Immigrant Chefs Find a Home Away from Home in Italy

Alexa Ahern

Becoming part of a new community can be a formidable challenge for new immigrants, but in Turin, Italy three chefs found balance in cooking for their new neighbors.

These chefs are Aleksandr Fedotenko, from Russia, Piero Ling Kuang Sung from China, and Roxana Rondan from Peru.

They recently gathered at Slow Food International’s Terra Madre and Salone del Gusto event in Turin. They share their experience moving to Italy, breaking into the restaurant industry, and integrating into their new home.

Aleksandr Fedotenko, Sovietniko

Aleksandr Fedotenko worked in a deli in Moscow as a teenager, but he never imagined he would one day own one. Since moving to Turin in 1991, he has opened a Russian restaurant and specialty foods store. The restaurant, Sovietniko, offers iconic dishes of ex-Soviet countries.

His grandmother’s cooking from when he was young inspires his restaurant's philosophy. She was always able to create great dishes from what little we had, even canned foods, he says. He sees his restaurant as a place for the common folk — no fancy dishes, just good, honest food.

At first, he imagined he be cooking for fellow Russians. Skaski Shop, Fedotenko’s grocery store, remains a gathering place for the Eastern European community, but since the opening of Sovietniko, many local Italians have discovered his food as well. Although it’s now a well-liked restaurant, he says he has encountered resistance in the past from some of the community.

“I’m better offer than the kebab shop before me, but not quite like an Italian shop owner,” he says.

Piero Ling Kuang Sung, Zheng Yang

Piero Ling Kuang Sung grew up watching his father make classic Chinese dishes in Turin, which has been his home since he was four years old. Although he grew up in Italy, Sung has been connected to his native land through food at his father’s restaurant, the first Chinese restaurant in Turin, which opened in 1986.

When Sung took over the restaurant from his father, he brought a new aspect to the food by combining the authenticity of Chinese recipes with the purity of Italian ingredients. A strict proponent of Slow Food’s values, Sung supplies his kitchen with the freshest local ingredients he can. This is easy today with such a large Chinese community because there are more farmers growing Chinese produce around the city.

“In 1980, it was really difficult to find Chinese ingredients,” Sung says. “We are the second generation now. We have all the products we need. It’s either local food from Italy or frozen from China. The food situation is better here than in China.”

But the Italian-grown ingredients give the food a different flavor, he says. Even water changes the taste, according to Sung. It’s Chinese cooking with a splash of Italian.

Roxana Rondan, La Rustica

Roxana Rondan has always been around food. Members of her family in Peru have been food merchants for more than 80 years. Fifteen years ago, when she moved to Italy with her mother, she started culinary school.

“As a child, I might not have had toys or dolls, but at my house we always had good food,” she says.

Rondan worked her way to owning a restaurant after years of struggling to feel accepted as an immigrant and chef in Turin. As a young woman immigrant, she struggled to find a place in Italian kitchens. Five years ago, when she opened La Rustica in a largely Latino area of Turin, she never imagined Italians would be interested in her cooking.

At first, the people in her building were suspicious. We had to prove ourselves as a new business, she says. Since then, she’s gained a consistent crowd of Italians for dinner, for which she’s slightly modified her cooking to their tastes.

“I’m so proud that Peruvian cuisine is more and more desired here,” she says.