Food for All

An interview with Valentino Fabbian, CEO Chef Express Spa

by Ludovica ROSSI PURINI

Valentino Fabbian, born in 1952 in Padua, graduated with a degree in Business Administration from Bocconi University in Milan. He began his professional career at Duplomatic in Varese. In 1982 he was appointed Country Manager for Italy of Wendy’s, one of the world giants in fast food, and contributed to the spread of the brand in Italy.

In 1989 he joined the Cremonini Group to develop Chef Express, a restaurant business which operates onboard trains, in railway stations, in airports and in motorway service areas. In just a few years, Chef Express, where Fabian has served as AD since 2003, became a leader in Italy: at the end of 2014, the company, with over 5,000 employees and revenues of 494 million euros, had over 320 locations in Italy. International development also lead the company to become a leader in catering onboard trains in Europe, with operating companies in UK, France, Spain, Holland and Belgium, Russia and, most recently, China.

In June 2009 Valentino Fabbian was awarded the title of Grand Officer of the Italian Republic and has contributed to the conception and realization of non-profit initiatives in trains and at stations, particularly in the Cremonini facilities, to raise funds for scientific research for AIL (Associazione Italiana contro le Leucemie), ART (Associazione Ricerca per i Trapianti), Istituto Farmacologico Mario Negri, Telethon and Anlaids of Lazio. Finally, he received the gold medal from AVIS, where he is a regular blood donor.

LRP: A few dozen days out from the closing of the Expo Milano 2015, data show almost 16 million tickets sold and thousands of events held at the various pavilions. Do you think these impressive numbers are a sign of a real awareness by the attendees of the importance of the issues, or are they simply a result of the success of the Expo as a huge entertainment machine?

VF: I think they are absolutely due to the interest aroused by an event that was thought out in a beautiful and charming way, which also highlighted the existence of planetary themes for which we have not yet found a permanent solution. The thematic aspect is strong and arouses great interest, but without a doubt the large flow of visitors was also attracted by the beauty and the innovations presented in this world exposition. This is confirmed by the fact that, in the beginning, the event had not found a turnout as significant as it did in later weeks, when, evidently, the constant media presence and word of mouth created an interest that is expected to grow exponentially in the upcoming final weeks.

LRP: There has been some criticism from those who have always been involved in agriculture, environment and development in Italy, to the effect that the Expo has been a missed opportunity because, beyond the obviously spectacular event, the contents were rather weak. Do you share these criticisms?

VF: I absolutely do not agree. These criticisms are superficial and based on the lack of actual knowledge of what has happened so far in this Expo. The event has hosted conferences on important topics and focused on power, environmental development, the fight against hunger in the world, sustainability and production in a time of continued human population growth. La Carta di Milano was presented to the UN. It is primarily a research work to identify the best possible courses of action for the planet in the field of nutrition.

LRP: At the Expo, the Cremonini Group is presenting with the theme “Giving energy to the body without removing it from the planet.” You have presented a production model that aims for sustainability both in environmental terms and in terms of the consumer. Do you believe that this awareness is shared by the majority of Italian operators in the food sector?

VF: You can not give a general answer to this question. However, among the Italian operators in the food sector, there is a renewed and enhanced sensitivity to these issues, especially in the field of adaptation of cultures to current power requirements. Not just quantity but quality, environmental commitment and ethics in production.

LRP: The Expo comes after years of deep economic crisis in Italy. Between 2010 and 2012, the number of people who claim they can not afford a proper meal every two days in terms of protein has tripled. Do you think that, in the year of the Expo, the situation has improved?

VF: The situation has not objectively improved, as the true economic recovery is still in its infancy. The hope is that the timid signs of growth find a fertile ground to have a real impact on these statistics, which, like many other indicators relating to the expenditure of Italian families, cannot help but raise concern.

LRP: The Cremonini Group was born in Italy. In your opinion, how much does the brand  value “Made in Italy” in production, distribution and catering when Italian firms open themselves to the foreign market? In particular, on which of these three activities do you feel the brand has the most positive impact?

VF: Mainly in the distribution; that is the sector where “Made in Italy” has a very strong, detectable impact, even in recent years of crisis, in which the perception of Italian products for the foreign consumer is tied to an expectation of excellent quality. Also with regard to restaurants, the brand generates a confidence in the consumer, not only in the product in itself but also with respect to the service that accompanies it. In some northern European countries such as England, Belgium and France, the Italian product-service combination is perceived as an inseparable factor of success.

LRP: Generally speaking, do you think the success of Italian food abroad is related to the superiority of the Mediterranean diet as a nutritional model, or rather the perception of Made in Italy as a high level product?

VF: Undoubtedly, a product which falls in the Mediterranean diet scheme is immediately picked up in a positive way by the consumer because it generates an expectation of food completeness. On the other side, however, is the richness and variety of Italian food that many foreigners appreciate when they turn to Italian food: the taste of the many PDO and PGI products, the richness of regional recipes, excellent wines that accompany the different dishes, all mixed with the iconic beauty of the landscape, make the experience of “eating Italian” almost unique, especially because it is not limited only to large restaurants or famous chefs.

LRP: In what way can food be a driving factor for the economy of a country like Italy? And what can a government do to encourage the sector?

VF: The Italian food industry is extremely important for our economy, both domestic and export. The government has done a lot to encourage the industry, but more can be done, especially to improve the ability of companies to act synergistically against the foreign market with targeted interventions. Making systems and building a network of confidence in the public institutions can definitely improve the export performance of individual Italian producers. A positive example that I want to mention is that of the ICE-Institute of Foreign Trade Activity, which has taken advantage of the opportunities of the Expo, organizing over 20,000 meetings between foreign delegations visiting Expo and Italian companies. At the same time, they are stepping directly into operational missions in target countries, often with the participation of various members of the Government or the Prime Minister himself, who is working firsthand to support the Italian food industry.

LRP: In terms of social responsibility, the Cremonini Group has for years worked on respecting the environment, employee and consumer protection, support for scientific research and active contribution to the development of important initiatives for the people Africa, where you have worked for years. How much has this approach, which could be called “enlightened”, contributed to your success abroad?

VF: Definitely a lot. Just this week at Expo, we presented the new Social Report of Inalca, prepared according to the latest international standards, with specific facts showing that the company has a high rate of sustainability. With environmental impact, for example, we have shown that the production of beef in Italy, in connection with real consumption and suggestions for a balanced diet that come from official sources of the government, is sustainable for the environment. The “environmental Hourglass”, an innovative representation of the relationship between weekly consumed food portions and their environmental impact, shows that the environmental impact of meat is similar to that of fruit and vegetables.

LRP: Finally, what and how should we eat when in twenty-five years there will be 9 billion people on the planet?

VF: The only thing that is certain is that the increase in population will increase the demand for food, that regardless of the chosen eating patterns, it will affect both energy intake, mainly consisting of cereals, and protein such as meat, milk, eggs and vegetable protein. In particular, for animal proteins, FAO predicts demand to increase 60% by 2050 ( “Livestock in food security” – Rome, 2011). In this scenario it is clear that all food manufacturers must engage in the continuous search for more efficient use of existing agricultural areas and a simultaneous reduction of the environmental impacts of agriculture, industry and distribution, to respond to the the challenge that is at the heart of agricultural production: producing more while consuming fewer resources.