The Italian Job: Gennaro Contaldo

By Alex Meehan. First published in The Sunday Business Post, February 17th, 2013.

IMG_2213Gennaro Contaldo is one of the most recognisable faces in the food world. A respected chef in his own right, he’s appeared in multiple TV series, written award winning food books and run successful restaurants but is still best known as mentor to TV’s reigning culinary giant Jamie Oliver.

In Dublin for a routine staff meeting at Jamie’s Italian in Dundrum, he’s taking the chefs through their paces, working on specials and making sure things are as they should be – this is his role in the chain and with more than 30 restaurants to look over, he spends a lot of time on the road.

On the morning I visit to interview him, it’s clear it’s a hands-on position – Trevor Oliver, Jamie’s Dad, and Contaldo address the floor staff together and work in the kitchen while Irish business partner Gerry Fitzpatrick looks on. The morning takes an immediate turn for the surreal when instead of a sit-down interview, he insists we need to get into the kitchen first.

He soon has me ricing potatoes to prepare potato gnocchi while he whips up two different sauces to go with our lunch. In five minutes flat, he’s prepared fresh gnocchi with smoked mozzarella, tomatoes, chilli, garlic and basil and a separate gnocchi dish with butternut squash, rosemary and garlic.

And just because the restaurant received an order of great looking giant Amalfi lemons that morning, he finishes with a linguine dish dressed with lemons and pecorino cheese.

“I started work in the kitchen at the age of about 10. My father was a linen dealer and I ended up in the kitchen by mistake. He had a good friend, Alfonzo, who had a restaurant in the next town to where we lived and one day he was called away and dropped me off there to be looked after,” he says.

“I was only meant to stay for the afternoon, but three years later I was still rushing there after school and on the holidays to learn as much as I could. I wanted to learn it all and the first thing I learned was to shut up and listen.”

Contaldo comes across as a really genuine guy, and is exactly the same in person as he is on TV. He’s been living in the UK for over 40 years, yet he retains a charmingly dense Italian accent. However life wasn’t simple for the young chef when he arrived in the UK in the late 1960s.

With many years of professional cooking under his belt, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of regional Italian cuisine, he expected to hit the ground running, cooking the dishes he knew and loved from home. But there were problems when he got his first job as a chef in London.

“There were dishes on the menu that didn’t exist in Italy and there were also dishes that were completely different even though they had the same names,” he says.

“I worked in a restaurant bang in the middle of Mayfair and on my first day I was asked to make a spaghetti carbonara – ‘easy’ I thought, ‘I know this’. By then I’d been all over Italy and I knew my job upside down and inside out. But the head chef said ‘can I show you how we make it?’ I said ‘of course’ and I couldn’t believe my eyes when he started to make a béchamel sauce and then started adding cheese.”

Béchamel sauce is made with butter, flour and milk but proper spaghetti carbonara uses none of these – it’s made with raw beaten egg, using the residual heat in cooked pasta to cook the egg into a creamy silky sauce – no Italian worth their salt adds cream or uses a béchamel type of sauce in a proper carbonara.

“It was awful, just disgusting. But it got worse – after he’d made this gloopy thick sauce, he added it to spaghetti which was pre-boiled. They used to cook all the pasta for the restaurant in advance and then reheat it when the orders came in. I couldn’t believe it.”

“It was so far from authentic Italian cuisine I didn’t know what to say. I tried to argue with the guy but all he’d say was ‘this is how the customers want it’ but I couldn’t bring myself to cook such rubbish. They fired me on the spot.”

IMG_2263Contaldo says this approach to Italian cooking was common in the 1970s and the food served in many restaurants of the day bore little resemblance to that found in Italy.

“That was very common at the time. Many of the Italian people who turned up in the UK and decided to open restaurants weren’t necessarily great cooks. They improvised and made-up what they didn’t know,” says Contaldo.

