Chef Matteo Alberti stands arms crossed against a a wooden wall
ORIGO: An Interview with Matteo Alberti
Tucked into a quiet wooden townhouse in the heart of Kanazawa, ORIGO serves a culinary ethos that is grounded in both tradition and innovation. Founded in 2020 by Matteo Alberti, the restaurant’s elegant, nature-inspired menu draws from Matteo’s Italian roots and the local Japanese community, united by a deep respect and pride for the seasonal produce of Ishikawa prefecture.

When did you move to Kanazawa?

I was born in Italy, in a small town near Rome called Rieti. After university I moved to London, where I lived for about 10 years. Travelling has always been my passion, and in 2017 I went on a long trip to the Himalayas, to East and Southeast Asia, and then to New Zealand. After nearly one year of journeying around the globe, I was lucky enough to arrive in Ishikawa prefecture - and suddenly, I fell in love. I moved to Kanazawa nearly 4 years ago.

This largely unspoiled, authentic part of Japan immediately captured my interest and stimulated my desire to learn and grow. The city seemed small and elegant to me, with its great historical heritage, vivid culture, strong ties with nature, and big sense of community. At the time I was longing for something different, quieter, and away from the pressure of Western capitalism, so even though I didn’t speak any Japanese and only knew one person in the entire country, I decided to leave my hectic life in Europe for Kanazawa.

Tell me a little about your culinary background?

I first graduated in Italy, studying graphic design and photography, but I have always loved cooking. I started my culinary journey relatively late, at the age of 24. By the time I moved to London in 2006, Europe was going through an economic crisis. The subsequent pressure and ‘brain-drain’ favoured London and contributed to a British culinary renaissance. Since then they have produced countless celebrity chefs, Michelin star restaurants, urban farming projects and a thriving street food market culture. This gave me the perfect playground to start my new career.

While my skills were poor, my ambition and dedication was strong. I worked and studied at the same time, finding employment in many high-end restaurants and using any spare time I had to complete further placements in UK’s Michelin star establishments or travel back home to deepen my knowledge of Italian food culture. I credit my time at JP Morgan Private Dining for establishing the core foundation of my culinary skills.

What’s your earliest food memory from your childhood?

My mother is a housewife and she used to say proudly to everyone that I was raised without any sort of store bought ‘industrial’ food. I remember feeling embarrassed when eating rough looking homemade sandwiches at school, instead of the perfectly shaped pre-packaged food that the other kids had. She had lots of time on her hands so everything, from farming to baking, was done from scratch. Everything! I can vividly remember being around 10 years old and learning where my family’s food came from, every day was a life lesson for me, namely seeing how the livestock was prepared during the winter season in farmhouses of family friends. I still have shivers recalling those freezing cold rooms used to butcher pigs, and the animals’ eyes when they realised their fate. Neither can I forget the warmth and aroma of the fire, stoked in the evening to cook the freshest meat I’ve ever tasted. Our marmalade was made by picking wild blackberries in the fields, leaving us with itchy hands for a whole day. Mushroom picking was the most thrilling. The sense of being lost in the intense smell of the forest, the dim light filtering through the trees, and the excitement of uncovering those little mushrooms hidden under the leaves. It was pure adventure. I don’t particularly remember how they tasted, but I can clearly recall the feelings of those days in my mind.

What this taught me was that behind every ingredient there is a person, and behind every person there is a story. In every dish there was a journey that brought it to our tables, and my memories of food are all connected to these stories.

Matteo Alberti @cooks_travel

How did you come to start ORIGO?

In 2017, I was travelling in Kanazawa when I met a Japanese man who introduced himself as a restaurant producer. At the time I had no intentions of relocating to Japan, but we ended up collaborating together in a joint project to run a restaurant and eventually opened Casa, or ‘home’ in Italian. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned and we parted ways not long after.

This bitter turn of events prompted several significant life changes for me, but not all for the worse. My story caught the interest and solidarity of many people in Kanazawa. They helped me run a fundraising campaign, which allowed me to get back on my feet and open another restaurant. Everyone was very encouraging, even though they couldn’t completely understand why I would challenge myself in this way and choose their city for my unique project.

