Locatelli, one of the world’s most respected chefs, talks with Henderson about perfection, having balls (not of the meat variety) and finally growing up
Fergus Henderson: First things first… Cheers! We’ve known each other a long time, haven’t we?
Giorgio Locatelli: Oh, a very long time now. You were still at university and I started working in London. Maybe 1985? I decided I could not live with Italians. I had to be around the English. I was lucky that I immediately met this great group of people, which included you. You were one of the few people I knew who wasn’t a chef. And then you became a chef! I was so happy when you decided to cook, you could tell that you loved food. I remember hearing about you though, before we met. Those floating gardens in New York you were working on. Dude, I was so enamoured with that!
Fergus: Yes, that was in Manhattan. We used the block system for growing allotments. Herbs and flowers.
Giorgio: They are doing that now with the High Line. You were way ahead man! You were so inspiring. And I remember you taking me to meet your father which was incredible. I mean, what a bon viveur! I loved the way he talked. Couldn’t understand a thing though. So English. And his suits! Always wearing a tie… Man it was an education: Brunell inspired cocktails, jugs of Bloody Mary in the morning. I mean, jugs of the stuff! I’ve always been in awe of this man.
Fergus: He is a wonderful man. He’s still going, amazingly enough. He’s built like a vintage car, but still going. He’s usually got a jacket and shirt on, but has recently stopped wearing the ties. He’s 83 now, has a nice house in the countryside, with beautiful trees in the garden, lovely things everywhere, all very calm and nice, and he’ll be looking out at these trees from the comfort of his armchair and saying something like “Trees! Got to get back to London!” He’d rather be in London, he likes the action.
Giorgio: Yes, I remember – it wasn’t long after that visit you got to cook at The French House. I was like, man, this guy is serious! You made the place your home, you owned that kitchen.
Fergus: It became my second home.
Giorgio: You loved the place. To end up cooking in the place you love – it’s not like cooking, it’s coming to the place and opening your heart to it and sharing that with friends, or whoever walks through the door.
Fergus: And there always seemed to be children running about.
Giorgio: Let the kids be part of it! The restaurant is an experience and is part of the appreciation of food. It’s part of growing up. You have to teach your kids how to go to restaurants, to not be afraid. Not allowing kids in a restaurant, like some restaurants or parents like to rule, is absolutely ridiculous.
Fergus: It’s confused, British food culture – I think this is what Elizabeth David (bless her) has a lot to blame for. People are always being told to look to the Mediterranean for inspiration, but we’re not a Mediterranean country. We have wonderful seasons, which we should enjoy and be aware of. It seems quite straightforward, but things always seem to be so complicated.
Giorgio: It’s the Americanisation of the food market. Is it American food culture which has ruined English food culture? It’s very difficult to say.
Fergus: It could be. The supermarkets are not helping.
Giorgio: No, food should not be corporate. It’s all about the bottom line for these people. And the way supermakets now give you the provenance of the pork chop or whatever. I mean, it’s getting out of control. If the product was better quality in the first place, they wouldn’t feel the need to do this. It’s a marketing tool that doesn’t actually mean anything.
Fergus: It’s gone too far. Pork labels say things like: “Frank, the Tamworth pig who liked straw hats and chocolate, lived a happy and fulfilling life…”
Giorgio: And in restaurants too. If you ask the waiter where the roast pork came from, he’d be able to tell you. But to have the chef write down all the details, who reared the pig, what his diet was etc for the menus? No! It becomes ridiculous. Provenance becomes too big an issue. The chef has to have that understanding of provenance, you have to have that trust, that’s a trust you need in a great restaurant.
Fergus: Someone approached me to get into a supermarket’s premium sausage line. Their market is millions, billions each year. It didn’t end up happening, which was a good thing.
Giorgio: Exactly. The bar is set so low. Think of the power these people have, is it good for the wellbeing of the population? Organisations with such influence over what people eat should really care about food. Supermarkets do not love food, this is clear.
Fergus: It’s a sad and bad thing…
Giorgio: Unlike you. When I first heard about nose to tail eating, it was like a punch in the face. It was so simple, such a strong, generous idea. Something you can understand immediately. When I had your salad with parsley and bone marrow for the first time, big bits of bone on the plate, it looked so bold and so real… It was a strong statement about food, which is a great achievement.
