When I first met Maradona Youssef, a 35-year-old cook from Lebanon, he was playing with mud. Standing in front of the kitchen of Duca di Dolle, a vineyard in the Prosecco-producing hills of Italy, he touts several misshapen clumps of wet earth arranged on a tray. The mud packets contain fish and are the main course of the “healthy dinner” that evening after cooking. In cooperation with the specialist for functional medicine, Dr. Monica Bossi, Youssef is doing pioneering work for science-based, nutritionally-oriented haute cuisine that he hopes will soon cement his name on the Italian restaurant scene.
Youssef moved to the northeast Italian city of Trieste at the age of 21. Shortly thereafter, he appeared on the Italian MasterChef cooking program and impressed the jury with a typical Trieste dish with an Arabic touch, a theme that he continued throughout the program. It earned him the praise of the judge Bruno Barbieri and the chance to open a restaurant with him in Bologna. “It was crazy,” says Youssef, “to be called out of nowhere by the chef who had the most Michelin stars in Italy at that moment was unbelievable.”
Now Youssef is developing his own nutritional philosophy, which seems to border on alchemy. Working with Bossi, who specializes in internal medicine and functional nutrition, he delves into the chemical processes that underlie cooking to understand how food is prepared so that it works best in our bodies. As he says, it’s good to know that asparagus contains methyl mercaptan, but what is the best way to cook the vegetables to allow the body to absorb the maximum amount of nutrients? And of course it is just as important that it tastes good. In his words he wants to “transform need into joy”.
In the summer he tested his idea at Weinberg and Relais Duca di Dolle through a series of “healthy dinners”. At first I was skeptical and wondered if I had accidentally booked an evening with salads and cooked vegetables. In fact, I ate a feast that shamelessly included pasta, cheese, chocolate, and ice cream.
As Youssef explains, important biochemical processes were at work in my body while I was enjoying the rich dishes. “The meals I prepare help balance hormones, increase metabolism, and keep the intestines healthy,” he says. And he emphasizes that fortunately his healthy meals have nothing to do with counting calories. “It’s all about ensuring that food is not stored as fat in the body, but converted into energy.”
Bossi, who worked with Youssef over dinner, says, “Healthy eating has until recently been focused on restrictive diets. Now we are concentrating on ‘functional nutrition’ instead. ”In collaboration with Youssef, she selects and combines ingredients for meals that, when consumed, transmit“ messages ”to the body that help with actions such as losing weight or lowering cholesterol. At the same time, the food should please the eyes and the palate and be completely satisfied.
Bossi explains the science behind the food I eat at Duca di Dolle. In my marinated char canapé on a bed of radicchio and walnuts, the fish provides omega-3s, while the bitter vegetables are an important addition to dinner to help the liver convert food into energy instead of storing it as fat.
The starter is a soft-boiled egg in an almond crust, which is covered with a rich Mornay sauce. It seems to go against all “healthy eating” advice, but Bossi explains that we shouldn’t think of fatty foods as enemies, but rather remember their essential role in digestion and make sure we do feeling full and satisfied after a meal.
The brill that Youssef wrapped and cooked in mud is the main course flavored with ginger, which Bossi explains has anti-aging and slimming properties. “Essentially, you lose weight when you eat, that’s for the best,” she laughs. The Youssef earth plots are not just a gimmick, they are reminiscent of ancient techniques in which the earth gives the food important minerals during the cooking process.
Youssef now has several restaurant openings in the works, the first being an informal restaurant in Milan called Mezé, which serves typical Lebanese dishes. “It’s a way of cooking that isn’t very well known here, and it’s really healthy,” he says. This is because it is heavily flavored, “the main ingredients that allow our bodies to digest fats and proteins much more easily”. Cinnamon, cloves, ginger and turmeric, for example, are widely used in Lebanese cuisine.
As such, spices are Youssef’s secret weapon and he secretes them into his kitchen as often as possible. Often he ensures that they are almost imperceptible in order not to overload the dish, but instead busy behind the scenes with keeping our bodies healthy. Bossi, who also creates the menu for this and the other restaurants, describes spices as “antidotes to the potentially harmful effects of other ingredients,” which means that carbohydrates and dairy products can stay on the menu.