TV chef Gennaro Contaldo has been in town, ahead of a new restaurant opening. He talks to RACHEL JONES about why eating is at the heart of family life and his friendship with business partner Jamie Oliver.
Over a feast of Mediterranean meats, cheeses and breads, Gennaro Contaldo declares a love for Portsmouth.
With arms waving Italian style, the exuberant chef and TV star indicates the restaurant window and says: ‘Look at this, it’s fantastic with the tables outside. It feels like anywhere on the Mediterranean.’
Gennaro is actually in Gunwharf Quays, and outside there’s a distinct nip in the air, but his enthusiasm is unabated. ‘I want to live here, it’s fantastic,’ he declares.
He is sitting in the new restaurant he runs with pal Jamie Oliver. The telly chefs are partners in the Jamie’s Italian chain of restaurants and Gennaro is in Portsmouth to see that things are running smoothly ahead of the opening on May 30.
His warmth and motivation fills the restaurant as he gives lightning orders to staff – in an animated rather than aggressive way.
The huge wooden boards of antipasti on the table in front of us are explained. ‘This is salami from Tuscany we have the olive oil from Puglia,’ he says.
‘Bring the San Daniele,’ he says to a member of staff. ‘This is a prosciutto from Veneto. We source as much as we can locally but we want the best Italian ingredients, so these things come from Italy.’
Anyone who has seen Two Greedy Italians – the current BBC series starring Gennaro and Antonio Carluccio – will know that Gennaro delights in fitting the passionate Italian mould.
And that comes across in real life too as he gushes enthusiastically about the new restaurant and even compares Portsmouth to his childhood home.
‘It reminds me of home, I grew up near the sea,’ he declares. Although he then adds thoughtfully: ‘It’s a little bit different,’ and later adds: ‘I love a lot of places, I always want to stay there.’
But still, it’s great for the city to receive any comparisons to the Amalfi Coast – the area of Italy where Gennaro spent his childhood.
In Minori, situated 30m above the sparkling Mediterranean, Gennaro would fish, hunt with his father and gather herbs for his mother. As a young child he learned to cook at home and has been working in restaurant kitchens since the age of 11.
It is the Italian passion for food that Gennaro and friend Carluccio have been bringing to our living rooms in their BBC series, visiting their home towns and other regions of Italy.
The series sees them cooking and meeting food lovers all over their native country. It explores the Italian tradition of big family dinners and has the two chefs frequently worrying about the modern attitude to food.
Unashamedly un-pc in the programme, Antonio and Gennaro have often wondered why some women don’t want to cook.
And Gennaro says during his Portsmouth visit: ‘I know if people are single they might not like cooking. But if a young lady of 20 meets somebody she likes and she can make him a fantastic dinner. That might be good.’
But his attitude is actually that all people should be able to cook, not just women. Gennaro’s father Francesco was excellent in the kitchen, making most of the family meals. ‘Everyone has a different view. I know things have changed. But I was brought up in a family where everyone cooked – my mother, my father, my sister,’ says Gennaro.
‘In Italy everything revolves around food. Sometimes in the cities people don’t cook but they all like to go home to mama or grandma.
‘An 11-year-old boy will go into an Italian restaurant and he already knows what he wants to order. And he can probably tell you how to cook it.’
Gennaro has eight-year-old twins and they are already learning to help in the kitchen. He says he and his wife cook in equal measures.
‘I always eat everything but sometimes I say this could have been done like this,’ he says smiling. ‘But of course I know, I’m in the kitchen every day.’
He says eating and cooking is one of the most important parts of family life and he believes children should be educated and encouraged.
‘Cooking is therapy. If you have children, when they come home from school you can say ‘look what mummy has made for you’. First you are giving them the best food and second you are giving them so much love. And when they grow up, they remember.
‘And if you teach them to cook, they will always have that.’
As far as Gennaro is concerned, his own family includes Jamie Oliver. The pair have been close friends ever since the older chef mentored the young Jamie at Antonio Carluccio’s Neal Street Restaurant in London.
‘He is not like family.’ Gennaro declares at that suggestion. ‘He is family. My children love him. We speak on the phone or text every day. We say what we’re doing, where we’re going. We don’t talk about business.’
Gennaro named one of his twins, Olivia, after Jamie, who has also received a warm welcome in Minori – the village Gennaro left to come to England in the 1960s.
‘Almost everyone in the village considers him a part of it. They believe he is my son. My father even believed Jamie was my son. He said why he got those blue eyes? And Jamie considered him his grandad – his Amalfi Coast grandad.’
Jamie and Gennaro work out the restaurant menus together with executive chef Jules Hunt. Gennaro may have a glittering career and award-winning restaurant – Passione – behind him, but he says there’s nothing more he can teach Jamie. ‘The student has become the master. He’ll say that’s good, but you will like it with a bit more of this. Fantastico. We always agree.’
As Two Greedy Italians viewers will know, his relationship with Antonio is a little less harmonious.
The chefs laugh and bicker their way around Italy in equal measures. And Gennaro says filming the series was great fun.
‘We agree on food. But Antonio gets a bit upset sometimes, sometimes he is moaning about something and I want to tell him ‘life is beautiful’. So to cheer him up I pick on him.
‘But we laughed so much. We were in a car and had microphones all over us and out blew a bit of wind. We said ‘was it you, it wasn’t me’. And we looked at each other and laughed so much I though I was going to have a heart attack.’
When they’re not indulging in toilet humour, they’re promoting the virtues of simple, traditional food – fusion isn’t in this pair’s vocabulary.
And simplicity is also a feature of the Jamie’s Italian menu. ‘We do the Bolognese and the carbonara – why not, people love that. But we do it well. And we have other things, like cuttlefish pasta and squid ink risotto,’
Many years ago Jamie told Gennaro he would open restaurants and they would work together, and that Gennaro wouldn’t have to work hard any more.
But as he races around, discussing recipes with senior staff, the 62-year-old shows know signs of slowing down.
‘He says one day I’m going to open restaurants all over the country. I don’t want you to work hard any more, he says – what a big liar!,’ laughs Gennaro. ‘But he makes sure I’m looked after and I love it.’