Italian with a Twist

Italian with a Twist

As he prepares to lead the Club’s newest dining spot, chef Francesco “Paco” la Monica shares his philosophy for blending tradition with modern flair.

Preparations are in full swing for a spring of inspired Italian flavors as the Club unveils its newest restaurant, 51 East.

Opening in April in the space formerly home to CHOP Steakhouse, 51 East will serve modern Italian-American cuisine.

Heading the kitchen is Francesco “Paco” la Monica, a native of Savona, in northwest Italy, where his family has been running a restaurant for 70 years.

“I was basically born in a kitchen,” he says.

The 32-year-old chef has built up a wealth of experience at renowned restaurants globally, including the critically acclaimed Noma in Denmark and Gaggan in Bangkok. He talks to INTOUCH about his kitchen passion and what he’s cooking up for the third floor’s new culinary destination.

What first drew me to Japan was the snow because I am a snowboarder. I came here for the winter season in Nagano. Once the season was over, I started to travel around the country and saw that the people were very interested in and open-minded about food. I also felt that they were very kind, and the place was safe. That’s why I fell in love with the country and decided it would be a good place to settle down.

Working at Koks, the most remote two-Michelin-star restaurant in the world, was incredible. Due to the latitude, it’s almost completely dark in winter and completely bright in summer. The restaurant is only open during summer, and we foraged for ingredients. There were very few vegetables that we could use, so it was mainly wild herbs.

The focus really was on the fish. The seafood in the Faroe Islands is amazing. The fishermen would bring live langoustine, crabs and lobsters to the harbor, and we’d go every morning to pick up the fresh catch. I got to work with such beautiful produce. I learned a lot about fish, fermentation and aging. With that climate, it’s hard to always work with fresh vegetables, so aging, salting and drying are very common techniques there.

But the experience that most shaped my approach to cooking was my time at Satoyama Jujo in Niigata. It’s a ryokan with one Michelin star that makes a kind of kaiseki cuisine using only local produce. That’s where I met Keiko Kuwakino. She became one of my mentors. She’s a self-made chef, which is something I highly respect. She taught me things that I could never have learned in cooking school or in kitchens with chefs who just trained in other famous restaurants.

I learned how to treat the produce in a certain way, especially vegetables. I also learned how to respect the people and be friendly with everybody. It was a team made up almost entirely of women, so everyone was very kind. They created a good atmosphere while also working very hard. Before, I had some experiences in Michelin-star and high-end restaurants that were a little bit tough, but it’s thanks to this place that I realized how beautiful it could be working in the kitchen if you love the team and love the people.

My biggest philosophy when it comes to cooking is respecting the ingredients. So my priority is to bring fantastic produce to 51 East. I want to source good meat and cook it in a way that respects its properties, so not using too many sauces, for example. I also want to respect my Italian roots and the tradition of Italian-American cuisine. Aside from that, I always try to be very receptive to guests’ feedback. I’m always happy to hear what they’d like to have.

For 51 East, we want to take some Italian classics and reimagine them in a way that’s a little more modern and familiar to Members. We’re taking inspiration from Italian-American food culture and will be respecting tradition while striving towards innovation. Our dishes will be traditional without being boring, and they’ll be innovative without being too fancy. We want to create a food language that’s easy to understand. I want to bring all this together and represent it in our concept of modern Italian-American dining, making delicious dishes with the help of all the team.

Members should visit 51 East to taste something new. Bring a sense of curiosity. I want to surprise them. Then, of course, I hope they come again because they have a great experience and because our food is delicious.

Words: Phoebe Amoroso
Top Image of Chef Francesco “Paco” la Monica: Yuuki Ide

March 2024