Even though I received all this love and encouragement, I was left with low morale, disappointment and, above all, anger. Over time, I managed to reverse these feelings into the only thing that could give me gratification, cooking. Some of my dishes are the result of the anger I felt. In other cases, they are created from a need to retrieve happy memories. All these feelings, combined with the unconditional loveI received, encouraged me to give back my thanks to Kanazawa’s people for all the kindness and support they showed me.

In April 2020 I opened ORIGO, meaning ‘origin’ in Latin. It describes the beginning of a person, place, or situation. I chose it as a way to mark the beginning of something new, something which had its roots in Italy while coming to life in Kanazawa. Not only that, but it also represents a new beginning for my cooking style.

Matteo Alberti @cooks_travel

What would you say your concept is?

ORIGO is based on the concept of contemporary tradition. We respect origins while producing new flavours and textures through contemporary techniques and presentations. We believe that in order to keep tradition alive, we must also innovate. Our philosophy is nature inspired cuisine that is based on the old Italian traditions, all filtered through my personal feelings and interpretation. While some techniques remain classic, dishes are the product of exciting new combinations.

Describe your average day?

My nights are pretty short and my days are usually long. Weather and work permitting, I start with a morning walk. There is a nearby mountain called Utatsuyama where I regularly go to relax, talk to my demons, and clear my mind. This allows me to plan my day and find inspiration for our food. This mountain is therapeutic for me. After my walk, I head down to the local market to source the fish. Some ingredients can stay on the menu for weeks, while some might change daily - it all depends on what is caught that day .

After that I go to the restaurant. I check on the vegetable supplier to make sure that everything went as planned. Some ingredients are available in micro-seasons and we are only able to use them for a very short time. I love sansai (wild vegetables), and we rely on local foragers to source these. We always have to be flexible and adjust for last minute changes. If the forager couldn’t go out that day because of the weather, then we are simply not able to use the produce we wanted.

Usually around 11am, the preparations for the day can start. Everyday is a race against time, from the moment the first customer comes until the last customer leaves. It’s a beautiful, exciting, and fulfilling daily race.

Where do you get your inspiration for your menus?

My inspiration comes from my feelings. After my disappointment with the first restaurant, I was left with a lot of questions and concerns. I was angry. From then on I push everyday to turn this frustration into something positive, something creative. Some of my dishes come from those feelings. Others come from the need to communicate with the outside world, or to pay tribute to a particular product, person or season.

Living in a foreign country puts me in the situation of constantly dealing with nostalgia for my home country, which has a big impact on the creation of our menu. But Italy is not my only source of ideas - the wonders of Ishikawa prefecture and its local suppliers, as well as memories from my past travels around the world - all shape the flavours and dishes at ORIGO restaurant.

Matteo Alberti @cooks_travel

How important are natural, seasonal ingredients to you?

Ingredients are the protagonist of a restaurant, so I am very fortunate that Kanazawa has four distinct seasons each giving birth to their distinguished products. With my cooking, I am only trying to give voice to these ingredients and the producers behind them. While technique is definitely an important element of cooking, without the right ingredients all these techniques are practically useless. That's why I am constantly looking for very passionate local producers. Japan has an abundance of wild products but most of them are still rarely used. I am practically obsessed with these, because that is where true flavour lies! With farming we humbly try to reproduce those flavours, studying the ground and simulating natural habitats.

Whenever possible, I only use wild vegetables, meat, and fish. I am also lucky enough to work with ingredients that have been picked or fished only a few hours before landing in my kitchen. When working with local products, you have to change what you cook and how you cook it according to what is available that day. The omakase menu [in which a guest lets the chef choose their order] started in Japan mainly because of the constant need to navigate the sensitive nature of seasonal products. There is a fragile kind of beauty when it comes to seasonality; the brief window of availability makes each ingredient more valuable and trains one to develop both the skill and the energy required to adapt to constant change. It really challenges the chef's abilities everyday.

