“I hate bad food. If I am allergic to anything it is bad food,” says Antonio Carluccio as he dips pieces of bread into a pool of sauce before breaking up a soft white fillet of fish into pieces with his fingers. “It’s the only allergy I’ve got, thank God. I have refused 30 years of supermarket publicity because I think they are just full of mediocrity.”
Carluccio's life has been steeped in good food. From foraging in Italy during his childhood, importing wines and unearthing mushroom colonies in the UK, to owning the legendary Covent Garden restaurant Neal Street (where Jamie Oliver cut his teeth), releasing countless cookbooks dealing with Italian food and hosting popular TV series such as Two Greedy Italians with Genarro Contaldo. It’s safe to say that he is an authority on both regional Italian food and food philosophy.
It’s his relaxed enthusiasm for high-quality, simple food that sets him apart, while his smiling, warm presentation of his deep knowledge of food has won the hearts of his fans. For Carluccio, food is a hands-on celebration of the good things in life, accessible to anyone who is interested.
“I like the bread,” says Carluccio as lunch is spread on the table. “The test is smelling it.” He holds a thick piece to his nose and takes a deep breath. “I like this sort of bread.” Chef Mike McEnearny is thrilled. Carluccio is sitting in the garden courtyard of McEnearny’s Kitchen by Mike in Sydney’s Rosebery and taking a relaxed lunch break between engagements. Intermittently, fans pop over to shake his hand, recognising both the shock of white hair, heavy Italian accent and trademark walking stick propped against the wall. He always has one in tow, whittling new patterns on its surface it whenever he has a chance.
“This is exactly what I need sometimes,” he indicates of the shade, the garden and the food. “Under the pergola, the fresh air, being with nice people, having a little food.”
It’s easy to feel relaxed and inspired in the presence of the chef. Carluccio is in Australia for a few short days to host two dinners with gourmet food purveyor Simon Johnson to celebrate the generous spirit of Easter. Johnson and Carluccio have a long history, having met more than 17 years ago in Johnson’s Pyrmont store, hitting it off and working together ever since.
“We were two tummies,” smiles Carluccio. From there the two quickly became friends, sharing a philosophy for only the best ingredients, produce and products. Over the years, Carluccio has visited Australia several times and met many inspiring people. This trip, he dined at Neil Perry’s Spice Temple and George Calombaris’ Mama Baba in Melbourne, sharing the joy of saffron milk caps with the chef and marvelling at their availability in Australia. But he also lists Café Di Stasio and Il Bacaro as favourite Australian dining experiences over the years, along with Sydney’s Marigold.
“Once they prepared a dinner that was all offal. In Italy we call it the fifth quarter, and the Chinese are really very good at the fifth quarter,” he nods.
The dinners for Simon Johnson were a huge success, with intimate numbers allowing guests an opportunity to celebrate Italian food with the chef in very personal setting.
“One course was pasta al forno, which is a very typical Italian celebration dish for Easter. Usually it is a baked pasta with lots of things in it. It comes in layers of salami, mozzarella, little meatballs, and then on the top you have layers of tomato sauce. When it’s layered very thick, then you take lots of eggs, beat them and pour it on top.
This all oozes in between and melts together with the cheese and it’s just wonderful,” he sighs with satisfaction. “People make it for Easter in Italy. Especially in the south in Puglia. I remember it very well.”
Carluccio has been involved with the MasterChef wave and he’s pleased with the rising interest in simple, good food.
“I like simple food that isn’t tarted up,” he says with conviction, pointing out that the best way for a young chef to distinguish himself is to first cook the basic, traditional recipes very well before trying to change them.
“In Italy, peasant food is coming up now, which is with very few ingredients and it is very good. I don’t know about these impossibly complex menus…”
He is not impressed by smears on plates or servings that only give you one mouthful, and prefers simple ingredients.
“But seeing the enthusiasm for good food is very good, because when you love food, you love life – food is very much part of your life. In fact, without food and sex we couldn’t exist,” he chuckles. “The joy of food shared on a table is wonderful. Like here, it is a simple thing and we are all enjoying ourselves. We are not just stuffing our faces.”
It’s a generous reminder of how congenial simple, good food can be.