When the lockdown hammer fell on London's hospitality industry at the start of the 2020 pandemic, most chefs shut up shop and waited for the storm to pass. Not Mitshel Ibrahim, though.
As the Head Chef at Hackney's canalside Italian joint, Ombra, Mitshel took the Covid restrictions as an opportunity to dig in his heels and work on growing other areas of the business. Three weeks after the government's initial lockdown plan had been announced, Ombra had rebranded itself as a pastificio (pasta shop) and was already dishing out takeaway from its popular vantage point above Regent's Canal.
It's not hard to see where Mitshel's entrepreneurial spirit comes from when it comes to food. As the son of Egyptian restaurateurs, you might say that hospitality had always been in his blood, but we're inclined to think it was his Italian upbringing in Milan that led him to take up the mantle at Ombra. That, and having worked in some of London's most renowned kitchens - The Ten Bells, The Clove Club and Robin Gill's The Dairy group - of course.
Convinced he was the one to show us our cannolis from our cannellonis, we sat down with Mitshel to get his insider tips on Milan, from where to find a secret flamingo-filled garden that only locals know about, to the best spot in town for catching the sunset.
Where to aperitivo in Milan according to Ombra's Head Chef Mitshel Ibrahim
Describe Milan's vibe in three words…
Fashion, design, aperitivo.
When's the best time to visit?
As with most major cities in Italy that aren't by the sea, summer is definitely not the best time to visit. A lot of businesses close during the high season - usually July or August, or sometimes both. I really like September in Milan, when the leaves have started falling. May is also a great time to visit: the weather is starting to get warmer but still isn't too hot, so the city can be explored on foot. In the evenings people start to take over the pavements and streets, drinking, chatting and enjoying evenings outside again after the winter.
What's the city's dress code?
As the Italian capital of fashion, clothing for the Milanese is everything. Whatever you decide to wear, be aware that someone will probably stare and judge if it's not Gucci.
Describe a perfect day in Milan...
Stop in for breakfast at the local tabaccaio (literally, tobacco seller), which is usually a café with a few pastries that have been freshly baked that morning. They also sell the daily papers, and on Mondays are filled with locals who meet to drink espresso and stand around discussing the football referee's poor choices over the weekend. After that, head towards Castello Sforzesco, to visit the museum and, if the weather's nice, have a lie down at Parco Sempione. When it's time for a snack, head towards Piazza Duomo and look for Luini, a small long-standing bakery famed for its 'panzerotti' (deep fried calzone, a type of folded pizza). If you're after some culture, either visit the inside of the Duomo or Palazzo Reale, which usually hosts interesting exhibitions. Finally, head towards the Naviglio for an aperitivo, find a trattoria for an early dinner and end the day with an opera at "La Scala".
Where can we catch the best sunset views in the city?
The roof of the Duomo, from where you can see the entire city from above, as well as the intricate sculptures that decorate the outside of the cathedral building. It's magical up there.
It's Saturday night in Milan. Where should we head for aperitivo?
Bar Basso is where the Negroni Sbagliato, a close relative of the Negroni, was supposedly invented. This is Milan, so think elegant interiors and cocktails that are served in huge glasses with ice - one of these is usually enough for the night!
Trippa is perfect if your date likes bold, rustic flavours. If they don't, then find a new date.
Where's the best pizza in town?
Berberè Pizzeria, without a doubt.
Tell us about a secret spot only locals know about…
In Porta Venezia there is a garden with pink flamingos. Type "Villa Invernizzi" into Google Maps. Thank me later.
One thing we shouldn't miss while we're in town?
The Last Supper mural by Leonardo da Vinci.
Suggestions for day trips?
Lake Garda. There's a direct train from the main train station that'll get you there in an hour.
Finally, what's in your SUITCASE?
A lot of clothes. You don't want to be seen wearing the same pair of shoes twice in Milan, or locals will unfriend you very quickly.