If I wasn’t a chef I would be a photographer.”
Born and raised in the small island of Salina (Eolian archipelago, Sicily), Martina is the owner of Hotel Signum which she runs and operates together with her family. The hotel has a restaurant under the same name. The restaurant received its first Michelin Star in 2016. In March 2019, Chef Martina Caruso received the Michelin Female Chef award supported by Veuve Cliquot. This boosted her career even further, even more than when the restaurant received its star three years ago. She’s now recognised as the child prodigy among journalists and professionals in the industry.
Her passion for cooking goes hand-in-hand with the infinite love of her birthplace. Working with a young and passionate team, her daily routine revolves around sharing meals with her family and guests, foraging herbs and vegetables and walking on the beach. This is something she won’t trade for anything else.
She’s just becoming used to media exposure and even if this is not her field, she feels it’s very important in order to share the value of her homeland and Mediterranean cuisine.
Why did you decide to become a chef?
I saw my dad work in the kitchen at Signum since I was a child and I can feel his passion. I was also attracted by the adrenaline during the service hours. What I love about this job is the transformation from raw materials to the dish, and how my dishes evolve through the years, through travelling, researching and influences.
Until when I was 14, my dad only allowed me to make salads. Then I moved from Salina to study more about cooking and hospitality both in Italy and abroad. I came back about 6 years ago.
What’s your food philosophy?
I try to combine Mediterranean flavours in my cuisine, simple and light. I like being creative and sharing my identity using our local ingredients, starting from traditional recipes but revising them with a modern perspective. I like drawing inspirations from other cuisines and play with textures and temperature.
For example, my dessert Zuppa di latte, cioccolato, Caffe e Carruba (milk soup, chocolate, coffee and carob) reminds me of my childhood. My grandma used to make me breakfast with milk soup and biscuits. It’s a surprising way to end a meal because it transports you to breakfast time, but it’s one of the most requested dishes in our menu at Signum.
What’s your signature dish?
If I have to choose, it is definitely the capers ice cream. The challenge was to turn a savoury ingredient into a dessert which is not too sweet.
In general, I prefer evolving dishes instead of creating new ones: this makes me see my growth and sometimes the dishes completely change while remaining the same in their substance.
What do you like to cook at home?
I like cooking simple dishes. The secret is in the ingredients. I cannot cook without olive oil, cheese and tomato, so sometimes a simple pasta and a fish—fritto misto—is the best option. At the end of the day, what matters most is who you share the meal with.
Another ingredient not to be missed in Sicilian cuisine is eggplant: we can cook eggplant every day in different ways.
Where do you source your ingredients?
Our ingredients are 80% from Salina, the rest we source from Sicily and a small part is from abroad. Our priorities are quality and freshness.
We get fish from local fishermen and we are growing vegetables and herbs in a small land inside Signum property. Sometimes we rely on spontaneous crops, like salicornia (sea asparagus, which grows in salty lands nearby the beach).
We want to work more on this and involve our guests with workshops. In the past there was no electricity on the island, so no refrigerator; also, during winter season, the transportation to and from the land is often suspended due to weather conditions (in fact, the hotel closes from November to March), so we have plenty of tradition in food preserving techniques which we are now replicating to have seasonal ingredients available for longer.
Can you share your key success to new generation chefs?
Never stop accumulating experience, always be humble and always be willing to learn. My mission is to bring growth to my homeland. During winter months, I attend a lot of events and I travel as much as I can, but my focus is always to go back to my roots richer in knowledge and experience than when I left.