Fergus: That’s an important dish for me. I was thinking about what was going to be our signature dish for when we launched St John. Something that would make us stand out. I went to the movies on a rainy Saturday afternoon to watch La Grande Bouffe, an extraordinary film, and the bone marrow dish just came to me. A huge moment for me: appreciating the bone.
I remember being mesmerised by you making one of your dishes: tortelloni with mashed potato. We were doing some sort of public cook demonstration that was being recorded for TV, do you remember? We were both supposed to be cooking, but I stopped and was just staring at you, transfixed by the way you were making your pasta. Then my wife Margot shouted at me: “Oi! Get back to your cooking!”
Giorgio: It was the sweetest moment ever, and very funny.
Fergus: Just very beautiful the way you fold the pasta and you are really in control. Then there’s the ravioli with the egg yoke and the white truffle. It’s a memorable dish.
Giorgio: Ah yes, that dish. With the potato purée and egg yolk and the other layer of pasta… It’s a very good dish. When it comes to the table in my restaurant, the waiter cuts it in four so the egg yolk explodes – and then you eat it like that in four single quarters. With a lot of truffle. The pasta has to be so thin and elegant in your mouth that you don’t chew it: you take it in. You can’t stop eating it, because the truffle is like that, a very good thing. Have it one, two or three times a year with someone that you love – you have to celebrate this great gift from nature; it’s a blessing.
Fergus: It was your white truffle, and the hospital’s morphine, that got me through after my operation. The smell of truffle – amazing! It kept me going, got me better…
Giorgio: Yes I remember. We cooked the risotto in our restaurant, then covered it in foil and drove to the hospital where you were. You were coming back to life slowly. It was like a resuscitation. I performed a miracle there! It was biblical, like Lazarus!
Fergus: I cooked this dish, but it was not as good, it was different.
Giorgio: But different is not wrong.
Fergus: Ah! How so?
Giorgio: Cooking is chemistry, so what might be good for me might not work for you. That’s why the idea of TV cooking competitions and judging is… you can’t compete with food! You can compete in the 100 metres; you can compete in a car race; but you can’t compete with food, because a dish that is fantastic for you can be terrible for me!
Fergus: What we eat or where, there’s a lot to learn from food. I’m still learning.
Giorgio: Everyone I respect has this attitude. That you can do better, learn more, always attain greater perfection. And you have to want to create for people the humour and rapport that comes from a great dinner –
Fergus: Or a long lunch… The potential of lunch…
Giorgio: Of course, you and your lunches! Yes all these things, and you want to keep doing it, so that you know every night 100 people will want to come and eat in your restaurant. It’s doing the very best you can for the people who come to your restaurant. The integrity of this job, you know? You have more integrity than anyone I know.
Fergus: That’s very kind of you. We are the same age, aren’t we?
Giorgio: Yes. We are turning 50 next year. My granddad says that the best years of a man’s life is his 50s. You can have your family, you can look after them and they can look after you. You can put your feet up sometimes. So we are actually reaching maturity now…
Fergus: About time, too.
Giorgio: I’m sure some members of our families would not agree with this statement, but we have shown some balls doing what we do, we’ve opened our own restaurants, and we’re proud, innit?! You and me both put everything we owned into these places – everything went in. We didn’t even think that we would fail, it wasn’t a possibility. You said: this must work!
Fergus: Well yes… The St John Hotel though is a bit more; bigger. That was quite scary, slightly more worrying than launching the restaurant. It’s been open a year now though, so it’s looking good.
Giorgio: We are opposites, you and I – but we attract each other, as there is the common element of honesty. You are one of the straightest guys I know, no nonsense. It’s funny to be part of all this; witnessing this amazing food movement that happened in London, which will now determine the fate of the rest of my life. These faces and places, you and St John, I will never forget it. And of course, you know that I got married in this restaurant just after you opened it.
Fergus: Oh yes, a wondrous event.
St John Bar & Restaurant, 26 St John Street , London EC1M 4AY
Giorgio ate lamb sweetbreads, broad beans and bacon
Drink: Domaine du Coulet Cornas “Brise Cailloux” 2008
Photography Philip Sinden