Vito Mollica: A gourmet with a magician’s touch

With an Italian temperament and a passionate love for his work, Vito Mollica (33) has already reached the peak of his field. This sought-after chef worked hard to train his team in accord with his taste.

When you came to Prague in 2000 you said that the Allegro restaurant in the Four Seasons Prague hotel would be the finest restaurant in Prague. You have even exceeded your promise – in the last two years Allegro was named the best restaurant in the entire Czech Republic. You yourself were rated as the number one chef in the country. What was it like for you when you first came here? Was it hard to get your bearings in a foreign country?
At first it was very difficult. It was hard to find the necessary ingredients and staff. Furthermore, the local chefs were used to cooking differently than I was, so the hardest thing was to explain to them my work methods. This brought about many hours of training, explanations, and discussion.

How did you find the right people for your team?
I interviewed over a hundred applicants, and I finally accepted fifteen. I was looking for flexible people who were open to new things. Basically, I never sought out people with high positions at other restaurants, I always preferred choosing apprentices or new graduates of cooking schools, who I trained myself. Our kitchen’s signature is unmistakable, and I want them all to prepare food in the same way. This is an expression of respect for our guests. Simply put, the roasted pheasant breast must always be the same – yesterday, today, and tomorrow! (laughs)

Career highlights
1994-95 chef de cuisine at The Jolly Hotel Carlton in Amsterdam, where he gained experience with Italian cuisine
1995 as demi-chef de partie he learned about French cuisine at The Café Royal in London
1996-2000 worked as chef de partie, junior sous chef, and sous-chef de cuisine at the Four Seasons Hotel in Milan
October 2000 named executive chef at Four Seasons Hotel Prague
2003,2004 the Allegro restaurant was named the finest restaurant in the Czech Republic by Grand Restaurant magazine (formerly Gourmet) and by the international Zagat Survey. Experts have also named Mollica the finest chef in the country.

How many cooks work under you now?
Thirty. They’re all Czechs between 27 and 30.

How do you communicate with them?
We speak a special mix of Italian and English, which of course isn’t perfect, but we understand each other. Every day we discuss our goal, that is, satisfied guests. I’m almost paranoid about watching to make sure everything goes well and the guests are enjoying their food. When a plate with left-overs gets to the kitchen, I want to know why they didn’t eat everything. I immediately send a waiter to their table to ask them informally if everything was OK, while we wait for the “verdict” in the kitchen.

Can you take criticism from guests or your subordinates?
Of course I’d rather be praised, but I’m very open to criticism – it helps me learn. Sometimes a guest isn’t right, but when he is we acknowledge it, and try to avoid similar situations. My crew and I argue about new dishes; if they don’t like my approach they tell me.

What is your normal day like?
It’s always different, but usually in the morning I arrange purchases, and then we have a management meeting. During the day I check the grocery deliveries and the reservations book, I respond to e-mails and many phone calls, I put the menus together, I contact suppliers, and I organize banquets. I oversee the preparation of the meals, and when we have any guests I cook as well. I’m ready at all times to greet guests and hear their wishes.

When Four Seasons Prague opened, everyone was waiting for a mistake, so you were working under great pressure. What is it like in the kitchen when the people working there are under stress?
The stress is never-ceasing. Imagine having to answer seven e-mails at the same time. How would you manage it? That’s stress. When you have to cook seven dishes at the same time, by a short deadline, it makes you nervous. We’re under the microscope. It’s expected that we’ll be the best, and we have to defend our reputation every day. This requires the utmost concentration.

How do you react to the stress? Do you shout sometimes?
Naturally. Italian blood runs in my veins, and my reactions are spontaneous. If something goes wrong I act out an “Italian dramatic comedy”. I’m sure that at first everyone thought I was crazy. Now, my people know that when I blow up, I’m not shouting at them, but at the situation. After each meal we take a little time out to resolve possible crisis situations.

Your colleagues say that you’re a great boss. They say you have natural authority and you know how to inspire them to be better. Is that what you’re really like?
It’s nice to hear, and if they’re right, I’m glad.

But they also said that you’re a perfectionist, and that you want to know about everything that happens in the hotel. Is that true?
Do you also want to know about everything that’s going on in the Czech Republic? I’m in Prague to help build the Allegro restaurant in the Four Seasons Prague hotel. I consider myself as a citizen of the hotel, and I want to know what’s going on, even though I don’t make the decisions.

Is there anything about yourself you’d like to improve?
I should probably be less paranoid. Also, I’d like to have a constantly motivated team, but in order to have that I have to listen to each person on the team. I need time for that, and that’s precisely what I’m lacking. You know, sometimes I can’t even manage myself!

What motivates you and your team?
The knowledge that we work for the finest restaurant in the city. Also, the young people understand that working in our restaurant will always pay off for them in the future.

What’s the hardest thing about being a chef?
Knowing that some people still can’t appreciate the special care and techniques that we put into preparing our dishes. The guests I like best are those who recognize the difference between a meal prepared in our restaurant and one prepared in a pizzeria or bistro.

Do you keep track of the competition? What do you think about the quality of Czech restaurants?
There has decidedly been a change for the better. We used to hear guests praising the city’s beauty but criticizing the quality of the food. Today you’ll find more first-rate restaurants here, and that’s good.

How do you relax?
I don’t have much time, as I spend up to 14 hours a day at work. When there’s the slightest chance I’m very happy to spend time with my wife and my four-month-old son.

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