Antonio Carluccio – Full of the flavours of life
In London with the charming Antonio Carluccio, the chef of Two Greedy Italians fame, who went on to train the likes of Jamie Oliver.
Antonio CarluccioIt was a perfect July evening in London. With a teeny nip in the air that made me shiver occasionally. “Go put a jumper on,” Antonio said.
“I haven’t brought any. It was 35 degrees in Italy.”
“Go to my room and look in the chest of drawers. Pick a colour you like.”
Sabine and I went up to their room and I found myself a blue jumper that was stylish and warm. Rather like its owner, I thought to myself.
Antonio looked up from the stick he was whittling for me and smiled at me. “It looks good on you,” he said.
I slipped into the chair opposite him while Sabine opened a bottle of wine for us. Antonio gave up drinking some years ago. Life makes him heady on its own, he said.
Mostly, I am wary of meeting people I have worshipped from afar, be it a writer, movie star, sports hero or celebrity chef. Somehow, the shimmer that surrounds them seems like cheap tinsel when you draw closer. But with Antonio Carluccio, and at the risk of sounding like Anne of Green Gables fame, it was truly a meeting of a kindred spirit. This was a man whose vision of food matched mine of writing. As he writes in his memoirs, Natura Veritas, nature, the truth.
Unlike most well-known chefs, Antonio has had no real formal training. This is a chef who first discovered the solace cooking can offer on the day after the funeral of his beloved younger brother Cicci. Antonio was 23 and the slow methodical work that filleting anchovies for the Piedmontese dip bagna càuda demanded was exacting and offered an escape route to forget for a while. A few months later, Antonio left his job at Olivetti in Turin and moved to Vienna to be with Inge, his then girlfriend. He would do this again and again, move cities and countries to be with the woman he is in love with. In fact, it is this sensuality and childlike faith in happy endings that epitomises Antonio’s brand of cooking. Food that you don’t want to stop eating; food that satisfies both body and soul and makes you think you can take on the world and all it entails; food that is mof-mof — minimum fuss, maximum flavour.
We went to a Chinese restaurant that evening for dinner. Antonio loves Chinese food and chose the most bizarre dishes in the menu from fried chicken claws to sea urchins to the offal of offal. The stewardess was a young girl who looked like she had stepped out of a Chinese watercolour. Her features are delicate and her complexion perfect. Antonio gazed at her and sighed, “I wonder at the hardship she must have gone through to get here.”
Sabine and I started giggling. Antonio has a wild streak of imagination, which would have him imagine her journey to London like something straight out of a movie: a young girl leaving home with a jade egg entrusted to her by her grandmother; much trials and tribulations later, she lands in London only to discover nothing in her life has changed.
Eventually, Antonio asked the girl where she was from. “Fulham,” the girl said in a perfect English accent. She had never been to China, she said.
For the rest of the evening, we teased Antonio, but it is this same imagination that led Antonio towards food and its making.
In Vienna, when Antonio began to miss the food he grew up on, he began cooking regularly. The love affair had palled by then, but there was again food and its preparation to fill the hours and make everything so much more lively. So much about great cooking owes itself to remembering. We recreate dishes from our childhood, dredging from memory flavours and methods we have seen our mothers perfect. Antonio procured recipes from his mamma and built on them.
After a few more city and career changes (and unhappy endings), Antonio moved to London in 1975 with his dog Jan. He was 38, divorced and had a job with a wine importer. There was also Christa.
But it would be a few more years before Chef Carluccio was born. The chef who would go on to have his own signature restaurant on Neal Street and a string of deli-cafés across the U.K.; the chef who trained the likes of Jamie Oliver; a chef who has written several books and done several TV series, including Two Greedy Italians and Carluccio and the Leopard. He was now on first-name basis with royalty and rock stars, authors and artists; and the once small-town boy had come of age.
At 78, Antonio may have retired from being an active restaurateur. But he is still creating recipes, still cracking his funny jokes, whittling sticks, still filming his TV shows and still celebrating life. The atheist that he is makes him live every moment to its fullest.
I think of how when we first met he said I was happy in my skin. He is too, I think, which is why he is both my mentor and friend; guru and compadre. The person I want to be like the most.
I imagine him sitting at his dining table, working on a new recipe or the new book he is writing… I think of our many serious conversations on life and the laughter we shared. When I miss him most, I smear a piece of toast with the Mostarda he creates from his mamma’s recipe (and which I have stocked up on) and bite into it. I see his house hung with his paintings. There is one that I love — that of his dog Jan gazing at a Christmas tree and seeing on it, instead of tree ornaments, cutlets, chops and bones.
I think of how when a literary associate of mine came to visit one night, Antonio made dinner. The guest was suitably wowed. Later, as we sat in the garden talking work, Antonio came up with two shawls and wrapped it around our shoulders. There is a gallantry to him that one sees so seldom anymore. A finesse that is his signature on every dish he creates and cooks.