Conversation with Chef Melo (Carmine Torpedine)
Salento-born, plant-based chef Carmine Torpedine knew early on that traditional school wasn’t going to be the best way for him to learn. He preferred to study the life on the street, face to face, rather than reading books. That curiosity, coupled with a lightness of being, took him all over the world: Australia, Thailand, Madrid, Tenerife, Korea, the United States, Mexico and Japan to name a few. He learned from chefs, naturopaths and intellectuals, cooking in kitchens all along the way. Today, you can try his cuisine at Masseria Antonio Augusto, a centuries-old private villa that returns him to his roots, among the golden, olive tree-laced fields of Puglia.
The villa offers Chef Melo’s plant-based cuisine as its standard service, and though it is possible to arrange for other types of cuisine (for example, a BBQ chef), owner Raffaele Vetrugno says that after guests try Chef Melo’s food, ‘they seem to be convinced that the old is not the only way to eat.’ “
We had to know more about what’s cooking in this unorthodox kitchen, so we met Chef Melo for a chat on Zoom.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR JOURNEY TO BECOMING A PLANT-BASED CHEF.
Carmine Torpedine: "I started in the kitchen when I was 15 or 16, as a pizza chef working for Cosimo Durante at L'Aragosta da Co' di in Porto Cesareo, where the tables are right on the water. My second summer, I prepared fish, like turning a tuna into tartare, carpaccio, pasta, and grilled. My dream was to travel to Australia and learn English.
"The summer before I was supposed to go to Australia, I ate an anchovy with vinegar and parsley, which I used to love, and got anaphylactic shock. The doctor told me I shouldn’t eat fish for two years, and then I started to look at meat differently. I was vegetarian within a month. And it was something I remembered I’d wanted to do when I was 13 but I knew my parents wouldn’t understand. I had two family members who were vegetarian and plant-based and to my eyes, they were a bit different. I always wanted to do things that were exclusive.
"So, in Cairns and Melbourne, over three years, I took back my real passion: food. I worked in a couple of Italian restaurants and became passionate about Napolitan pizza: the dough, fermentation, tomato, the mozzarella, the oven, it’s all different. And then I started to explore plant-based food, traveling around Thailand and Indonesia. I took a class with Thai plant-based chef May Kaidee, and did another in the forest, discovering peanut sauces, tropical fruits and coconut milk, and I said ‘Wow, this kind of food makes me crazy, my passion is now fruit!
"I went back to Bologna in 2015 for an organic plant-based festival, and saw so many things that were possible: cashew nut raw cheeses, fermentation, extra virgin olive oil ice cream. And everything was lighter to my body, so I went vegan. And then I started doing sports, and even breathing better. From there, I started making raw desserts for an herb shop in Lecce - which is now my specialty."
DID YOU STAY IN ITALY?
MT: "No [laughs]. I was there mostly because my sister had a baby and I came to help. But I left again after four months, for Ethiopia, where I learned to ferment and make bread with the teff grain, and then I went to Madrid. The first job I got there was at an herb shop, where the owner was Albert Ronald Morales, a biochemist and the cretor of Frutoterapia. Then I worked as the head chef for an organic, vegan restaurant called La Encomienda and experimented more with replacing white sugar and flour with high-quality coconut sugar and almond meal.
"Why raw? When you bake, the smell is all over the house. When you make raw pastries, the smell and the taste is inside [the food]. And the ingredients are low-glycemic and pure, chemical-free and light. It follows the Mucusless Diet, which favors fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
"And from there, I went to Korea, where I met a lady who was a former owner of a pork restaurant. She had lupus, and met a naturopath who told her if she went vegan, her symptoms would improve significantly. She changed her diet, and the purple spots she once had on her face vanished. Then she opened a plant-based restaurant. Later, in Tenerife, I discovered the Max Gerson diet, which makes your pH as alkaline as possible, mostly through drinking slow-pressed organic juice - it has influenced me a lot.
"In Korea, I also ate temple food with the monks. They use a lot of roots and herbs, and make an amazing tofu soup. Once, they served me a white soup with three toasted sesame seeds, but with high-quality ingredients and a simple process, you don’t need anything more."
SO, HOW DID YOU END UP BACK IN PUGLIA?
"Well, even though I saw and ate the best things in the world, I started to miss Italia and the simplicity of its ingredients. And then my family wanted my help to build a B&B. So I came back in 2017, and when here, I met Raffaele [Vetrugno] who offered me a job at Masseria Antonio Augusto. We opened in 2019.
WHAT HAS THAT BEEN LIKE?
MT: "The first year, I planted a lot of veggies. They all come from ancient seeds from my friend who lives at the bottom of Salento. They are stronger and tastier, and we are also in an area of high biodiversity. We have 18 types of celery, more than 15 kinds of tomatoes, and I think more than 150 kinds of figs here. We are farmers on this land. Monoculture is not good, so we plant everything: grapes, apricots, persimmons, everything – and they help each other, just like people. If one is sick, there is another plant helping. And I also brought in new things like avocado trees and plantains.
"I focus on fruit, because it has the most vitamins, minerals and it is full of sunlight. It’s colorful, smells good and digests well. I make lasagna, orrecciette and pizza out of plantains. It’s a pleasure for the people who like to experience something new."
WHAT ELSE ON THE MENU?
MT: "I like to cook jackfruit, which is my favorite fruit since I discovered it in Thailand. It’s very chewy. We make a burrito with a jackfruit (it’s called a piadina in Italian, the region it is made is Emilia-Romagna). But I make the “tortilla” with plantain and extra virgin olive oil without seeds and add avocado, sweet tomato and stir-fried jackfruit with a little bit of chili. The dish is so simple and colorful.
"I like to start the day giving people gluten-free croissants, or frozen banana ice cream with raw granola and fresh cherries and figs, then in the afternoon fresh carrot cake or Hokkaido pumpkin cake with almond cream that has vanilla and rosewater in it. That’s a favorite recipe."
DO YOU THINK YOU’VE EVER CHANGED A GUEST’S MIND ON PLANT-BASED FOOD?
MT: "We had a big example of that. During the first month of opening the masseria, Raffaele didn’t put that we were plant-based. So on the first day, we had a man from Belgium who wanted scrambled eggs. I said, ‘tomorrow we will call another chef, but today, you try mine.’ So I cooked a scrambled chickpea cream with extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper and hot almond milk. Then I gave him black bread with avocado. And he went crazy for it! He asked for it every day, and then he asked Raffaele to do a workshop. I changed the taste of a man in his 70s, I was shocked!"
To try the plant-based cuisine at Masseria Antonio Augusto, book a stay at the villa here.