Antonio Carluccio is on a roll. The 77-year-old Italian chef and restaurateur was in Abu Dhabi last week to open Carluccio’s in Yas Mall – his third restaurant in the capital and his ninth in the UAE – he has six branches in Dubai. His 10th restaurant, in Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach Residence, is scheduled to open later this month.
The chef, who has about 100 restaurants around the world, shows no signs of slowing down. Besides travelling the world, he has a couple of cookbooks in the pipeline, with one set for publication in 2016. He shares with us the secret of Carluccio’s success and the four ingredients he simply cannot live without.
How did Carluccio’s start?
Carluccio’s initially started as a shop in London, selling high-quality products imported from Italy. We drove around all of Italy and visited all the little shops to find the best products. Then we brought them to London to sell them. It was successful. We wanted to open a restaurant but we didn’t have the money. Although my name was really good at the time, the bank said no. But there was an investor who had money to spend and that’s how it started. In 1998, the first Carluccio’s opened in London.
Why is it so successful?
You have to have good ingredients and know what you’re doing. We make very good, simple food and the restaurant has a nice ambience. We use fresh, quality ingredients. It’s not just about profit.
Where did you learn to cook?
My mother was instrumental in all my cooking. My mother’s art of cooking was very simple and very tasty. The kids were all in the kitchen helping. I was in charge of going to pick up the arugula from the fields. Involuntarily, you learn what good food is about. And then you remember it later and apply what you’ve learnt.
What’s your favourite dish on Carluccio’s menu?
All the dishes – they’re all my favourite. They’re all my recipes. The taste is the first thing that you give to Italian food. The look is a secondary thing. We have dishes in Italy called brutti ma buoni; it means “ugly, but good”. It could be a pear or something, anything – it’s ugly, but so good to taste.
You’re passionate about mushrooms and have written whole books about them. Where does that passion come from?
As a child in Italy, you follow the grown-ups and they would all go to pick mushrooms. I would go with an old friend of my father’s. He took me also to look for truffles. It was very mysterious. That’s how I learnt what mushrooms were all about. Now, I’m a specialist in mushrooms. I know about 100 mushrooms by sight. I love them. There are 200,000 kinds of mushrooms, of which 2,000 are edible. Of those, 500 are worthwhile. Porcini mushrooms are my favourite. I want to write a book to explain to people the importance of mushrooms. Without mushrooms, we couldn’t exist.
Did you always want to be a chef?
No. I started as a journalist, but I felt that the editors were manipulating the news so I stopped. I wanted to be an anthropologist. I like talking to people, learning about people and cultures. I was a wine merchant for many years. I did not mean to be a chef.
What ingredients could you not live without?
Olive oil, flour, tomatoes and basil.
What has a lifetime in the restaurant business taught you?
In my opinion, it’s very easy to shock. I was shocked once when a chef in Torino gave me an oyster with chocolate. This is shocking. I asked: “What do you want to achieve?” He said: “I want to shock you.” Well, he succeeded. It’s easy to shock, it’s difficult to please. The most difficult dishes are the most simple dishes. But when you have high-quality ingredients, it’s a good start.
I'm 77 now. I travel a lot. I've written 21 cookbooks. I have another book to write. It's called The Glorification of Vegetables. It's a cookbook about Italian vegetables. That should be released in 2016.