Chef, restaurateur, food writer and TV personality – Aldo Zilli certainly is a tour de force. Angela Cave delves into his marvellous world and finds out the next project on his list!
If you want something done give it to a busy person is an adage which so often proves to be correct – and in the case of chef and TV star Aldo Zilli it is certainly true. His restaurants are testaments to the love of food that he has had since his childhood in Alba Adriatica, in the Abruzzo region of Italy, and with books, TV programmes, a cookery school and his role as executive consultant chef to the San Carlo Group, resting on his laurels is not on the cards! We had the pleasure of chatting to him about all things culinary – with a bit of Italian common sense thrown in!
You came from a family of 9, that must have made for busy mealtimes when you were a boy?
It did, we were poor, I had seven brothers and one sister and I am the youngest so it was lively!
My mother was a cook who could conjure up fantastic food from very little – and she made sure that we all had enough to eat, and that it was good and wholesome too – we had no money but we had lots of love.
I worked in a fish mongers as soon as I was old enough to, and got paid in fish to help the family out. I loved being in the kitchen, though that was not what boys were supposed to do according to my Dad who was keen that I join my brothers in the local leather factories. Being me, I didn’t listen, and so I learnt a lot about simple good cooking from my mum and that has stayed with me, in fact my next book will be a book on Cecina Povera- literally poor cooking – that just means simple basic ingredients cooked to bring out the very best.
I guess that means that you have to start with really great ingredients – plump juicy tomatoes and luscious lemons…
Absolutely, and that means that you need to know how to buy well which is a skill we are forgetting. In Italy we go to the market, we pick up the melon to see if it is ripe, we chose the very best peppers – which are not shrink wrapped – and we smell the produce too, if you did that here you might be arrested! People need to be aware of buying well, getting to know their supplier and letting them know what you want – just because fruit and vegetables are identical doesn’t mean they taste good.
You have fabulous ingredients in this country, you have seasonal food and you have regional food so you need to celebrate that – I will say that I think British chefs are now the best in the world, you have some truly amazing talent.
How did you get into cooking as a profession?
We moved from the hills to the coast and there were a lot of hotels. I thought that with the cooking I learnt from my Mum I could work in a hotel kitchen, because if you could cook you could eat. It was a way to support not only myself but my family. I ended up learning German from working there and then aged sixteen I went with my mate Nino – one is brave at that age – to live in Germany. It was tough and it was lonely, no communication with friends and family, no mobiles, but I learnt a lot and I learnt quickly.
On my travels in Germany and Switzerland I met a girl who said London was amazing and that I should go. I didn’t really want to but she went and I followed, and as soon as I arrived I loved it and felt that I wanted to stay, so I did.
You are a such a busy person, you are on the TV, you have a programme on Radio Soho every Monday from 11-12, you have a new TV series on the way, how do you juggle it all?
I guess I have always been busy, when you come from a big family you just have to get on with it. I love my work and I love new projects too – so I don’t really think about it, I just do it and most of the time it is great fun, there are challenges too but life is a bit like the sea, rough bits and smooth bits but always a journey to go on.
When you cook for someone special what do you cook?
I love to cook seabass in black salt from Sicily – the drama of cracking the crust always impresses – and it tastes delicious. With it we would drink a delicious Trebbiano pecorino from the Abruzzo – pecorino is a grape variety as well as a cheese – and the wine is so typical of my region – ahh, perfect!
What is the latest thing that you cooked that you love?
Actually it is grape jam from my own grapes which grow along the side of my house – I couldn’t think what to do with them and then I remembered my mother’s marmellata which she made after the harvest; and it is delicious, I will make a crostata with it.
What advice would you give to someone going into the industry today – and what would you have been if not a chef?
Honestly, do something else! No, really it is so different now from when I started, we worked seven days a week, fifteen hours a day, you wouldn’t be allowed to do that now and there are fantastic opportunities, but is hard work for sure. If I wasn’t a chef I would have liked to be a drummer – or an actor. I love films – I was in Emmerdale and it was great, so that is my other career choice.
We are now eating out so much more and travelling more too and I am guessing that that is reflected in the food we want to eat.
I think it is, my restaurants recognise that and, for example, San Carlo Fumo in St Martins Lane offers cicchetti, which are small plates representing many regional specialities. This gives people the chance to discover new things as well as being reunited with culinary friends!