Last week, the world lost one of the most impactful food heroes of our time; Mr Antonio Carluccio. Not only was ‘the Don’ of Italian cuisine the star of several popular cookery shows over the years – most recently, The Two Greedy Italians – but he was the mastermind behind a gastronomic empire which will continue to delight yuppie Italian-wannabes (including myself) for years to come. In 1998, the so-called ‘Godfather of Italian food’ was awarded the title of Commendatore from the Italian Government for services to Italy, before being granted an OBE by our very own Queen in 2007.
According to the headlines, the 80-year-old died at home, following a severe fall. Not to be a, ‘it’s all about me’ dick, but the news hit me particularly hard seeing as I was privileged – and delighted – to have met him a matter of weeks earlier at a Carluccio’s press event. I’ve grown up watching him and his Italian partner-in-crime, Gennaro Contaldo, fawn over silky Pappardelle and sumptuous Osso Buco every Saturday morning and wishing to be re-invented as Antonio’s granddaughter. Hence, when myself and Will (boyfriend) spotted Mr C himself, watching proceedings from a corner with enviable swag, I was oddly starstruck. Despite my nerves, I finished my stuffed, baked squash (which was delicious btw) and shuffled on up to his one-seater table.
Some context: Carluccio’s (which Antonio sold in 2005) has just launched its first veggie only menu – with a book to go alongside it – hence the event was a ‘celebration’ of vegetable-based dishes. Now, I love a great veggie dish so I wasn’t adverse to such an event. However, the nature of the ingredients meant that a certain type of clientele were approached to attend the event -most of them vegan, and pretty aggressively so. I had to wait for the vegan brigade to step aside before I got a chance to get within an inch of the big man. I watched in fascination as each ‘plant-based’ influencer bolted up to Antonio, commending him for his new menu and informing him of the success of their latest ratatouille recipe (probably). He smiled, nodded, signed a couple of books and ushered the next one along. I don’t mean to brag but, their encounters (i.e talking at Mr C) couldn’t have lasted more than about four minutes, whereas our shared espresso could’ve very easily continued into the early hours. #JustSayin. In the presence of such a culinary legend, how could you NOT take the opportunity to find out everything there is to know about his life, his loves and – most importantly – his food?! I’m certainly not one to miss out on an opportunity, and given the events of last week, god am I glad I didn’t…
5 THINGS ANTONIO CARLUCCIO TAUGHT ME
You can eat meat all your life and live to 80
“Oooh Osso Buco I like a lot,” he told me, “yes I eat vegetables, but I also eat meat. Not too much, not stupid, but I do love my meat.” Antonio was very quick to tell me about the handful of recipes including meat that were in the book – and how delicious they were. He then went on to discuss, in great detail, the deliciousness of certain animal organs – egged on by the farmer’s son aka my boyfriend, of course. He also made headlines last year when he told us off for making Spaghetti Bolognese ‘wrong’ by failing to incorporate the correct proportions of meat and cook with the right type of pasta. It’s pork AND beef, with tagliatelle, FYI.
How long you live is largely down to luck
“What’s your secret?” I asked him. “I have no secret,” he shrugged, “I guess I have been very, very lucky as nothing very bad has happened to me so I’ve always been happy. And I’ve been lucky with the work that I do – I have always done what I love and what makes me happy. So, no secret.” Antonio’s positive outlook is interesting, seeing as further research informs me that the chef tragically lost his little brother in a horrific drowning incident, when he was 23. The brother in question (Antonio is one of seven) was 13.
Luck, and to some extent money, often goes undiscussed when considering our health outcomes. Common sense tells you that if you’re relatively successful, the likelihood is you will have easier and quicker access to information and services that may inform your health choices or behaviours. Plus, I’m pretty sure that if you have a million pound restaurant empire, you’ve probably got private health insurance.
Write everything down. With a pen.
Antonio sat throughout the evening, relatively silent, with two accompaniments. One, an espresso cup, of which the contents seemed to last forever, and secondly; a Filofax. At several points during our conversation, I attempted to make sense of the teeny, tiny scrawling that decorated the pages in front of him – but with no avail. Until, that is, he entertained us with a long-winded joke about a man with a large ‘member’ (his words not mine). “I write them all down in here,” he told us, pointing to the scribbles. Sure enough, the entire diary was bulging with pages and pages of jokes – categorised by theme. He then insisted on reciting a particular favourite which, he informed me, was too rude for my ears, so he whispered it to Will instead. They cackled like school kids and I still don’t know what the punchline was…
Don’t bother with faddy food trends
The day before our encounter, the real Queen (aka Nigella Lawson), was quoted, speaking on her excitement for the latest southeast asian food trend; Pandan. Carluccio didn’t take to this too kindly. “I don’t buy into those silly trends,” he said, “whatever that woman was talking about – the new whatever it is – it’s stupid. Just eat good, home cooked food, tasty food – and not too much. That’s it.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.
There’s nothing wrong with a cheeky flirt – even when you’re 80
Subtlety was not Antonio’s strong point. “I like you. I like a lot,” he told me, and proceeded to nudge Will with a insinuative elbow, telling him he’d “done well”. This soft spot could have something to do with the fact that I was glued to his side for about an hour, quizzing him on what he had for breakfast. Either way – I’m okay with it. Cheekiness aside, what struck me most was the humble, ordinary spirit of what was one of the most influential – and talented – chefs in the country. I didn’t even have to tell him that I was from a newspaper, or any place for that matter, the fact that we showed an interest in his conversation seemed to suffice. As a journalist who has met her fair share of prima donna celebrities (the least talented tend to be the most painful, oddly enough) I was shocked at the kind, unfussy presence of Antonio Carluccio. He laughed and chatted with us as if we were friends of the family – and didn’t expect any sort of special treatment, given his credentials. Good food and good people – as long as you provide one, or both, of those, he’s your friend.
Unfortunately, our conversation was forced to an end as the room emptied out and staff began to prepare to shut up shop. With his hand rested on Will’s shoulder, Mr C signed a copy of his latest book for us. “There’s kisses here too,” he said of his message, “I like you two, so I put kisses. I’ll speak to you both again, I hope, very soon.”
R.I.P big man. Let’s hope heaven has enough species of Mushrooms to keep you busy.