Served caught up with Gennaro Contaldo, the culinary Italian legend widely known as one of the most respected chefs in Italy and London and as Jamie Oliver’s mentor. In Malta for a family affair, he found time to have a lively and passionate conversation with Served publisher and lifelong fan Sam Psaila about food philosophies, latest ventures and favourite ingredients.
Who taught you how to cook and how much of your childhood is in your dishes?
I have to mention my entire family here. Every Sunday at least thirty close family members would get together for a meal and the food was always at the centre of everyone’s attention. My father also had a friend who ran a restaurant and he would drop me off there while he went off to visit his customers – my father was a cloth and linen dealer so travelled a lot -. I spent three years working my way up and soaking up everything there was to learn about Italian food. To begin with I was a glorified bus boy, moving on to killing produce such as poultry or rabbits following my first year as an apprentice.
“I have never got drunk, the most I’ve drank is one and a half glasses. I have one glass every single day and I enjoy it, but I always stop at one. It’s a legacy left to me by my father who always served wine at table. He always said wine is to enjoy and savour, water is to drink. “
What inspires you to create your recipes?
I am Italian to my very core; the seasons are my main inspiration for my recipes. Not in just what the harvest yields but in what the weather on the day inspires me to create. I look out of my window and depending on the weather that day I will make something that suits it.
And the inspiration for your many cookbooks?
My books are inspired by the people I’ve met along my travels. During the last TV show I did with Jamie Oliver travelling through Italy we discovered over 600 different pasta shapes not to mention well over 2000 sauces to go with them. Literally every village we visited had its own variation on a sauce from the region. This is very much my approach to cooking; to respect traditional ways and methods but to give it a distinctive touch through intuitive use of herbs and seasonings. After all, if you don’t give a recipe your own touch, then how can it stand out from anyone else’s. My students and proteges are consistently encouraged to give their own spin on a tried and tested recipe and like any good teacher I am delighted and proud when they surpass me.
What advice can you give young chefs starting out?
It’s simple really; work harder than you think you can. You must really want to be a chef and starting from the bottom is the only way to work your way up, be ready to do the hard graft and put in the long unsociable hours working on Christmas day or your birthday when required to. Don’t even think of the possible fame, just focus on the job to be the best cook you can possibly be. That was my primary goal, to be the best cook I could be.
And here the conversation inevitably goes to Jamie Oliver who he met years ago in the UK and with whom he enjoys a strong bond and enduring relationship. He uses Jamie’s ascent as a good example of working hard, starting in the kitchen at an even younger age than the usual eighteen.
The first time I met Jamie, I was struck by how young, passionate and hungry to learn he was. I taught him everything I know about Italian food. But his talents and success are completely his own.
What do you think it is about Italian food that has such an appeal across the world?
Ahh without a doubt, the seasonality and freshness of ingredients– with Italian food what you see is what you eat – simplicity in its truest form. Let’s take artichokes as an example; when they are in season you’ll find them in every market from north to south. Yet the way they are prepared and served changes from region to region. And nothing beats the joy in anticipating what each season brings. I love looking forward to the first cherries of the season for example.
The conversation turns to making tortellini and the interview veers slightly off track as Gennaro deftly produces a perfect ‘tortellone’ from a cloth napkin in seconds making it look effortless.
What did you think of the British food culture when you first arrived in the UK? And how far has it come since then?
I was so baffled by it when I first moved to England. I couldn’t understand why they would drown a perfectly fresh fish in batter or potatoes in lard of all things – where was the olive oil? And fried bread was so alien to me too. Today I can appreciate a good portion of fish and chips but I still don’t understand why you would fry pancetta or bread for breakfast?
Have you had a chance to sample Maltese food and if so what are your thoughts on it?
Maltese food is very good – I particularly like the rabbit here but I do make a lighter version of it using fresh rather than concentrated tomatoes which is more to my taste and liking. As for ‘gbejniet’ – they are wonderful!
What has been the most exciting collaboration you’ve worked on so far?
Antonio Carluccio, was such an important and large part of my life –All the travelling and working together in such close quarters created a stronger bond than that of brothers – I miss him dearly. With Jamie, on the other hand, it’s more of a father son relationship, sustained by the energy and passion we bounce off each other. I’m also close to my sister – in fact she and my wonderful partner edit and help with all my books.
What’s the next step for you in your career?
There is so much that interests me, and i have no intention of slowing down just yet. I love meeting new people around the world. I just finished recording a TV program with Jamie which took us on the road for two years, meeting so many new people and always learning more.
Your essential utensil – Definitely a chef’s knife.
Pasta or bread – Both!
Coffee or wine – Both!
Fish or meat – Both both both!
I cannot choose, it’s impossible, like telling one of your children you love them more than the other.
And then as swiftly and energetically as he arrives, Gennaro exits with hugs and kisses all round taking his energy and enthusiasm with him and leaving a lingering sensation that living legends tend to do.