Things have moved on enormously in Ireland and the UK, he believes, but even now it can be hard to find truly authentic Italian food.

“What’s changed since the 1970s is that now people travel a lot more. More and more Irish and English people have visited Italy and realise that what was being served at home isn’t the same as what was being served in Italy. Their tastes have changed.”

“It also started to become a lot easier to get quality ingredients. I remember when you could only buy olive oil in a pharmacy– it was used for cleaning out your ears,” he says. “Now you can get extra virgin olive oil everywhere.”

Recovering from his disastrous start, Contaldo went on to have a successful career in London, working with respected Italian chef Antonio Carluccio and later, co-owning his own influential restaurant Passione.

“I worked with Antonio for a long time – he’s a fantastic chef. We offered London customers much more authentic traditional dishes and pretty soon, we started to see these versions of our dishes appearing on other Italian restaurant menus. But for a long time, it was hard work,” he says.

In Ireland Contaldo is best known for his TV work with Carluccio and with his protégé Jamie Oliver. He’s been involved in the Jamie’s Italian chain since it launched in 2008. Oliver turned up on Contaldo’s doorstep as a teenager looking for work, having asked around and being told that Carluccio’s Neal Street restaurant was the best in London.

Contaldo is philosophical about the meeting – it wasn’t unusual for young chefs to appear at the back door looking for work but he would send them away to apply at the restaurant’s office. Something about the teenager’s sincerity impressed him however, and Contaldo took him on. Oliver did a stint as a pastry chef before moving on to the River Café as a sous chef.

“Jamie comes from a humble family. His dad Trevor was a chef with his own pub, and Jamie grew up in the kitchen with his dad. But when he was 14 or 15, he decided to go down to London, to improve his skills and to bring them back to the family pub. He went to catering college but at the time cooking training emphasised French food much more than Italian.”

“But Jamie decided he wanted to focus on Italy. It’s the simplicity that got him – it’s not so sauce based and there’s nowhere to hide if you make a mistake. It’s quick and it’s based around quality produce,” he says.

“So one morning at 7am he knocked on my door. I looked at him and to be honest I was pretty annoyed. I’d been in work until late the night before and was back in at the crack of dawn, so I was tired and a bit irritable. He had a mop of curly blonde hair and looked a quarter of his age.”

“He had a spark, something about him. I wanted to teach him because I thought he had something. He asked lots of questions, people liked him and he clicked. After two or three weeks, he was doing everything. He was the first in and last out every day and he worked hard.”

Twenty years later the pair are working together again. Contaldo works full time with the Jamie’s Italian chain  and the pair have perhaps the most unlikely friendship and partnership in the food industry. Contaldo says at 64 he’s twice Oliver’s age yet the two have never had a significant disagreement and that their business relationship hasn’t damaged their friendship — he works “with Jamie for us.”

Meanwhile, the Jamie’s Italian juggernaut shows no signs of slowing. There are already more than 30 restaurants in the chain with one in Ireland in Dundrum, and plans to open more in Perth in Australia, St Petersburg and VivoCity in Singapore, as well as more in the UK in 2013 alone.

“I have the freedom to do whatever I want. I travel to all the restaurants constantly, looking at the specials and helping each of the restaurants solve the problems that they need help and advice for. I cook a lot – I get behind the stove as often as possible,” he says.

“I get tired obviously – after two or three hours hard graft I’m done but the younger guys and girls, the 25 year olds, can go and go just like I did when I was their age.”

“We do sourcing all the time. It’s a matter of love and passion, searching for the best local produce for each restaurant. Here in Ireland, you have the most amazing meat, great beef and lamb. Sure, you don’t have lemons or olive oil, but as much as possible we used local ingredients and in Ireland you genuinely have some of the best produce in the world. The fish here is great, you have the best fish.”

“There are some things – prosciutto, mozzarella, olive oil, lemons – that have to come from Italy, but as much as possible we work locally.”