Chef Federico Zanellato: The Italian chef defying the culinary rule book

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(CNN) — Chef Federico Zanellato was born in Italy and lives in Australia, but part of his heart will always be in Japan.
It was here that the Palo native first tried sake, while working at the Michelin-starred kaiseki restaurant Nihonryori RyuGin.

Helmed by Chef Seiji Yamamoto, the famed Tokyo eatery keeps a small but impeccably curated selection of rare bottles of the famed Japanese rice wine on hand for discerning diners.

While there, Zanellato also honed the art of shopping for fresh fish, a talent he now maintains during his daily morning visits to Sydney’s fish market.

Following a stint at Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant, Zanellato came to Australia to open LuMi Bar & Dining in Sydney’s hip Pyrpont neighborhood, near Darling Harbour.

“The way I like to describe my food is that we cook with an Italian heart and with a Japanese mind,” the chef tells CNN Travel.

Chef Federico Zanellato's Japan experiences come in handy during his daily trips to the Sydney Fish Market.

Chef Federico Zanellato’s Japan experiences come in handy during his daily trips to the Sydney Fish Market.

Brendon Thorne/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images

Sake’s growing appeal

Just take a look at LuMi’s menu to see how Italian and Japanese flavors meld together: Zanellato serves a chawanmushi (savory egg custard dish) with parmesan cheese and sudachi (a round, tart green citrus fruit) with mellow white chocolate.

The tasting menu changes with the seasons, but one of Zanellato’s favorite things to make is a sake beurre blanc, which he pours over a snapper with white pea puree, roasted leek and candied calamansi (a citrus fruit common to the Philippines).

He pairs it with Narutotai Ginjo Nama Genshu sake, which is often known by its fish-friendly nickname, “Red Snapper.”

“I think in the early days sake was just a drink to support Japanese food, but now sake makers have become a lot more sophisticated,” Zanellato says.

“Their knowledge has improved a lot and they have made sake an incredible drink with a lot of different varieties, from crisp to sweet to buttery to very rich. You can have sake through the whole meal.”

“People have a really open mind”

The chef says he appreciates the openness of the local culinary scene — a luxury not afforded to him in his homeland.

“I think the cuisine in Sydney is quite modern and forward-thinking because chefs have the freedom to use whatever is available, whatever is on the market,”
says Zanellato.

“People are more than welcome here to use tomato and match it with the shiso leaves, for example. No one will say anything. You can match seafood and dairy. Whereas in the old continent in, for example, in Italy, which is very conservative, there are all those rules that to me have no meaning.”

Those restrictions, he says, limit the creativity of a chef.

“Instead, here in Sydney you have an open book, you can really do whatever you want and people have a really open mind when it comes down to food,” explains Zanellato.

“As long as you don’t make too much confusion on a dish, people are happy to try new food combinations — and new drink pairings as well.”

To learn more about Zanellato and his cooking check out the above video.