Roberto Guiati does the reverse-Marco Polo and finds Zenzero's USP
KL’s party-hardy will recall Bar Italia, the Jalan Nagasari establishment with a rooftop sanctuary. You knew it was authentic because there, you met Italians in denial of the Miracle of Istanbul: Liverpool’s 0-3 comeback triumph against Milan in the final of the 2005 European Championship League. (“Did you see Ancelotti’s face at half-time, 3-0 up? His team was bribed”.) Paolo Guiati wasn’t one of those partisans; he just made Bar Italia happen for everyone. Then, Nerovivo, Neroteca and Vineria, all wonderful sources of Italian food, especially Nerovivo.
Aiding and abetting Paolo was his brother, Roberto, who worked the floor, soaking in the camaraderie and energy. Then Paolo sold on, and Roberto went into oil and gas.
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An Italian, a Malaysian and an Irishman walk into a bar in Hong Kong. You'll never guess what happens next…
And that's basically the creation myth of how Zenzero popped up one fine December day four years ago. (Every culture has one.) It must have been born under a good sign because it’s since produced offspring: Luce Osteria Contemporanea and Cichetta di Zenzero, to give them their full names.
Roberto Guiati was entrusted by his silent partners, who live in London and New York, to run Zenzero – because he's good at it, as it turns out. And because he did ask them where he could take his clients for real Italian food with the sensibility and service to match. It was then that Guiati and his partners decided to roll their own.
He joins me at Zenzero’s bar, and revives me with a glass of life-enhancing Montelpuciano D’Abruzzo. It’s just the tonic after another full day of tai chi practice at the office.
“I could visualise it; I saw the place,” says Guiati. He gestures towards where patrons relax and mingle. The scene is warm and convivial, discreet or outgoing as you like it. He scans the early dinner crowd, humming at twilight, instantly clocking regulars and walk-ins. There’s a thirtysomething couple celebrating their anniversary. Guiati greets them like host does with guests at home. They appreciate it.
“I knew the concept was a winning concept. It was something KL was missing,” he says he recalls thinking.
“What the hell have I done here?” he also recalls thinking, because he still has a day job as regional sales director for an American oil and gas company.
“But I stuck with the vision. I was here every day. I don't take a day off. Twenty-five hours, no Sunday, no holiday, building your name.
“All my places started because of my personal desire, what I was missing.”
Zenzero is the Italian for ginger. The hot, aromatic rhizome (a tuber that grows sideways underground) is South East Asian in origin and was known to ancient civilisations, not least China. Zenzero restaurant’s unique selling proposition is what you might call its reverse-Marco Polo: it brings to KL from Italy the freshest possible ingredients, as used in the original recipes there.
It’s not cheap, says Guiati, but you get what you pay for in the food’s fidelity to its source, i.e. the local Italian ingredients and know-how. Zenzero’s chef is Italian, and he’s commandeered the kitchen since day one, cultivating regulars with consistent quality and the reassurance of continuity. With locality also comes the seasonal produce that makes you feel like an insider to a saucy secret source.
Then he says, quietly: “Italian is very clean, simple food. Luxury is in the simplicity.”
It’s essential to not keep doing the same thing, avers Guiati. Zenzero’s reputation may now precede it, but it’s its own place, and there can be just the one. Like the spice, however, it can have offshoots. Guiati had a pizza craving, and wanted to offer non-halal seasonal specials, such as wild boar – none of which could happen without a local who knew how to make them. He found his man in his home city of Ferrara (a Unesco heritage site, just below Venice) and brought over a wood-fired pizza oven for him, to boot.
Luce Osteria Contemporanea was born. It’s less formal than a ristorante like Zenzero; its pizza and classic dishes are all still made from original, imported ingredients; just not fancy. Cicchetti di Zenzero too, pivots on the local: cicchetti is a Venetian specialty of small plates of sharing dishes perfect for events and wine at sunset.
“What I love about the business is the unpredictability of it. You never know who is going to walk through the door, including people you would otherwise never get an appointment with, and they would be in a different mood. It’s more cosy and friendly; everything happens and starts here. Everything I’ve had since I was a kid was because I met the right people in restaurants.”
The restaurant’s reason for being. Here. All the food writers and historians of the world could not have put it better. And he excuses himself to swiftly greet a table of regular patrons with complete attention before swiftly reappearing to resume our conversation in earnest.
“It doesn't get any better than this. This is the best you get in KL; I know all the suppliers and where everyone gets their supplies. Tier one, tier two, tier three... You cannot be in this business and hope to make a killing and recover your investment in one year. But I don't blame them either [because] I get it: me and my partners have a day job.”
Guiati has made a play for the discerning diner who would rather pay for more, for always, for consistent quality.
Issues? Always. With staff, suppliers, “one of a million things”. But there is good karma. I tell him there’s a whiff of diesel in my wine and he’s off to see the contractor renovating nearby. Such is the power of popular culture that I expect him to return with the head of the man’s racing horse or something, but he hasn’t broken a sweat. “The contractor next door could be better than yours,” he says.
There is the question of commitment; not being able to undo the baby or to gostan. “The struggle is always with the first. ‘What have I done, what have I done?’ Now I have three places. Your comfort zone was nine to five, then a restaurant, then three.”
Guiati now employs 40 people. “Hire people who can tell you what to do [because with] good staff, you can see bigger picture. I can cook but for survival mode.”
He’s flattered that competitors are now using Italian suppliers, and maintains good relations with his Italian competitors and friends. “We are quite relentless. It’s not easy; we got to give blood and tears. I’m glad for competition but you got to be ready (to face us). You cannot rest.”
Guiati lives in St Mary’s Place, upstairs of where Zenzero is. “I need to be close, I need to be ready to jump in anytime. This is my kitchen.”
He places two iPhones on the counter. One shows a live feed from Luce; the other, Cicchetti. He’s ready to roll, anytime.