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db interview: Giorgio Locatelli

Minutes into my interview with ebullient Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli at his Michelin-starred Locanda Locatelli in Marylebone, I’m introduced to a furry friend. Olive, Locatelli’s seven-month-old black cockapoo, comes bounding into the restaurant bright-eyed, wet-nosed and in the mood for mischief. Locatelli seems to have something of the dog whisperer about him, quickly pacifying the fluff ball, who proceeds to fall asleep beside him.

“I’m teaching her how to be a lady at the moment,” he proclaims proudly. That we’re even able to do the interview at the restaurant at all is a small miracle – last November a gas explosion ripped through the kitchen weeks after a £1.2m refurbishment, forcing it to close during the busiest two months of the year. The trauma of the incident turned Locatelli into a silver fox – his flowing black locks went white overnight from stress.

“It was a big shock; we weren’t allowed back into the restaurant for five days after the explosion. My hair turned white so I decided to cut it all off,” he reveals. Luckily no one was hurt, but Locatelli lost £2,000 worth of white truffles in the blast that had been delivered from Alba that day. “They wouldn’t let me back into the kitchen to retrieve them; it was awful,” he laments.

The whole team mucked in to help bring the restaurant back to life and Locatelli reopened the David Collins-designed space in March with a launch party attended by close friend Nigella Lawson, restaurant critic AA Gill and Italian-American actor Stanley Tucci among others. “Last year was an annus horribilis for me – I lost my brother and we had the explosion; it was a very humbling year that taught me to live in the moment,” he says.

Locatelli was born on the shores of Lake Comabbio in Lombardy, northern Italy, in 1963. He started cooking aged five at his uncle Alfio’s Michelin-starred restaurant La Cinzianella near Lake Como, standing on a beer crate in the kitchen in order to reach the worktop. One of his earliest food memories is making gnocchi with his grandmother and the potent smell of aniseed, which lodged deep in his mind.

A lot of his dishes today are based on early childhood memories and emotions. “My granddad was a great gourmand. He used to take me out for pizza on the back of his Vespa in the late ‘60s when he was in his 80s – he taught me a lot about appreciating food,” Locatelli recalls. One of his earliest wine memories came on his grandfather’s birthday on New Year’s Eve when Giorgio was 10. “Everyone was getting drunk on Champagne and he asked me to open a bottle. I opened the foil and popped the cork and it hit me right in the eye. I have pictures from the party of me holding the bottle with a black eye,” he reveals.

While he nurtured aspirations to race motorbikes, cooking was in his blood and in 1986 Locatelli landed in London, heading to The Savoy where he worked under Anton Edelmann, who spread the gospel of Auguste Escoffier. “After reading Escoffier I wanted to be a haut cuisine chef in the French tradition – then nouvelle cuisine came along and turned everything upside down,” he says.

While at The Savoy, Locatelli created the prop food for the 1989 Peter Greenaway movie The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover starring Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon, the costumes for which were made by Jean-Paul Gaultier. During filming Locatelli had to phone up Buckingham Palace to ask permission to use a swan on-set. The bizarre film ends with the characters feasting on an extravagantly basted human body.

After five years in London, Locatelli spread his wings and moved to Paris to work at Laurent and La Tour d’Argent, a period of his life he didn’t enjoy, as he received a frosty welcome from the French. “My time in France was bitter medicine – it was three years of misery as I never felt included. I was working in a very competitive and racist environment and felt a sense of rejection, but it was an important learning curve,” he reflects.

He returned to London in 1995 to work at Zafferano in Belgravia, which under his stewardship became the first Italian restaurant in London to win a Michelin star in 1999. “The star was a turning point for me – it made me realise how much I wanted to run my own place,” he reveals. It took him just three years to strike out with Locanda Locatelli on Seymour Street. A year after opening, the restaurant scooped a Michelin star, which it retains to this day.

Rather than fanciful foams and molecular gastronomy, Locatelli focuses on cooking honest, flavourful Italian cuisine with sublime ingredients. Among the signature dishes on offer are chargrilled cuttlefish with pea shoot salad, lemon zest and ink sauce; lobster linguini with tomato, chilli and garlic; braised veal cheek with crushed potatoes and shaved black truffle; and Sicilian cannoli with orange sauce and pistachio ice cream.

While he hasn’t drunk alcohol for nine years, he still tastes the wines on pour at the restaurant, one of his favourite new additions being a Sagrantino de Montefalco from Umbria-based Paolo Bea.

