Chef Matteo Meacci, who has worked at some of the top Italian restaurants in Jakarta, Bali and Lombok now heads the kitchens at Hotel Aryaduta’s restaurant, Ambiente, which reopened recently following a revamp.
Ambiente is one of Jakarta's oldest Italian restaurants. What excites you about this revival? What excites you about heading the kitchens here?
I didn't have the opportunity to visit Ambiente before the renovation, but I have heard of it since I came to Jakarta in 2011. The reason why I haven't been here before is because I rarely visit Italian restaurants in my little free time – I’d rather try different cuisines and experience new tastes from Asia. Anyway I knew that Ambiente used to have a very good reputation among the expat community. I accepted the challenge to bring back this "Old Lady", too long forgotten, into the spotlight, and make it shine again. My goal is that, when Jakartans ask what's the best Italian restaurant in town, they get "Ambiente" as the answer.
When I was hired by the F&B Director, I loved the project and I felt an instant connection with him. He let me choose my team and gave me full freedom to express my ideas and creativity. That's what excited me.
You've spent several years in Indonesia working in some of the best restaurants and bars. How has your time here influenced your cooking style?
Moving to Indonesia was my first experience out of Europe. I didn't know how it was living and working in Asia, but after a fast adaptation period, I learned to love everything of it. I love Indonesia, with its amazing food and culture, and its flaws as well.
Living here opened my mind and gave me the opportunity to see and experience things i would have never had the chance to experience living in Europe. This totally changed me and made me grow as a human being and as a chef.
When I arrived here I was much more conservative about food, like most italians are, but now I'm open to experiment and accept to mix different styles, ingredients and culinary cultures, something that we don't really do in Italy, being more "purist". In Asia I learned to open my mind and be more tolerant towards it, and sometimes I have been criticised for it. I love tradition, but the cuisine evolves and it's up to us chefs to make it evolve in the right direction.
Have you seen a heightened interest in Italian cuisine here in Indonesia? How have diners' tastes changed over the time you've been in this country?
Jakarta's culinary scene changes and evolves very fast. Jakarta is all about trends and fashion and it tends to glorify every new cool restaurant or new food trend. But it also tends to forget quickly. It's a tough market.
Anyway, since I [have been here], customers now have more knowledge about western food, including Italian dishes, they are more open to accept and understand, and the young generation have now more spending power, which allows them to experiment new things.
Here in Ambiente we do simple and casual Italian food, nothing too fancy, easy to understand, tailored, but not modified in its essence, to meet the taste of Indonesians.
What are some of the key ingredients to a great meal that's distinctly Italian?
With Italian food, freshness is key. We try to get our hands on the best products around, keeping an eye on the price as well, so to be competitive in the market.
Of course we also have to import many ingredients, such as prime quality beef, italian pasta, extra virgin olive oil, cheese, canned tomato, olives and so on. Nowadays the regulations on imported items are more restrictive and it's a challenge to get everything you need. For this reason in Ambiente we cure and dry age our own meat, to produce italian quality cold cuts for our "Tagliere Toscano", the cold cuts platter, that is one of our best sellers. Even my Italian friends, who know the real taste of Italian cold cuts, love our homemade products, and this give me pride and motivation to walk this path from now on.