When I first meet Maradona Youssef, a 35-year-old chef from Lebanon, he’s playing with mud. Standing outside the kitchen at Duca di Dolle, a vineyard in the prosecco-producing hills of Italy, he’s prodding several misshapen lumps of wet earth arranged on a tray. The mud parcels contain fish and, once cooked, will be the main course of that evening’s “healthy dinner.” Collaborating with functional medicine specialist Dr Monica Bossi, Youssef is pioneering a science-backed nutrition-focused haute cuisine that he soon hopes will cement his name in Italy’s restaurant scene.
Youssef moved to the northeastern Italian city of Trieste at the age of 21. Appearing on Italy’s MasterChef cooking program soon after, he impressed the judges by presenting a dish typical of Trieste but with an Arabic twist, a theme he continued throughout the program. It earned him the praise of judge Bruno Barbieri, and the chance to open a restaurant with him in Bologna. “It was crazy,” Youssef says, “to be called from nothing by the chef who at that moment had the most Michelin stars in Italy was incredible.”
Now Youssef is developing his own food philosophy that seems to verge on alchemy. By working with Bossi, who specializes in internal medicine and functional nutrition, he is delving into the chemical processes at the heart of cooking to understand how to prepare food so that it performs best inside our bodies. As he puts it, it is all very well knowing there is methyl mercaptan in asparagus, but how do we know the best way to cook the vegetable in order to allow maximum absorption of the nutrients in the body. And equally as important, of course, is making it taste good in the process. In his words, he wants to “transform need into pleasure.”
Over the summer, he trialed his idea at vineyard and relais Duca di Dolle through a series of “healthy dinners.” I was dubious at first, wondering if I’d accidentally booked for an evening of salads and boiled vegetables. In fact, I ate a feast that embraced pasta, cheese, chocolate and icecream unashamedly.
As Youssef explains, while I was savoring the rich dishes, important biochemical processes were working away in my body. “The meals I prepare help balance hormones, stimulate the metabolism, and keep the gut healthy,” he says. And he emphasizes that, thankfully, his healthy meals have nothing to do with calorie counting. “It is only about ensuring that food doesn’t get stored inside the body as fats but gets transformed into energy.”
Bossi, who collaborated with Youssef on the dinners, says, “eating healthily until a short while ago focused on restrictive diets. Now we are focusing on ‘functional nutrition’ instead.” Working with Youssef, she selects and combines ingredients for the meals that give “messages” to the body when eaten that help with actions like slimming or reducing cholesterol. At the same time, the food should be a delight to the eyes and the tastebuds and leave one feeling completely satisfied.
Bossi breaks down the science behind the meal I eat at Duca di Dolle. In my canapé of marinated char on a bed of radicchio and walnuts, the fish is providing omega 3 while the bitter vegetable is an important addition to an evening meal in order to help the liver transform the food into energy rather than storing it as fat.
The starter is a soft boiled egg in an almond crust doused with a rich mornay sauce. It seems to go against all “healthy eating” advice but Bossi explains that rather than seeing fatty foods as the enemy, as we have been programmed to think, we should remember their essential role in digestion and in ensuring we feel full and satisfied after a meal.
The brill that Youssef wrapped up and cooked in mud is the main course, and it is flavored with ginger which, as Bossi explains, has antiaging and slimming properties. “Essentially, you are slimming while you eat, it’s the best,” she laughs. Youssef’s earth parcels are also not just a gimmick but recall ancient techniques where the soil would impart important minerals to the food during the cooking process.
Youssef now has several restaurant openings in the works, the first being an informal eaterie in Milan called Mezé offering typical Lebanese fare. “It’s a type of cooking that is not well known here, and it is really healthy,” he says. This is because it is heavy on spiced, “the most important ingredients that allow our body to digest fats and proteins much more easily.” Cinamon, cloves, ginger, and turmeric, for example, are prevalent in Lebanese cuisine.
As such, spices are Youssef’s secret weapon and he secretes them into as much of his cooking as he can. Often, he ensures they are almost imperceptible so as not to overwhelm the dish, but instead busy away behind the scenes keeping our bodies healthy. Bossi, who is also formulating the menu for this restaurant and the others, calls spices the “antidote to the potential harmful effects of other ingredients,” meaning carbs and dairy can remain on the menu.