In the restaurant world, using local and sustainable ingredients is a competitive advantage for both the restaurant as well as the nation’s culinary base. Local for Executive Chef Daniel Debattista at the newly restored and refurbished The Phoenicia Malta means “freshness” and this is what he is teaching his talented young brigade of chefs.
Executive Chef Debattista is an arbiter of change and has transformed the Grande Dames’ culinary exploits with a striking philosophy, “The finest ingredients, prepared simply and bursting with natural flavours.” What this means for the award-winning kitchen brigade and the army of diners making their way to sample the new Phoenicia is painstaking attention to local farms, local ingredients and fresh, sustainable food. All the way down to sending Sous Chefs to Gozo to meet with their exclusive salt suppliers to witness both the method as well as the care taken to produce what Daniel calls the best ‘fleur de sel’, a salt that forms as a thin, delicate crust on the surface of seawater as it evaporates and which Executive Chef Daniel specifies for use as the primary seasoning of fish and shellfish, as well as when his team are curing.
Daniel says that when he first moved back to Malta after a long stint at the fabled and famed Gleneagles where he worked closely with two-Michelin star Master Chef Andrew Fairlie, the “idea of using local products was almost foreign” and that most restaurants “had no connection to local farms and food.” Debattista has since his childhood developed relationships with fishermen, farmers and breeders’ markets that highlight the flavours of food that is grown, reared and caught around the Maltese Islands.
“We purchase local food whether world-class fresh fish, tasty fruit and vegetables, locally-reared pork and beef along with a myriad of specialities that exist only in Malta. The Southern Spanish say that there is nothing to compare with black Iberico pork, Malta is right up there in terms of producing a very superior pork and we’ve managed to track-down a handful of dedicated farmers who have the most beautiful pigs! Whatever we source, there’s only one consideration, to explore the unusual and intense flavours that can be found here to fly the flag for Maltese ingredients. Sometimes vegetables are so fresh and full of flavour from our hand-selected farmers in Bahrija that our cooking is sheer simplicity. Sitting in a wind-swept ridge and facing harsh conditions of salty winds, dry long summers and very little water and soil, somehow the produce has real depth of flavour. It’s the micro-climate.”
Of course, sourcing at this level of detail is very time-consuming and Daniel is quick to point out that there are no shortcuts to capturing an authentic taste of the islands. He also feels very strongly that his classical training as a chef means that there is a lot of “mix and match” between French and Mediterranean techniques. In addition, he is teaching his 17-strong brigade to innovate. One new dish sees the ‘fishwings’ of Stone Bass, the part behind the gills, turned into a delectable dish.
Daniel says that the root of many local foods can be traced to the link between chefs, farmers, fishermen and breeders; and The Phoenicia’s food expenditures provide a viable market for local farm products. It is a tangible insight into the increased emphasis now being put on the provenance of produce, his olive oil sourced from Saqqajja Hill near Rabat, salt from Gozo or vegetables from Bahrija; Daniel insists that all beef and pork is hung in the kitchen for a minimum 12 days and that all fish is line-caught.
The Phoenix Restaurant has reopened fully refurbished and upgraded to encompass its magnificent dining room and stunning terrace enjoying delightful garden views all the way to Marsamxett Harbour. Replete with mouth-watering dishes, the entire eatery is now reinvented. Café Phoenicia, chic, cosmopolitan and casual is Valletta’s all-day spot, opening its doors in October for the Winter season and there too local food with be treated with profound respect; fantastic products, simply-served under the attentive gaze of Executive Chef Debattista.
The Phoenicia has returned to its best. An icon updated in a deft recreation of jazz-age glamour, summoning quiet luxury with an added measure of fun. Much of which is provided in the inventive dining masterminded by this very talented Maltese chef, a pioneer in the local sustainability movement.