An interview with an Italian self-taught, celebrity chef
He’s a self-taught chef and a rather famous one at that, but otherwise he would have become an anthropologist. His cooking ethos is all about “minimum of fuss, maximum of flavour.” Jamie Oliver worked for him, whilst Raymond Blanc, another self-taught chef, writes the foreword in his autobiography where he confesses to multiple suicide attempts. With 19 books to his name and a new pasta one in the making, he boasts knighthood titles of Commendatori and OBE for his contribution to the food industry in both Italy and the UK respectively. Meet the endearing Italian chef Antonio Carluccio who I interviewed in Dubai on his last visit.
1. What role do you play in Carluccio’s these days? I created together with my ex-wife the first Carluccio café in Covent Garden. Our investors said we should look at selling the company within five years. And then the company went public, and we sold our shares. My ex did something else, but I remained a consultant with the company which I still am today. And then [Dubai-based] Landmark bought the company in 2010. I was watching to see if they would move away from the original idea of what Carluccio’s was about but they didn’t and that’s very good. A sort of island of excellence with simple Italian food. So now [they are expanding] slowly with five units a year around the world.
2. Italian food varies drastically from region to region. Do you believe one restaurant can be all things to all people? No. I try to observe regionality because I know Italian food well. To cook good Italian food you have to come from the region. Most of the chefs don’t know another region. But I made it a task for myself to learn all Italian food. From food and drink programmes with the BBC and from my own initiative, I went from region to region learning what’s the best. I was born in the south [Amalfi coast] and brought up in the north [Piedmont] so I respect every region. The chauvinist Italians don’t! Every region is different because it uses local produce.
3. You have publicly said it’s important to remain loyal to ingredients and Italian cooking traditions. Personally I agree when it comes to Italian cuisine, but isn’t creativity also important? How do you marry the two? Up to a certain extent. You see quite a lot of Italian chefs going berserk with creativity. With fusion cuisine and the temptation with the produce on the market, many chefs want to make a point and become famous for a combination of things and sometimes it doesn’t work. The taste of lemongrass with mozzarella doesn’t fit! So it is better to focus on regionality with a little twist perhaps. For example, let’s take a traditional starter, parma ham and melon. I undertook to make it completely different as a soup and it worked fantastically. You take the melon and process it, so it becomes liquid. You add lemon, salt, pepper and a cube of ice. You then make a chiffonade of parma ham and put it on top and it’s wonderful. Same ingredients, but still Italian. Innovation in Italian food is not a great deal. But it’s preferable to cook something that is original and right in the proper way. Taste is the most important thing. When you have achieved that, you have achieved a lot.
4. I’ve heard the PR story about the origin of your signature and best-selling dish Penne Giardiniera, but would love to hear the true one. I was in our Ealing branch and the team there asked me could we have a vegetarian dish? So I asked them, do we have in the kitchen some spinach, penne pasta and courgettes? [Yes]. Well that’s all I need. So I went into the kitchen and I made a basic sauce of grated courgettes, a bit of garlic and chilli. Then separately I made those spinach balls which are fantastic – cook some spinach, squeeze it, add some parmesan, eggs, nutmeg and a few breadcrumbs. I made them into balls and fried them. I mixed the penne with the courgette sauce and added the spinach balls on top. Later on we donated 50 pence per portion of this dish to the charity Action Against Hunger raising [GBP] 750,000.
5. If there is one dish you cook to impress, what is it? And secondly, what would you have as your ‘last’ meal? A very good risotto always impresses. As my last meal – very simple – freshly cooked spaghettini with a tomato and basil sauce.
6. What do you think of Italian cuisine in restaurants here? I am not curious about other restaurants not because I don’t believe they are doing a good job, but because it looks like I may be going there to spy. I know my friend Giorgio Locatelli has a restaurant here that I believe is good. The fact is when am here I have so little time.
7. What’s your favourite restaurant in the world? A Chinese in Melbourne, Flower Drum, which was wonderful. There’s also good Italian cuisine there – Ronnie di Stasio’s café. In London there are more and more serious Italian restaurants focusing on regionality, quite a few Sardinian [restaurants].
8. Who was your mentor? Me! I never had any formal teaching because all my cooking came from the fact that I was alone in Vienna and I wanted to eat the food that my mother cooked so I had to make it myself. In doing so, it was a great way to reach people. I’d say to the girls, come and eat my pasta! I cook for passion, for interest. I’ve written 19 books, I’ve done 30 years of television and still do bits and pieces. That’s what gives me satisfaction.
9. If you hadn’t become a chef, what would you have done? I like to think a lot. I am never happy with just an explanation. In fact I would have liked to become an anthropologist. I like human beings. I speak five languages. It’s very satisfying.
There are five Carluccio’s cafes in Dubai (Dubai Marina Mall, Dubai Mall, Deira City Centre, Mirdif City Centre and the new Dubai airport terminal). My favourite by far is the former – from the take-away antipasti and wood-fired pizzas to pure soul food like the sublime chicken and lemon risotto, and of course the penne Giardiniera. Antonio Carluccio’s autobiography A Recipe for Life makes for an enthralling, yet sad read.
Do you think Italian restaurants in Dubai try to over-deliver? Should they focus on one regional cuisine? Where do you go for your Italian fix?