“Umbria is a mystical place. I went to my truffle supplier’s wedding there recently and discovered Paolo Bea’s wines. After I tasted the Sagrantino, I knew we had to list it at the restaurant,” he says, revealing that his wine education began at Zafferano.

A lot of Locatelli’s favourite wine experiences are linked to the places they come from. “I discovered Prosecco on a lake in Padua and knew I had to bring it back to England. Trying it for the first time was a breath of fresh air. It was the same story when I first tried Bellavista Franciacorta in Lombardy,” he gushes.

Further trips to Piedmont and the Veneto led Locatelli to fall in love with the Barolos of La Spinetta and the sweet wines of Roberto Anselmi respectively. “I’ve ended up splashing out on a very big wine list – it was supposed to be my Maserati,” Locatelli jokes.

He makes a point of not listing any French wine – “The Italians make everything better than the French”, he declares, but has a small section for wines made with Italian grapes in other parts of the world, like an Arneis from Russian River Valley-based Seghesio, a Sangiovese from Yalumba and a Nebbiolo from South African producer Steenberg.

The multiple award-winning list is curated by Virgilio Gennaro, wine director for the restaurant and business development manager for Berkmann Wine Cellars. All the knockout names are here, from Allegrini and Antinori to Banfi, Bruno Giacosa and Biondi Santi via an impressive back vintage collection from Gaja and Sassicaia.

“I don’t like it when people bash the Super Tuscans – they’ve been instrumental in making people take Italian wine seriously and putting Italy on the fine wine map,” declares Locatelli.

“They’ve helped make a name for Italian wine around the world and have brought value to our land and our wines.” On the white front, Alto Adige and Friuli are well represented on the list, as are Franciacorta and sweet wines from the tip to the heel of Italy’s glorious boot.

In addition to his duties at Locanda, Locatelli is a regular on TV and has released two cookbooks: Made in Italy and Made in Sicily. Last year he appeared alongside art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon in Italy Unpacked and Sicily Unpacked on BBC Two, which explored Italy’s rich bounty of art and regional produce. “I learnt so much about Italy while filming the shows. I was blown away by how Andrew described the Caravaggio paintings in Messina – I knew I’d have to up my game to compete on the same level as him,” recalls Locatelli.

“We were filming for 10 hours a day for a month, it was a long slog but I’d love to do another series – we’re in talks with the BBC about it,” he reveals. One of his fondest memories from the show was a meal after truffle hunting near Alba in northern Italy. “We made a fire, fried two eggs in a tiny pan, toasted some bread on skewers, grated freshly foraged white truffles over the eggs and ate them in between two hunks of bread. It was one of the best meals of my life,” he enthuses.

In terms of trends, Locatelli welcomes the casual dining movement in London and believes there is beauty to be found in single-dish restaurants. “I have enormous admiration for young chefs who are setting up their own ventures. Why not be famous for a single dish? To master one dish is a beautiful thing. Escoffier will be remembered for his peach melba. More young people want to be chefs today than ever before, which is great, and I don’t think single-dish restaurants will lead to a generation of under-skilled chefs,” he insists.

While wary of dubbing London the culinary capital of the world, Locatelli believes the city has been savvy in utilising talent from abroad. “There’s a high level of quality in every world cuisine here. Fine dining has had to evolve to become more of a relaxed proposition – I wouldn’t call Locanda a fine dining restaurant, I’d call it a good restaurant. If you become too fine in your focus then it becomes about adulation and I don’t want that. I want us to be approachable as we’re in this for the long-term,” he assures.

Looking ahead, Locatelli has a pop-up pizza project in Islington in the pipeline that he’s awaiting a licence for, though he might turn it into a BYO or a juice bar. His big dream is to buy a house in Sicily to eventually retire to. “I already own an olive grove out there and have been house hunting for a while. I’d like to finish off my life there – sunshine for the bones,” he says.

Bored of behaving like a lady, Olive scurries from the lobby and jumps up on one of the restaurant’s plush cream leather banquettes minutes before guests start arriving for lunch. Locatelli looks mortified but he’s too enamoured with the pooch to lose his rag. He scoops her up and pretends to tell her off before giving me a bear hug goodbye. Humble, disarmingly charming and fizzing with life, Locatelli is possibly the most affable chef working in the UK today. Italy’s loss is very much London’s gain.

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