Time & Leisure meet the Italian food legend Antonio Carluccio and we find out all about his latest books, the food scene and how he celebrates Christmas
With his crop of white hair, gruff voice and broad smile, celebrity chef Antonio Carluccio is instantly recognizable. At 79, with a career stretching back 50 years and 23 cookery books under his belt, he is certainly worthy of the title the ‘Godfather of Italian cuisine’.
And here at Time & Leisure we like to think of him as the Godfather of our Food and Drink Awards – he’s been our VIP guest since the awards began and he loves coming, he says.
“It’s very nice, lovely – lovely to keep in touch with the area in which one lives; quite exciting to see the newcomers,” he tells me when we chat at the awards ceremony.
Having lived in south west London for 41 years, the Italian-born chef has seen the food scene change. “How food has stepped forward is unbelievable – really in every direction – sometimes too many directions. But considering there are almost 80 different types of ethnic food, there is plenty of space.”
Of course, Carluccio loves all food but it is when he talks about Italian food that he truly lights up. He set up his first restaurant in Neal Street back in 1981 with his thenwife Priscilla Conrad. Thanks to that original restaurant in Covent Garden and the eponymous chain of delicatessens-cum- café that followed, he has helped bring the delights of Italian cuisine to the masses.
One of six children in Vietre sul Mare on the Amalfi coast, Carluccio was raised in Piedmont, where, aged seven, his life-long passion for hunting mushrooms began. After working as a wine merchant in Germany, he moved to London then took over the Neal Street Restaurant.
It wasn’t long before the winning formula of ‘honest’ Italian food saw the royal blue signs bearing his name become a familiar sight on many high streets. He sold his stake in the business ten years later and is now a consultant on menu development and chef training.
How does he feel about recent changes to the brand? “For me the most important thing is to maintain the quality of it. My philosophy is the philosophy of Italian food and you can’t change much of it,” he says with a shrug.
For Carluccio, a self-taught cook, it’s all about the taste. “You know we have dishes in Italy called ‘Brutti ma Buoni’ – which means ugly but good. That is important, you have to have the good taste and you achieve that with very good ingredients and not overdoing it. That’s all – very simple. It seems like people hate being simple, they have to complicate.”
For many of us, it is through his cookbooks that we came to love his cooking and he has just released his 23rd, entitled Vegetables. He is also planning to write about his 26 years running the Neal Street Restaurant, which boasted Prince Charles, Elton John and Hollywood stars among its patrons, and was where he taught Jamie Oliver his trade.
“Equally important is to transmit the gospel of Italian food through television,” he adds. He was last on our screens as one of the Two Greedy Italians, the BBC series that followed him and fellow chef Gennaro Contaldo as they cooked, savoured and sometimes bickered their way around Italy.
“Gennaro was my assistant for 15 years at the Neal Yard Restaurant. I know him well. I play sometimes the man that is a little bit annoyed with him. And sometimes I am,” he laughs. “All that we do is genuine – not scripted.”
There are no signs that he is slowing down any time soon. He’s recently been in the Australian Outback cooking Aboriginal food on Australian TV, for a show called Carluccio’s Corroboree. “I’ve done a lovely series about the Aborigines and they want another one. It’s showing in Australia but I am talking to the BBC to show it here as well.”
He cooks their specialities, including witchetty grubs. “I had one – not my cup of tea,” he pulls a face and shakes his head. “But extraordinary to see little children sucking it like a lollipop, right from the tree and they are moving like this,” he gestures, wriggling his finger.
He is also trying something new by writing a children’s book called Signor Porcini and Madame Chantelle, which he hopes will be out next year. “It is to show to British people what the mushroom world is about,” he explains.
When he’s not globetrotting or consulting for Carluccio’s he’s doing what he loves most – cooking. He is a chef ambassador to the Clink Restaurant at HM Prison High Down, where he has run workshops and shared recipes as part of the innovative rehabilitation programme for inmates. “The idea is to teach,” he says. “It’s a very good idea and I help in any way I can… it’s good to prepare people because it’s good for them to have something to do, otherwise they are lost.”
I ask what he’s planning to cook on Christmas Day but he tells me it’s his partner who does goose with all the trimmings. Christmas Eve, however, is his night. “I eat caviar with blinis, which I make, then I add the white truffle, which I don’t over-indulge with. You can do it too,” he enthuses. “I take a ramekin and butter it with truffle butter a little, break a couple of eggs and pour some double cream in, then I bake it in the oven until the white is solid and the yolk is still runny, then I take it out and grate truffle on top – wonderful! Wonderful! And those two things, they are enough.”
What’s his ideal Christmas gift? “Peace,” he says, then adds: “I am 79, I have pretty much all of it… Sometimes I like a kitchen gadget that is nonsensical. But good, peaceful c
ompany, lovely friends,” he smiles.
Ideal Christmas Gift? “Peace. I am 79, I have pretty much all of it… But good, peaceful company, lovely friends.”
Does he have a New Year’s resolution? “My resolution is not to have a resolution!” He laughs. And then he is off, wooden staff in hand, stopping to chat to others at our Awards, still spreading the word on the pleasures of Italian gastronomy.