ⓥ Cultivated Magic – Joia Milan

Joia is a Michelin-starred, 80% vegan restaurant in Milan. This is no ordinary restaurant, however, as the owner behind it is soulful master chef Pietro Leemann; a man on a mission to change the world of food. Pietro Leemann is the creative mind behind Joia, where each dish is formulated with a concept; a story, which is playful yet meaningful and conveyed through innovative presentation and harmonious food combinations that celebrate the pure, flavoursome textures and flavours of nature.

Located a stone’s throw away from Central Milan, Joia has been slowly but surely converting many lovers of prosciutto ham in and around town, effortlessly, for over 25 years now.

As I jumped out of my taxi into a cool and peaceful Joia, I was escorted to dining area at the back of the restaurant, which overlooked the kitchen, revealing the experts behind each dish through a transparent glass screen. The room had been painted an uplifting yellow with a grand Ganesh statue centering the room. I felt as if my senses were more alert in that room, contrasting to the other main dining area, which is decorated in neutral hues of creams and browns; very simple, modern and minimalistic – having only a pop of colour from glass plates, colourful flower pots and depth from black chairs.

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I was told by my lovely host Daniele that Pietro had tailored specific vegan dishes for my experience, so I was definitely in for a surprise.

First came the amuse-bouche, which was ‘Carpaccio del benessere’, which I guess would translate as Wellness Carpaccio, its influence taken from the original carnivorous starter. The thinly sliced watermelon, which was marinated in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, tasted so subtle. It had kept a little bit of its sweetness, but with a completely changed consistency of the sugary watermelon. It tasted more like a tender slice of monkfish, and was complemented by tiny bits of chive and contrasted by the muted tones of balsamic vinegar. With hints of coarse black pepper, crispy lentil and anise waffle, the dish was multi-layered in textures. This was only the entrée and set the tone for the incredible gastronomic journey I was about to embark on.

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As I refreshed my palette with a homemade ginger and lemon juice followed by some still water, my starter was brought out to me.

‘Not only by bread men live’, was the name of my starter. This concept was taken from the original Panzanella salad, but it was completely reinvented. Perfectly-cubed carrots, red cabbage and green beans are all carefully rolled into a ball with bread and placed on top of a slice of tomato. Everything is deliberate and precise. As I bit into it, the freshness and crunch from the carrots really came through. In the middle there was a cherry, which I initially thought was a plum and which added a nice sweet undertone. This was followed by a twang from the vinegar and kick from the powerful, radishy wasabi sauce. I could taste each ingredient so clearly, but everything worked together in such perfect harmony. I was blown away by how Pietro put such incredible pure flavours together and married them up so well. Bravo.

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Soon after, my plate was cleared and my knife and fork replaced. My main was then brought out, it was entitled “Travel through Time, that has been and that will be”.

This dish was a vibrant composition of a red lake of tomato paste, carefully poured into the centre of the plate under an eggplant cooked in two ways and sitting on a bed of chanterelles, with sprinkled herbs. This was a more subtle dish than the previous one due to my being more familiar with the combination of flavours. It was amazing. The meaty eggplant – or aubergine as we say – was nice and weighty with firm seeds and contrasting with the delicate, smooth eggplant. Everything combined perfectly with the tomato soup underneath. Again, this was a beautifully bright and exciting dish.

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Finally came the dessert, “Impermanence” – All of conditioned existence, without exception, is transient, or in a constant state of flux.

The gentleman ground the middle of the cheesecake with a wooden rod, before pouring the hot raspberry sauce with blackberry fruits into the middle. The hazelnut ice cream was cold but muted by the warm compôte and just melted in my mouth… A moment of silence was due. There was a slight crunch from the cheesecake-like base and a lovely uplifting taste from the crushed, fresh mint leaf. I washed it down with a herbal tea. Sublime.

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At this point Pietro came over to see how I was enjoying myself and what I thought of the culinary experience. After I managed to find some words to describe how ineffable the experience had actually been, we went on to discuss how travel and his own spiritual journey had inspired his cuisine. Many moons ago, he was drawn to the fact that his path could only be vegetarian and violence free. “Every dish is created with a concept” he said, as he expressed his adoration for nature and his love for biodynamic food through his extravagant, vibrant creations; and in that, people are bound to feel the love – this was my experience.  We also seemed to share similar views in regards to people making the right choices with food; something which could solve many problems such as world hunger, pollution and the health of mankind generally. It is so inspiring and moving to meet people like him and his team; evolutionary farmer-chefs with so much depth and passion and making ripples that will soon become waves of transformation and evolution, if they have not already.

Pietro’s gastronomic journey was like listening to Ludovico Einaudi live in concert; pure, cultivated magic..

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I search through nature and change it so I can understand it and represent its essence. I like doing this in a teasing, playful way. My cuisine is a stroll through an imaginary landscape; metaphysical, surreal, hyper-realistic, but real. My dishes consist of small containers with different shapes, colors and flavors that contrast and complement one another: fragments of nature. Each creation has a title that represents an idea linked to the season, to a bit of news, to one of my thoughts. What exactly are these dishes? A vision of time that changes continuously, and yet, never changes. – Pietro Leemann

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