Although born and bred British, chef Theo Randall's love for food began in Italy as a child. Now, successfully spearheading the Italian food scene in London - and more recently in the Middle East, we caught up with the Michelin-starred chef to learn a thing or two about authentic Italian cooking at home.
An advocate for Italian cuisine,British chef Theo Randal is a prime example for proving that you don’t need to be a national in order to specialise in a country’s cuisine and food techniques.
Growing up in a householdthat saw Theo sent to schoolwith freshly baked, homemadebread and regular food-filledtrips to Italy and France, hedeveloped his passion for foodand appreciation for wellsourced,quality ingredientsvery early in life.
Working at The River Café inHammersmith, London from1989 saw his talent for Italiancooking f lourish, and therestaurant earn a Michelin Starin 1997. Keen to venture out onhis own, Theo launched TheoRandall at the InterContinentalHotel, London in 2006, whichtoday is established as one ofthe best outlet’s for Italianfood in the city.
Theo sits down to tell us wherehe finds his Italian inspiration,produce you’ll always find inhis kitchen and his thoughts onthe Middle East’s food scene.
Rewinding to where it allbegan, what got you startedin the kitchen?
I got started in the kitchenbecause my mother is a verygood cook. She would bake alot and make fresh bread atleast twice a week and I wouldalways be there to lick thespoon or help knead the bread.We would travel on holiday toFrance and Italy and theseexperiences stuck with me andstarted a passion for goodfood.
What took you down theItalian route?
I love Italian food and it startedfrom a few early experiencesof going to Italy and tastingdelicious pasta and I couldnever forget my first pizza thatcame from a traditional woodoven that was bigger than me!Those early memories stuckwith me. When I joined theRiver Cafe after anapprenticeship at Chez Max, avery good French restaurant, Irealised that Italian food waswhat I really enjoyed cooking.
Have you spent much time inthe Middle East recently? Ifso, are there any dining spotsyou are particularly fond of?
The last few years I have beencoming to the Middle East ona more regular basis and Ilove the passion and diversityit has to offer. I have metsome really terrific chefs andeaten in some very goodrestaurants. I have justrecently gotten back fromQatar actually, where I wascooking, hosting andpreparing the food duringlive cooking sessions in theWinner’s HospitalityEnclosure at the CommercialBank Qatar Masters 2016. Mysignature dishes were servedin both the Commercial BankQatar Masters’ Winner’sEnclosure and at theAlbatross Viewhospitality pavilions.
What's your take on theMiddle East's food scene?Do you think Italian foodis authenticallyrepresented here?
There is a very good foodscene and I believe it will onlyget better in the future. I likethe fact that dinning out isprobably the most popularentertainment, that can't bebad for business. There aresome good Italian restaurantsand I think they do representthe cuisine well but I feel thatnot enough of the restaurantsuse local produce. I know it isvery challenging as there isn’ta huge selection of choicebut every time I visit I seemore and more produceavailable. Some of the fish isso good here – I wish I couldget it in London.
Do you have any plans toexpand into the regionyourself? I'm sure ourfoodies would love to seeyou here more often!
I have been looking andwould love to do a restaurantin the right location. I think todo well here you have tomake sure you have a good allround business that works allday. I love the idea of having ahalf open terrace that leadsinto the restaurant with anopen kitchen grilling fish andmeat with mature olive andlemon trees all around.
You've just launched yoursecond cookbook - tell us alittle bit about it.
My Simple Italian is acollection of 100 recipes thatare simple to prepare andcook. At the beginning of thebook I have set out thetimings of all of the recipes soyou can decide which recipeyou want to cook afterdeciding how long you have.The photographs are amazingand were taken by the famousfood photographer MartinPoole. I wanted to write abook that was accessible ofevery level of cook.
For our home cooks out there- what mistakes should theystop making when trying towhip of a tasty bowl of pasta?
A. The key to a tasty plate ofpasta is to make sure youmeasure the amount of pastayou cook. I always say driedpasta 100g per person/ fresh120g. If you cook too much itdilutes the sauce and you endup feeling really full. The pastacourse should be a starterportion and the sauce shouldbe absorbed in to the pasta.The best way to do this is tocook the pasta 3 minutes lessthan the packet suggests (driedpasta/ fresh 1 minute), take thepasta out of the water with apair of tongs or slotted spoonand add it to the sauce. Take aladle of the hot pasta water andfinish off the cooking of thepasta in the sauce. This way youcan season and toss the pastaso the starch is released whichin turn will thicken the sauceand make every last mouthfultaste as good as the first.
What's the key to creatingthe perfect pizza at home?
The key to a good pizza athome is the oven. Make sureyou preheat your oven andinvest in a pizza stone. Placethe pizza stone in the oven andmake sure it is hot through, atleast half an hour before youplace the pizza on to it. Usesemolina f lour when youstretch the dough, this will giveyou a lovely crisp base. Don'tbe too concerned abouttossing the pizza, just makesure you have a nice crust onthe outside edge and it is nottoo thin in the middle. Thewetter the dough the more itwill rise, so if you like a crisppizza make the dough drier.Always keep it simple and veryimportant to use Italian tomatopassata, oregano and Fiori diLatte (cows Mozzarella) buffalois delicious but put it on whenthe pizza is out of the oven as ittends to let out a lot of waterwhen it is cooked.
What five ingredients canalways be found in yourkitchen at home?
Olive oil, garlic, Parmesan,passata and every imaginableshape of pasta!
As an experienced chef,where do you find yourinspiration these days?Are you still growing inthe kitchen?
A. It doesn't matter how longyou have been cooking youare always learning. For me Iwill get inspiration in lots ofways the obvious ones aremeals in other restaurants orfresh produce but sometimesit can be from listening topeople about theirexperiences of cooking acertain dish or talking to aproducer about all oftheir products.
For inspiring home chefswith a passion for Italianfood, which region in Italywould you recommendvisiting for the best culinaryexperience and why?
You never get a bad meal inItaly! This is a bold statementbut in general it is true. TheItalian love their food and everyregion of Italy feels they havesomething more to offer thantheir neighbour. One region Ialways return to is Puglia. It isprobably because the food is sofresh and incorporates a lot ofvegetables and fish. Pugliaproduces a lot of olive oilbecause it has the perfect climateto grow olives. This in turn isreflected in the recipes. Thelandscape is very picturesquewith the sea then the olive grovesand fruit trees then the towns. Ithas not been spoilt in any way. Itis very simple if you want foodfish go to the coast. If you wantmeat and slow cooked vegetabledishes go inland, you will notbe disappointed