An ICE Alum’s Journey to Osteria Francescana, One of the World’s Best Restaurants
From ICE LA to Modena, Italy
ICE alum Matteo Lanza-Billetta (Culinary Arts, ’22) landed his dream externship at Osteria Francescana, ranked number one by World's 50 Best in 2016 and 2018, where he even made a standout dish for chef Massimo Bottura.
Matteo worked as a host at a local restaurant in high school but never thought about working in kitchens as a career. “I never even looked at the kitchen to be honest,” he says.
So after never considering life as a chef, majoring in finance at University of California Riverside and working in the insurance field, how did Matteo wind up at at three-Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, one of the world’s best restaurants just three years into his newfound culinary career?
Matteo didn’t realize how much he liked cooking until after he graduated from college. He’d watch videos on Instagram of floating hands making random dishes and think, “I can totally do that.” So while he was working in data analytics for an insurance company, he got a weekend job at a local restaurant in San Diego.
He bounced from station to station, moving up from garde manger to hot appetizers to proteins, where he’d stay for two years. Eventually he transitioned away from his insurance job, and decided to take the dive and work full-time in restaurants.
Matteo and his girlfriend packed their bags and moved in together in Los Angeles, where Matteo would simultaneously pursue a diploma in Culinary Arts at ICE LA and work at Crustacean, an Asian-fusion restaurant in Beverly Hills. At 27 years old, three years after starting his weekend restaurant gig, Matteo was in school pursuing his culinary calling.
“I really enjoy it,” Matteo says. “It's something that I can go and do every day and not get bored with; I like that about this type of work. It's something new every day, and you always have an opportunity to learn.”
Matteo took the shot on his own and applied to Osteria Francescana but never heard back, so he figured he’d extern at Crustacean where he already had a good relationship with his employer. But his girlfriend gave him an extra push, so Matteo turned to ICE’s career services team for a little help getting his foot in the door. Suddenly, he was in.
“I knew I could do it. I just had to get the opportunity, and that's why I'm so thankful to ICE,” Matteo says. “They gave me the platform to do this. ICE really gave me the support and the push to make it there.”
Matteo grew up in an Italian household. His mother is from Piemonte in northern Italy, and his father is from Sicily in the south. Surrounded by the language and food his whole life, Matteo was set to spend nearly five months in Italy immersing himself in the country’s fine dining culture.
Though he’s fluent in Italian, he had to learn specific Italian-language restaurant slang for common kitchen terms like ‘fire,’ ‘sheet tray’ and ‘lobster claw.’ He said the camaraderie among chefs made for a fun atmosphere, but the work itself was intense.
“It was very fast paced. Everybody really prioritizes speed, and quality, obviously,” Matteo says. “Working with some of the chef de parties, you really have to be on. You can't zone out for even a second.”
Matteo prepped chicken skins into rectangles for an hour-and-a-half, which would later be crisped for service and top a final dish. After that he would make all the sauces ahead of service, toast rice for another dish and then whatever the chef de partie or sous chef asked him to do.
But working at Osteria Francescana under renowned chef Massimo Bottura was still an opportunity of a lifetime.
“Overall, it was probably one of the best experiences of my life. I had so much fun,” Matteo says. “Even though you're a stage, they really take you in and treat you with respect.”
Eventually Matteo earned the trust of the kitchen to be the only stage to work solo with a chef; at one point he was even training other stages, a proud accomplishment for him.
Of course, there were some speed bumps. After making a mistake, Chef Massimo, one of the best chefs in the world, raised his voice in displeasure at Matteo. But he didn’t let that bring him down.
Toward the end of his externship, Matteo was working at Casa Maria Luigia, Chef Massimo’s hotel and dining experience in Emilia-Romagna. Chef Jessica Rosval, who’s leading the kitchen at Casa Maria Luigia, requires all of her stages there to make a dish for Chef Massimo, who wanted to be served something that represented Matteo as a person.
“My parents being Italian, they’re from totally different sides of the country,” he says. “The food is different, the people are different, there's a very big stigma about North versus South — they hate each other. So, I wanted to find a way to combine the two.”
He immediately thought of bagna cauda, an anchovy and garlic stew Matteo’s mom used to make and serve with raw vegetables. Then agnolotti, a stuffed pasta common in Piemonte, came to mind.
For the south, he immediately thought of tomatoes, and used a technique he learned from Osteria Francescana to prepare them.
“They blend tomatoes, and then they put them on a perforated sheet tray with layers of paper, and then they just compress it. All the water comes down and you can use that as a broth. So I made that broth, and then I infused it with shallots, basil, oregano, all these different things,” he says.
His north-meets-south dish of stuffed pasta in broth was akin to tortellini en brodo, a staple dish of Modena, where Osteria Francescana is located. To garnish the dish, Matteo topped it with burnt, smokey almonds, nuts that are found all over Sicily. The plate captured the entire country.
The combination of ingredients worked. Chef Massimo liked the dish.
“It was my very last day … and [Chef Massimo] was there and he started saying, 'This guy made me such a good plate today, it was so conceptual,' and like the whole kitchen heard and started clapping. I couldn't believe that,” Matteo says. “Honestly, it was one of the best moments. I kept whispering to myself, 'I can't believe that just happened. I cannot believe he just said that.' And in front of everybody too, so it was a good way to end my stage there.”
Matteo left the Osteria Francesco kitchen in good graces and is now back in Los Angeles relaxing and figuring out his next career move. His ultimate goal is to have creative control of his own Michelin-starred restaurant with a menu influenced by Italian and Asian cuisines.
“ICE gave me the preparation that I needed,” he says. “To be organized, to know kitchen etiquette and be mindful of who you’re working with.”
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