The battle of the celebrity chefs

FLAVOUR Antonio Carluccio entertains guests at the opening of his new restaurant in Chichester
FLAVOUR Antonio Carluccio entertains guests at the opening of his new restaurant in Chichester
Pat and Dave Southern are celebrating thier diamond wedding annivserary ''Picture by:  Malcolm Wells (180419-1480)

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As couples and friends meander past Carluccio’s on a gorgeous sunny evening, looks of surprise and then delight register on their faces.

Sat outside the new restaurant, looking like he could be relaxing at any pavement cafe in Italy, is the man himself.

TASTY Jamie Oliver's business partner Gennaro Contaldo at their new restaurant at Gunwharf Quays

TASTY Jamie Oliver's business partner Gennaro Contaldo at their new restaurant at Gunwharf Quays

Antonio Carluccio is instantly familiar, with his deep Mediterranean complexion, shock of white hair and gruff, heavily-accented voice.

One woman passing the Chichester eatery can’t hold back and warmly congratulates the telly cook and food author on the latest addition to the Carluccio’s restaurant chain. Another lady comes up with a menu and Antonio signs it with a polite smile.

The 74-year-old cook is in town for the restaurant’s launch party.

Carluccio’s is the latest of several eateries to open in the area bearing famous names from the world of food. One of its nearest neighbours in Chichester’s Eastgate Square is Raymond Blanc’s place.

But although it looks like they are in direct competition, Antonio regards Brasserie Blanc in a relaxed manner.

‘There is no competition, there is space for everybody’ he says, before declaring: ‘Raymond Blanc is a friend, I have known him for many years. And hats off to him. He is producing cuisine there at a very high level’

As for other celebrity chef eateries in the area, such as Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Italian at Gunwharf Quays, Antonio declares mischievously: ‘I am very flattered that they all want to be like me.’

Antonio originally set up the restaurant business with ex-wife Priscilla, but has since sold it. He now acts as a consultant and is heavily involved in creating the menu.

Despite being of .. ahem, advanced years, the much-loved writer and presenter is showing no signs of slowing down.

‘I am rather old,’ he admits.

‘But don’t call me a pensioner. I feel very young. I still don’t have the bus pass, I don’t want it. In the cinema I pay the full price. I can’t think about not working.’

Sure enough, he has just returned from his mother country where he has been filming the second series of his latest telly venture Two Greedy Italians.

The last series saw Antonio and old friend and colleague Gennaro Contaldo looking at the food cultures of Italy’s diverse regions.

They cooked and laughed their way around their native country. But most of all they bickered for, as viewers quickly discovered, exuberant Gennaro and the more serious Antonio often don’t see eye to eye.

‘He likes to show me as the grumpy one and he teases me,’ says Antonio, casually smoking a Marlboro and looking like all that nonsense is beneath him.

‘I let him until he becomes offensive.’

It makes for great entertainment, Antonio admits. In real life, the pair have reached an understanding following a falling-out that lasted for 10 years.

Gennaro was Antonio’s assistant and worked for him at London’s Neal Street restaurant, where he also met and mentored a very young Jamie Oliver.

Eventually they were reunited for a magazine article.

‘Ten years is too long,’ says Antonio.

‘He is a nice man, as a friend. In business, he is ambitious. I think he would like to be like me.’

The grizzled, self-declared king of Italian cuisine seems more frank and grounded than his tigger-like friend, who spent a good part of Two Greedy Italians trying to find Antonio a girlfriend.

‘I’ll find my own,’ he says when asked if Gennaro has helped him strike lucky.

His single status has been much publicised since his split from his wife a few years ago. Antonio reportedly suffered a period of depression, but he doesn’t want to talk about that. He’s moved on.

On the subject of food though, he’ll not surprisingly talk for England – or Italy.

The cook (he is not a chef, he says, as he is self-taught) grew up in the Piedmont area where his mother created family meals, often using the mushrooms young Antonio had collected in the woods and hills.

He taught himself to cook while he was a student in Vienna.

‘I did it because it was my desire to have the food of my mother,’ he recalls.

‘And for the girls. It worked very well. I can’t understand why men don’t learn. If you can cook something for a girl, it’s fantastic.’

But he believes creating a great Italian meal is largely the preserve of the natives.

‘To achieve the real taste of Italy you have to know it well, you must know the regions, the customs.’

Antonio’s speciality is famously mushrooms and he encourages people in the UK to find out more about them.

‘It’s the season now. Every state in Europe, from Finland to Spain to Greece, they go and pick them.

‘In Britain, you don’t have the culture. Parents point to fungus and say ‘‘don’t touch’’. You have to be careful, but in France and Italy people know what to do.’

Antonio has lived in London for almost 40 years. But he is often saddened by the British attitude to its own food culture.

‘Despite thousands of hours of television and millions of books, Britain is still the Cinderella of the countries regarding food. In London you can get 80 different types of ethnic cuisine, but you don’t know your own food. That’s ridiculous.’

He believes the UK has some great food traditions and says: ‘You need to be proud of your food. In an interview I said I would like to taste a really good Cornish pasty. I have seen pasties in pubs but they look like hand grenades, hard and grey.

‘But I would love to taste a good one. Nobody sent one to me. In Italy they would have been making them and sending them.’

Antonio stops talking and looks thoughtful. But then he says as a parting word: ‘Put that in the interview, maybe somebody will send me a pasty.’