It’s a woman’s world in any kitchen with Chef Pina Mangiapia at the helm

Currently heading legacy restaurant Cafe Milano at the Expo 2020, it’s good food and sense that lies at the heart of Chef Pina’s cooking

In what largely (and unfortunately) remains a male-dominated industry, Chef Giuseppina, or Pina Mangiapia as she’s better known, is definitely one to get excited about.

Brimming with laughter and literally radiating joy and energy, it takes but one walk and talk session with her to see what she’s made of. Through commitment, dedication, and perseverance, Chef Pina has worked her way to the top at a very young age. While this a commendable aspect in itself, it’s astounding how her gender hasn’t gotten in the way of things. 

In previous interviews, she says, “Starting in the kitchen department for a woman is difficult, because of the stereotypes of a woman not being physically strong enough. You have to put in double the effort, but you can show that women are smart enough to find a way of doing anything.”

Before her stint at Cafe Milano, Chef Pina scaled the ranks from Sous to Head Chef at Bolla Bistro Wine Bar, DIFC, UAE all within a year. This, among other feats, has earned several notable accolades including being listed as Caterer Middle East’s 30 under 30 best chefs.

A firm believer in equality, Mangiapia has also played a part in promoting campaigns for women in the F&B industry in the UAE, hoping to inspire more young female chefs that with some hard work they can have the same opportunities she has had.

Her associates, like Group Executive Chef Francesco Guarracino, Skelmore Hospitality Partners, have told the media in the past, “Simply put, Chef Giuseppina is a born leader. Pina’s greatest asset is her drive and passion which is always evident in her work. She always works with a smile on her face, a level head on her shoulders and is keener to try new experiences than the average person. She always ensures to continuously train and improve her team’s skills along with her own. Chef Pina is also quite the problem solver.”

With such high praise to ride on, what drives the young chef in the kitchen? Watching her work at Cafe Milano’s pop-up at the prestigious Expo 2020, Dubai, one could argue that it’s the delight of seeing her customers satisfied. Or her passion, to succinctly put it. 

She says, “Here at the Expo I’m the Head Chef at Cafe Milano. I’m taking care of all the culinary parts and the team. I’ve selected the team, it’s very important to have a team that’s supporting you. I also take care of the marketing side a bit, because we know that the role of the chef now is not just someone in the kitchen cooking. They’re almost the face of the restaurant. I like getting out of the kitchen, talking to my guests, understanding what they really want and just trying to accommodate each of their requests.”

At cafe milano's expo 2020 pop-up, chef pina essays the role of a head chef and so much more, bringing the charm of southern italy to the middle east
At Cafe Milano’s Expo 2020 pop-up, Chef Pina essays the role of a head chef and so much more, bringing the charm of southern Italy to the Middle East.

With a 12 year career behind her already, she’s certainly proved her mettle both inside the kitchen and out. Chef Pina stresses on the importance of a head chef knowing exactly what they need to do, as well as what everyone else does in the restaurant for seamless coordination. From working the front of the house, to bartending, to occasionally even entertaining, she’s donned several hats before successfully putting on the head chef’s. And that’s certainly here to stay. 

For a chef of her stature to hold customer feedback in such high regard is relatively surprising, and indicative of a refreshing lack of arrogance. When asked what the worst criticism she ever received was, she laughs and says, “The worst criticism is when someone doesn’t like your food in general. But it’s important for chefs in general to get feedback. It’s important to understand that not everyone shares our taste. As much as we at Cafe Milano try to accommodate different tastes, we can’t always, although I love it when they do like the food.”

It gets a little difficult to hate the place when it radiates Italian hospitality in all its opulence. As Chef Pina accurately puts it, Italian hospitality is world renowned, and designed to make you feel comfortable. With the Expo being nothing short of magnanimous, Cafe Milano is a pit stop for anyone looking to be taken care of. Although the prices aren’t considerate of your wallet, it’s worth a visit to tuck into fine-dining that helps you relax and reinvigorates you for the rest of your journey.  

It's a testament to her strength of character and cooking prowess that chef pina and her team are able to turnaround new specials on the daily, and entirely new menus in just a week!
It’s a testament to her strength of character and cooking prowess that Chef Pina and her team are able to turnaround new specials on the daily, and entirely new menus in just a week!

When I entered the restaurant a little before noon, things were quiet enough to have in-depth discussions with Chef Pina. As soon as the needle goes towards 1pm, however, lunch (or what the chef describes as a long lunch) starts. Suddenly, you’re assaulted by a flurry of movement. Unlike everything televised cooking shows have taught us, however, this kitchen functions like a well-oiled machine with smiling members around. Amidst it all, the head chef stands firm at the pass, elegantly piping, plating, dressing, and garnishing everything thrown at her, all while juggling the endless questions I have. 

Looking at her confidence and suave, one would never guess that being a chef was never on the cards for her.

“My father has a restaurant, and looking at their lifestyle I always thought I didn’t want to be a chef. I didn’t want to be in the hospitality business. When you’re in this business, you sacrifice most of the time in your lives. But then I learned how to release, which I taught to my team. You need to learn to not let your job takeover your life. Once you find that balance, the job offers a lot of creativity and dynamic opportunities that other jobs won’t,” she comments.

Chef Pina’s culinary journey began at the ripe age of 18, which some would consider four years too late in the South of Italy. She laughs and talks of the times she would hate garlic and herbs, all until she discovered a way to prepare it in a manner that appealed to her. 

Her home and upbringing in Italy wasn’t just the jumping off point for her culinary dreams, however. A lot of Chef Pina’s passion and inspiration comes from the traditional foods she grew up with, and aspires to share with the world. While the globe might reflexively attribute pasta carbonara and lasagnas to Italian cuisine, she aims to correct the misconception and introduce her home through a plate of food instead.

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“Usually in Italy, we follow an almost Mediterranean diet, we eat a lot of pasta with legumes and vegetables. Every Saturday was tortellini with broth, every Tuesday was pasta, every Sunday was tomato sauce. Because of dealing with poverty, we used poor and available ingredients to create stunning dishes that became part of culture. It’s our job to take these traditions forward. That is also my biggest inspiration,” she says.

When she isn’t bustling around the kitchen at Cafe Milano, Chef Pina enjoys digging into some Japanese and Chinese cuisine, stating that she loves all kinds of Asian food. While she can’t prepare it authentically herself, it allows her a chance to submerge into other cultures through her favourite means, a delicious plate of food.

While her entire journey so far is inspiration in itself, what advice would Chef Pina like to give young chefs aspiring to get into Italian fine-dining? 

“Don’t give up. It’s going to be hard because it’s a culture. There’s no recipe or technique, you need to observe their culture. Italian people use their heart while cooking, and that way you get to give a piece of your history, of your heart to people through your food.”

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