I recently had the opportunity to interview Luca Manfé, Friuli native and winner of MasterChef Season 4. Originally from Aviano in the province of Pordenone, Luca moved to the U.S. in his early 20s to follow the American dream. Having worked in a pub in his hometown from the age of 16, he continued in the restaurant business, working his way up from being a busboy to the position of restaurant manager. Luca currently resides in New York with his wife, Cate. Read on to learn about Luca’s favorite foods, his childhood, places he likes to visit in Friuli, his current culinary ventures, and so much more…
I’ve read that your mother was your biggest culinary inspiration. What were some of your favorite childhood foods?
I loved my mother’s meatballs! I could never stop eating them. Her tiramisu is fabulous, and all her pastas are fantastic.
My own son, David, won’t eat ham. Were there any foods you strongly disliked back then?
I never disliked anything! I really eat everything!
Some traditional dishes, such as musetto e brovada and jota, are an acquired taste to many foreigners, yet they are favorite comfort foods for some of my older friulani friends who grew up eating them. How do those foods rate for you?
I love them! I do not spend a holiday season without making muset and brovada at home. I don’t think it is just about being an acquired taste, but it is also because they are not very familiar and popular dishes here in the States.
In your words, how would you describe la cucina friulana?
La cucina friulana is a cuisine made from very poor ingredients. Back in the days everybody had fields, farms and gardens, so after selling the products, women had to use the leftovers from the production to feed the family. I think it’s a very creative cuisine, perhaps rich, but it’s not easy to make such delicious food from such simple ingredients!
Do you and/or your family speak Furlan?
Of course, everybody at home speaks Furlan!
Aside from spending time in the kitchen with your mother and grandmother, did you have any particular hobbies or interests growing up?
Soccer, soccer, soccer.
Is there a special place in Friuli–Venezia Giulia where your family would spend vacations?
We had a house up in Claut, in the mountains, so in summer I would always spend a month up there with my grandparents from my dad’s side, and then we would go another month in Lignano Sabbiadoro at the beach with my mother’s parents.
Where are your favorite places to visit in Friuli–Venezia Giulia?
Right now I really like to go where there is history: Palmanova, Cividale, Aquileia or Trieste. When I go back to Friuli now my visits are all food-related, so I do not necessarily go to the most beautiful town, but where the best restaurants are.
What are your favorite restaurants in Friuli–Venezia Giulia? What dishes do you like to order?
My favorite restaurants are always the hosterias. I always like to order classic dishes, especially frico.
What are your favorite Italian cities or towns outside of Friuli–Venezia Giulia?
I love Rome—there is really something magical in that city. I like Florence as well, and I think the Amalfi coast is one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Since you moved to New York 10 years ago, you have been exposed to numerous ethnic cuisines. What are some of your favorites?
I absolutely love Asian flavors, from sushi to authentic Chinese.
Is there any particular ethnic cuisine that you dislike?
In the season finale, Gordon Ramsey complimented your short ribs, saying that it was the kind of dish he would want for his last supper. What would your last supper include?
Raw scampi, sea urchin, truffles, foie gras.
Tell me about your current venture, Dinner with Luca.
“Dinner with Luca” is a great intimate service. I go to people’s kitchens and cook a great dinner with them and for them. It’s been a great journey so far. I get to travel the States a lot because people are booking parties from all over, even in Canada. The particularity of this service is that who books the parties are people who followed my journey on the show and cheered for me all season. I like it because these people know my story.
You’ve talked a lot about your dream of opening a restaurant in New York. Can you describe your vision?
The restaurant is my final project. I am working on it right now and trying to find a location. It will be in Brooklyn. It will be a modern tavern with food inspired, of course, by the region of Friuli.
Luca’s cookbook, My Italian Kitchen: Favorite Family Recipes, will be released in May 2014.