Preparing to speak tonight at the British Museum about Renaissance art in Italy, celebrated restauranteur Antonio Carluccio was keen to share with Londonist - via a phone conversation this morning - his thoughts about art, the success behind his eponymous chain of restaurants as well as a bit about Italy, women and a whole lot about his love for his favourite city - London!
Can you share briefly a bit about your history as a chef and restauranteur and how you got your start in London?
I am not a chef. I am a cook. I never learned the trade. I taught myself to cook years ago when living in Vienna. I wanted to eat the food my mother had made for me growing up. It was not only fantastic for me but for my friends who were very appreciative to have me make food for them.
I love sharing Italian food. Everybody is very accepting of it. It's very satisfying without costing much money. I motto is MOF cuisine: minimum of fuss, maximum of flavour.
Despite the coming and going of different cuisines, including fusion, all the types of Italian food are still valuable and popular.
I am currently working on a show for BBC 2 regarding the cultural aspect of food. So many of the cooking shows today are banal and without appreciation of the meaning of food. I want to investigate the background and origins of food.
Where are you from in Italy?
I am from the Amalfi coast but was brought up in the north. In that way, I am blessed with the various cultures of Italy and I think that is what gave me the impetus to be a sort of ambassador of Italian cuisine.
Do you live in London?
Yes, I live in Putney. Right now I am in my wonderful garden, my upper body naked in the sun. As I speak with you I am admiring the vegetables growing in my garden.
What brought you to London and what are some of your favourite things about this city?
A woman many years ago. Then another woman and then another and .. but the last one lasted for 27 years. I've had plenty of time to try all sort of things. Life is interesting.
London is underrated. I've lived in many towns. Judging by what I could see, London is the most free city in the world offering the most democratic life. If you behave, everybody respects and may even admire you.
There's a good degree of privacy. You may not see a friend for eight years but when you do everything's okay. I love it.
There's a sense of liberty and freedom here that's difficult to find elsewhere. In other places, you have to follow their way of life. Here you can do anything - unless it's naughty - and nobody will disturb you. That's unique. It's probably the same in New York, but it's more impersonal there. Here you can choose your life and you're not condemned to choose a certain society.
I've lived abroad for 50 years, trying to learn wonderful things and make them my own. If you live like this, inevitably your own country does not seem as fantastic to you as it may once have. Obviously, Italy is full of great art, culture and food, but life is narrow minded. I need more horizons.
How involved are you with the Carluccio's chain of restaurants?
I am still very involved. I try to look at the dishes for each new season. As in Italy, the four seasons are observed at Carluccio's restaurants. Obviously, there's no local produce at our restaurants; we import from Italy. But the balance of Carluccio's is simple food that doesn't cost very much. The benefits of low cost production are something the restaurants provide to the customer. Good food at a low price has been my recipe for success.
The philosophical aspects of operation are often not considered in many restaurants. People want freedom to enjoy their meal - the secret of Carluccio's success is that good food doesn't' need to be super expensive to be appreciated.
What's it been like to see your protege Jamie Oliver rise to such levels of fame and success?
Fantastic! To see this young man with such good management behind him is great.
Any other colleagues or employees you're particularly proud of?
Plenty. Many chefs have done well including an English one. They are spread everywhere sometimes not making much publicity for themselves. They all may not have become super chefs but can do their own little thing and are very successful and receive accolades when they do something very well.
Can you tell us a bit about your association with the British Museum's Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings exhibition?
Tonight I will be speaking to a couple hundred people about Renaissance art at the British Museum. The relationship between art and food was very important during the Renaissance. I did a film for the BBC about the first celebrity chef in 1400. Today his cooking would be considered inedible (a handful of cinnamon, a handful of sugar) but at the time it was sensational. The Church in Italy then was far reaching giving rich people in Europe access to spices from the Middle East and other exotic flavours for the first time.
Today, the food scene is sad. People confuse what good food is all about people with more money than brains. I agree, in history, that people have to create new dishes but, for me, something like molecular gastronomy seems like something that should be developed in a lab and not in a kitchen. If it can be used to feed the population, great, but none of these dishes are applicable to be cooked at home. They need special gadgets. I was speaking to a chef involved in molecular gastronomy once who said his goal was to “shock people”. I responded that he certainly had achieved that.
You can go to the excesses of creating extravagant dishes but these offer no value to the people. There's no need for good food to be expensive.
Any tips on creating the perfect Italian dining experience in one's home here in London?
Not to shake! By that I mean don't add too much salt. Take it easy, buy very good ingredients and treat them simply. The biggest success in society is to share everything. It could be a piece of salami or cheese but to share food with others is important. For example it's not necessary to show off to many woman some sort of Cordon Bleu experience because after awhile that goes wrong.
Find out more about Antonio Carluccio at the Carluccio's website.