Antonio Carluccio is the doyenne of Italian cooking and famed for the Carluccio restaurant chain and his love of mushrooms, the author of 22 books, a TV celebrity and much more. He talks to Lynda Clark about his fascinating life and career and how it all began
FTB: Tell us about your property experiences?
AC: I have always lived in apartments and this is the first house I have ever bought on my own in the UK. I really fell in love with this place as it looks like a cottage from the outside, but inside it opens up into a really lovely space. I also adore the garden and spend as much time outside as possible. I am writing another book at the moment and I don’t like doing it on a computer, so I sit in the garden and write – it’s very inspirational. When I first came to London, I moved in with a friend who lived in Cheyne Walk in Chelsea and I really enjoyed the area so, when I moved out and lived on my own, I decided to stay in Chelsea and rented an apartment.
FTB: You adore cooking; did that passion start when you were a child?
AC: With all Italian families, food is very important and, in Italy, everyone is interested in cooking and also being a food critic. We were a large family – I am the fifth of six children – and my mother prepared the food, while I would watch her. We always ate our meals together and discussed what was on the table. We moved around a lot, as my father was a stationmaster on the railways. In fact, I was born on the Amalfi coast in the south, but when I was seven months old, we moved to the north. My mother still cooked the regional dishes from the south, but also adapted her recipes to what you could buy locally. When I moved to Vienna as a student, I had to start cooking for myself and I wanted to create the same food that my mother had served when I was growing up, so I started experimenting to create delicious Italian food.
FTB: You love mushrooms, how did that start?
AC: In Italy everyone loves hunting for mushrooms and, as children, you are taught to know which ones are edible and which ones are not. I used to go with a friend’s father to hunt for mushrooms and truffles and he told wonderful stories and explained a great deal about fungi. I then started going by myself and I would take all the mushrooms I had gathered home to the family to enjoy. I still adore mushrooms and I love going to the English countryside and hunting for them.
FTB: How did Carluccio’s start?
AC: When I left Italy, I moved to Vienna and studied languages. I then became a wine merchant, working in Berlin and Hamburg, and I learnt to speak German, which was very useful. In 1975, when I was 38, I moved to London. I never, ever wanted a restaurant, but then I got married to Terence Conran’s sister, Priscilla. She knew that I had a passion for cooking and persuaded me to enter a cookery competition run by the Sunday Times. I didn’t actually win, but the papers took a great deal of interest in me and I sort of became a hero! Terence knew I could cook and he also knew I had a great deal of experience when it came to different wines, and he asked me if I would run the Neal Street restaurant in Covent Garden which he owned. So, I ran the restaurant and three years later I bought it from him. Eventually, the shop next door became vacant and Priscilla and I decided to open a delicatessen selling the absolute best Italian produce you could buy. It was a great success and we decided that it might work as a cafe as well. This was the very first Carluccio’s and, in 2005, when we decided to sell the chain, there were dozens of Carluccio Caffès and we made £10 million. I think the secret to the success of Carluccio’s is that I insisted on quality and using the best possible ingredients. I am still a consultant for the Carluccio chain today.
FTB: You are always busy, what are you doing now?
AC: I have written 22 books and I am currently writing another book on vegetables. I am a consultant for the Carluccio chain and will be off to the opening of new branches in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Dublin, plus they are also opening two restaurants in the US, the first time we have ventured into the American market. I also teach chefs and oversee their examinations. I am always very busy with lots of projects on the go.
FTB: What have been the highlights of your long career?
AC: I was awarded the OBE in 2007, which was a great honour, and then I was awarded the Commendatore OMRI, by the President of Italy, for services to Italian gastronomy, which is the equivalent of a British knighthood. I have been responsible for starting the careers of some wonderful chefs, including Jamie Oliver, but everything I do is a highlight as I am truly a passionate man.
FTB: What is your favourite recipe?
AC: The most important thing when serving food is to create the right atmosphere and to enjoy the company of the people who are at the table with you. I always love making mushroom risotto and there is nothing better than the purity of simple spaghetti made with tomatoes and basil. The other day, I was in the countryside and I collected fresh dandelions, sorrel, rape and nettles, then added some carrots and potatoes and made the most delicious wild soup.