When he was growing up in the southern Italian town of Bitonto, restaurateur Beppe De Vito’s mother used to make a dish that was something between a salad and a gazpacho, comprising cucumbers, oranges, stale bread, olive oil and cold water. Sometime later, he happened to be reading Apicius, a cookbook that is believed to date back to the first century AD. In this book, he found a recipe for that exact homespun dish. “Apparently, it’s one of the dishes that Roman Empire soldiers would make when they were on the road,” Beppe recounts with a chuckle.
The weight of tradition and history on Italian cuisine is something that has actually shaped his mindset quite a bit, although perhaps not in the way you might expect. “I don’t subscribe to the philosophy that you must do things the way they’ve been done forever,” says Beppe, who owns the ilLido Group. “A recipe may have been invented hundreds or even thousands of years ago, but when it was invented, it was an innovation. We have to keep evolving. For me, it’s about finding a balance and continuing to surprise people in a positive way. I don’t want to shut the door to change, to evolving with the times. So whatever I do, that door is always open.”
Embracing change has been a key theme in his life. To keep him out of trouble, his parents had started him working at quite a young age, and by the time he was 10 years old, he was already a barista at a neighbourhood cafe, where his boss got a good comedy routine out of this pint-sized employee. “When I stood behind the coffee machine, no one could see me,” Beppe tells us. “So my boss would tell the customers, ‘This is my new automatic machine, you just tell it your order, and it will make whatever you want.’”
That was his first experience of the food and beverage business. An uncle who had attended a catering school further influenced his decision to go into this industry full-time. “He was working a summer job in a hotel, and sent postcards to us that depicted the place where he was. To me, it looked like heaven,” Beppe remembers. That hotel was only a couple of hours away from Bitonto, “but for me it might as well have been the Maldives. I decided that was what I wanted to do, to work in such beautiful places”.
At age 14, he entered a catering school to learn about hospitality operations and management. By 17, he had left Italy and worked at hotels and restaurants all over the world before arriving in Singapore in his early 20s to help with the opening of an Italian restaurant. By 2006, he was launching his own restaurants here. At first, he tried to bring in chefs from Michelin‑starred restaurants in Italy. “But that never worked out,” says Beppe. “They would always complain about the lack of ingredients, the staff, the customers. By insisting on doing things one way, they were failing to understand the local market.”
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He decided to change his strategy, recruiting instead a younger team from Italy and teaching them himself. “To inspire these young people, I had to be in the kitchen with them and dedicate myself to cooking,” the self-taught chef explains of shifting his focus away from the front of the house. “This is fundamentally a blue-collar job where practice makes perfect. You have to use your hands and your mind, and watch, touch, and taste to understand the ingredients. I knew I needed to clock the hours.”