself in a managerial role, grow in that sort of direction, and Four Seasons is an incredible school in that regard. In Florence I learnt the basics and the technicals. In London I learnt new concepts and ‘games’. In Italy it’s all pretty classic, London was my first truly multicultural experience, something I needed.

In London, you had Italian, French, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and even Greek cuisines. Trying out all these new ingredients and speaking to so many new people in the industry truly opened my mind to the world. Switzerland was quite the drastic change from London; we had to work with the ingredients of the mountain, it was somewhat secluded and we needed to learn how to work our way around the local supply chain. I went from a metropolis to a village in the middle of the mountains, but it was the sort of challenge I live for.

Dubai was the first chance I got to properly experience a managerial position.Dubai’s Chic Nonna was my first standalone restaurant experience. You never know what the future may hold, and that’s why I was so adamant on getting all kinds of experience from all sorts of kitchens. 

So growing up surrounded by nothing but Italian cuisine, you definitely had a certain ideology built up, how did that change through your global exposure? How has your taste changed?

Taste is quite the personal thing. Maybe one day I'll end up working at a Lebanese restaurant or a Japanese one. While I don’t need to be specialised I at least need to have a basis of knowledge to back me up, and I feel I have acquired that. What I would love to bring to the table here at Riviera Restaurant is new techniques, new ingredients, I seek to innovate.

Would you say you’re open to taking inspiration from Egyptian cuisine and adding that twist to Italian classics?

Well to be quite fair, [Laughs] I still have not had enough experience with Egyptian cuisine so far. But I am quite intrigued about Molokhia.

Was being a chef something you’d always wanted to pursue as a young boy?

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I wanted to be a chef, but I always loved food. I’d watch a lot of TV shows and documentaries about food and cooking and I was obsessed with them. In Italy, when you’re 13, that’s when you decide the professional path you’re going down and that’s when I decided to pursue a culinary career. I wasn’t supported by my peers or elders at the time, people would say "Oh a brain like yours would be wasted in the kitchen,” and things of the sort. Now being a chef is quite a popular job - too popular even, that wasn’t the case years ago. 

When you first started at Four Seasons Hotel Florence - did you think that years down the line you would still be at Four Seasons, albeit in a different country?

I’ve always loved Four Seasons. Even though I could not envision my future given my desire to constantly try new things, I always knew that door would never be closed. I’ve been here for a month now at Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at Nile Plaza and this hotel is a monster; it’s huge. It’s hard to even remember the names of everyone. [Laughs] My main priority right now remains my desire to make my mark on Riviera. I’m working on a new menu, and I can’t wait for everyone to try it. 

What kind of impact do you hope to have on Riviera?

I want to put Riviera on the Cairene map. I want people to think of ‘Riviera’ the second they crave Italian food. 

What sort of criteria do you set for yourself when you’re drafting a menu? I noticed some of the dishes presented tonight were not on the existing menu…

Oh yes, in fact none of them were! I took this month to sort of slowly witness our guests, what they like, what they don’t. You need to adapt to your clients’ tastes. You don’t get anywhere by forcing your ideas on anyone. Your ideas, and your clients’, need to be in harmony. That’s my only criteria. 

Now, what does a day in the life of a chef at Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at Nile Plaza look like?

Well, the first thing I do at work is check my email, [Laughs] then I check in on the team, it’s important for me to gain their trust and I want them to feel comfortable with me. Every day is an experience of a new kind here at Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at Nile Plaza. 

You never know what sort of adventure awaits. It’s never a routine, it’s always a new experience. Every day is a discovery.

And with that, my conversation with Maffioli Ferrari came to an end. However, just between you and me, dear readers, we did spend quite a bit of time dissecting the Egyptian Molokhia.

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