Chef of the Week: Chef Kevin Bonello, the de Mondion, Malta
This week’s chef of the week comes from the beautiful island nation of Malta. Kevin Bonello is Head Chef of the de Mondion, one of three restaurants in Malta to have been awarded the coveted Michelin star.
Set atop the medieval beauty of Mdina, within the Xara Palace Relais & Chateaux, the de Mondion has been one of the best restaurants in Malta for years.
The restaurant offers stunning views of Malta and amazing local cuisine. Chef Kevin Bonello is a true believer in sustainable gastronomy and sourcing local ingredients.
We sat down with Kevin to talk about his career, his work at the de Mondion, Maltese cuisine, his signature dish, and advice for aspiring chefs.
What inspired you to become a chef?
When I was young, I always enjoyed food and the preparation of it and always helped my mother in preparing and cooking dishes. However, my goal was not to become a chef.
Initially I wanted to become a pilot or an engineer. However, at the age of 16 during the summer holidays before I started post-secondary education, my father found me a summer job at a newly-opened restaurant in Rabat.
After a couple of weeks working there, I quickly realized that this was what I wanted to pursue as a career and, eventually, after one year’s work experience, I joined the Institute of Tourism Studies in Malta to do a two-year diploma.
Where did you train to cook?
My initial training began at the age of 17 in Malta at the Institute of Tourism Studies, where I completed my diploma.
This was followed by six months’ training at a well-established hotel in London, the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge. Following this training, I took the opportunity to spend 28 months working in Michelin star restaurants around the world; just to name a few:
- Pied de Terre, London
- Manior au Quat Saison, UK
- Charlie Trotters, Chicago
- Le Bristol & Guy Savoy, Paris
- Spondi, Athens.
Tell us about your work at the de Mondion. What is the concept and what was the inspiration for this season’s menu?
de Mondion is the flag-ship restaurant of the Infinitely Xara Brand. It’s the restaurant that showcases the best cooking techniques and highest quality. It’s in this restaurant where complex and innovative dishes are created. As much as possible the menu here is based on seasonality and local produce.
I try to change three or four dishes every month so that we keep the menu alive and versatile. We also offer two tasting menus, one for five courses and another for eight courses. The eight-course menu is where I showcase the culinary journey and techniques of the de Mondion restaurant.
What’s the most popular item on the menu?
Definitely the Local Snail Ragout. It’s a dish that was inspired by my mother and evolved as we went along.
It’s been on the menu at de Mondion for the past 12 years, although it has been adapted along the years. The current dish consists of local snails slow cooked with root vegetables and local herbs, and paired with hen yolk and cauliflower.
You are regarded as one of the best chefs in Malta. What sets a top chef apart from the pack?
I try to be as innovative as possible. I was never a chef to copy other chef’s recipes. I get my inspiration from the produce, which I try to pair with other ingredients that come from the same area.
You are one of the very few chefs in Malta who have been awarded a Michelin star. How important is that award to you and how much of an impact did it have on your career?
This was my lifelong goal and I worked very hard over the years, always improving and adapting my techniques, to achieve it. I do believe that I have contributed a lot for the Guide to be able to come to Malta. My opinion is that this is a game changer for the culinary industry locally.
When one thinks of Michelin, it’s the equivalent of the Oscars for us chefs. It was very hard to get the 1 star at de Mondion, but it will be harder to retain it. Having said that, I have already set myself another target to achieve a second star in the next few years.
Tell us a bit about Maltese cuisine. What makes it special and what are the top Maltese dishes we absolutely need to try out?
Naturally, of course, as a country we are very much influenced by Mediterranean flavors. A country like Malta doesn’t produce a vast range of produce, but in season, what we have is great – items such as peaches, figs, snails, fish, prawns, just to mention a few.
It’s up to us chefs to research local produce and make sure to use it in the best possible way and support local farmers and producers.
What do you regard as the quintessential Maltese ingredient and dish?
That is easy. We have three ingredients that at peak season cannot be beaten internationally:
- Summer figs
- Snails from Mtahleb
- Mediterranean red prawns
Tells us a bit about the luxury dining scene in Malta. What are local patrons looking for in fine dining?
I have to say that in the last few years we have seen a huge improvement in the culinary industry locally. Chefs nowadays have more access, through social media and obviously traveling, to the international scene and current trends.
Both local patrons and tourist expectations are always on the rise, and also guests are always looking for innovation and luxury when it comes to fine dining.
Another important aspect is that tourists are always looking to try local recipes, ingredients, and trends – things that they cannot experience in their own country. That’s what creates our identity.
Do you have a signature dish or a favorite dish that you enjoy cooking?
Being surrounded by sea, I cannot but be fond of fish and shellfish. Mostly I enjoy getting the freshest Mediterranean fish and cooking it as simply as possible using good local olive oil, basil, mint, garlic, fresh juicy tomatoes, and a glass of good local white wine.
What is your outlook for this year given the coronavirus pandemic?
Now is definitely the time for all local chefs to try and use local produce, supporting local farmers and fishermen. As a chef, I always strongly believed in this and now I feel it is more important than ever.
Supporting local farmers and breeders whilst serving and using the freshest seasonal produce possible.
What advice would you give someone who wants to become a successful chef?
Be prepared to work long hours, to work holidays and weekends, and to work in tough conditions. Having said that, this is a very rewarding career which personally has given me lot of satisfaction, pride, and accolades.
So do not be afraid of these challenges. If you do have the passion and will, go for it!
Please provide a tip for home cooks that could help them improve their cooking.
Always remember that cooking and eating is very much a social activity, so one should make the most of it and enjoy it. Keep it simple and entertaining, use the freshest possible seasonal produce and support local produce.