Seasonal menus also raise awareness amongst the general public about the true nature of sustainable living. If you have access to a product all year around it means that it is coming from overseas, or sometimes it is grown in a greenhouse with artificial soil. Back in the day, people first considered what ingredients they had naturally available around them, and then decided from there what to cook and how to cook it. This is where food culture began. We only used what nature delivered according to the season. This is the main concept we follow at ORIGO. Nowadays we think the other way around [considering what we make first and buying forced ingredients at any time of the year], too often compromising on the quality of the product.

Matteo Alberti @cooks_travel

What do you like most about Japanese ingredients?

Firstly, Shinto religion has a huge influence in Japanese culture wherein a lot of respect is held for all living things. I believe this has a big impact on people's lives and the way ingredients are treated. All the farmers, producers, and fishermen pay homage to this concept with their dedication to their craft, and the philosophy of going with the flow of nature, not going against it.

In Kanazawa, people have been eating sushi since the 17th century, the beginning of the Edo period. Blessed by its advantageous geographic position with one side surrounded by mountains and the other side lined with beautiful coastline, the freshness of Kanazawa’s local fish is just on a different level compared to other places in Japan, or even the rest of the world. Here, most times you have only two choices for fish: exceptionally fresh, or alive.

Most of the companies in Kanazawa are still family-run businesses, and draw on many dedicated years of tradition and knowledge throughout their operations to this day. I also appreciate how there are both companies and customers that are willing to invest in and champion high quality produce from the local area. Not only that, but the competitiveness of the farming industry has in turn encouraged further research and development of the area’s culinary scene. For all these reasons, I find that Kanazawa and the greater Ishikawa prefecture really has many of the most valuable ingredients this land has to offer.

Matteo Alberti @cooks_travel

Where do you source your ingredients from?

Most of the ingredients we use at ORIGO are sourced from Ishikawa prefecture. Our ceramics and furniture are all from local craftspeople as well. I am also happy to look further across Japan for other specialty ingredients such as citrus and other fruits. Other products such as certain wines or cheeses that cannot be easily found in Japan, at least not the quality level I seek, are imported directly from Italy. Here in Kanazawa, sustainability is not just a trendy word or concept - it's also considered the only sensible way to run a restaurant. There is a new generation of farmers converting conventional farms into organic ones, along with an increasing number of young families leaving the big cities to seek alternative lifestyles in the countryside.

As a chef I am constantly looking for locally produced, organic ingredients. I take a particular interest in the use of artisanal products. When it comes to vegetables I usually work with producers who are interested in European products. Most of them have travelled to Europe before to study the food culture and culinary techniques before coming back to start their own unique projects. Sometimes I am lucky enough to get in contact with these small producers who take Italian traditions and food philosophy, and put their own spin on it to create unique products here in Japan, while still respecting the land’s biodiversity. In those rare cases, I am especially delighted to support them and work together. We are both dreamers, and we need one another to turn our dreams into reality.

Can you share stories on the unique bonds you’ve established with local producers?

It has not been easy for me to build a bond with the local farmers, as I came from Europe to Kanazawa with zero Japanese language skills and basic cultural knowledge. This area of Japan is very conservative, and earning the trust and respect of those people is something I am constantly working on.

When you try to set up a business in Europe, you would typically introduce yourself to potential suppliers, explain your vision, and look for common ground to build a professional relationship. In Kanazawa, you’ll need a formal introduction to the business world - a mutual acquaintance to ‘vouch’ for you in order to build a solid relationship. After this initial step, other informal meetings will follow between both parties to try and understand each other on a human level - to go beyond the business talk. The introduction is essential to guarantee a communal respect and proper usage of the final product.

These casual meetings were vital for me to understand the people behind the produce. It’s important to get to know them on a personal level before talking business. Though most of the meetings were hilariously entertaining, since they were carried out in offices drinking tea and wearing flip-flops.

Matteo Alberti @cooks_travel

Four years ago, I arrived in Japan with zero Japanese skills. At the time, I only knew one person in the entire country. But somehow I managed to realise my dream: of opening my own Italian restaurant in Kanazawa, with the help and love that I received from both nature and my new community.

Staff Writer
Matteo Alberti