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The Italian behind Jamie's Italian

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According to the established mythology, Gennaro Contaldo is the man who taught Jamie Oliver everything he knows about cooking.

It’s an appealing story: Oliver, a baby-faced upstart from Essex, finds his way into the kitchens of Antonio Carluccio’s London restaurant as a pastry chef, with the sole aim of learning how to make pasta and bake bread at the feet of Contaldo, back then a quiet legend, known only to those with an inside knowledge of UK dining.

Contaldo teaches him everything; Oliver gets a TV show; the rest is history.

Appealing, but not quite true.

Contaldo, who insists on being interviewed by InDaily from London via “Facetime” (which turns out to be very useful, given his habit of “talking” with gestures), points out that the young Oliver was a talented and experienced young chef when he met him.

Oliver did take a job as a pastry chef at Carluccio’s Neal Street Restaurant in order to get closer to Contaldo, but the young lad wasn’t as unschooled as countless articles have suggested.

“It’s not true I taught him everything he knows,” Contaldo insists.

“When he came down from Essex, he had spent lots and lots of time since he was a little child in the kitchen with his father and mother (they owned a pub).

“At Neal Street Restaurant – when I found him he was a very, very young boy …  (but) I thought he had a lot of experience.”

The two bonded quickly. Oliver has written previously that he loved Contaldo from the day he met him.

“You learn about food at college – the stuff that’s down in black and white in books,” Oliver said. “But it’s an almost sterile way of looking at cooking. What Gennaro did for me was show me sensitivity and common sense.”

Back then, the pair were happily slaving side-by-side in kitchens, working away in the early hours for not much money.

Today, they rule over a global food empire, with Oliver one of the world’s foremost celebrity chefs. He churns out television shows, cookbooks, a magazine, a charitable foundation and an international chain of Italian restaurants, the latest of which opened two weeks ago in Adelaide, on the corner of North Terrace and King William Street.

Contaldo says nothing has changed in his relationship with his young protege since they met some 20 years ago.

“We are such good friends,” he says. “We speak to each other every morning about 8 o’clock, talking about things we’ve got to do, about how we can help people. This is Jamie’s dream – to do something for someone else.”

In fact, our interview has made him late for a meeting with Oliver – but he says Jamie will understand.

Jamie Oliver and Gennaro Contaldo.

Jamie Oliver and Gennaro Contaldo.

The pair work together on the Italian restaurants, of which there are more than 30 across the world in places as disparate as Russia, India, Brazil and the Middle East.

Contaldo says the idea came to Oliver in a daydream during early morning prep at the Neal Street Restaurant. He arrived at 5am, fatigued after a long trip, but found Oliver bouncing with energy.

“Jamie was waiting for me,” he recalls. “He said to me, ‘big boy – you look rubbish’. ‘While I was waiting for you, I had a little dream, that one of these days I’m gonna open a restaurant’.

“I said, ‘hold on a minute, this is what you’re here for’. He said, ‘no, you don’t understand – two restaurants, three restaurants’ … I said, ‘yeah, let’s open all over England’. Then he said, ‘let’s open all over the world’.”

It was years before Oliver would have the means to put his plan into action but, as Contaldo puts it, he “was a young boy who had this dream”.

“He said, ‘watch me, watch me, one of these days I’m going to become very famous and maybe I”m gonna make a bit of money, and we’re going to do that. And you’re going to be with me all the time’. And I said, ‘why do you want me to be with you all the time?’ ‘Cos you look so tired, and you work so hard, and I don’t want you to work so hard any more’.”

Contaldo pauses for a moment before delivering the punchline.

“What a liar!”

Contaldo is now involved in training staff and developing menus for the chain, but he’s also filmed two series of Two Greedy Italians with Carluccio, in which the pair travel around Italy cooking and exploring food, and assessing how their homeland has changed.

One of the themes of the show – and one of Contaldo’s constant references – is the importance of home and family to the experience of Italian food.

So when he’s asked how Jamie’s Italian can find its own place in a city of Italian restaurants, his answer is, essentially, that there’s no difference at all – his desire is for it to offer an experience of authenticity.

“Everything must be done properly, to give the full flavour … to give it the Italian style, to give you the Italian feelings. To make you feel – ‘hey, you’re home’. So you feel it here (he thumps his chest) – that, come on, we are a big family here together.”

For this reason, Jamie’s imports its Italian pasta flour, has Italian pasta machines installed on the floor to churn out fresh pasta, and uses high-end Italian risotto rice, for example. The smallgoods are made in Australia, but are carefully developed to be as close as possible to the Italian article.

The wine list, briefly controversial in Adelaide, is mostly Italian – a point about which Contaldo is unapologetic, although he stresses he is a fan of Australian wine and produce.

“Surely, an Italian restaurant has to have Italian wine – but if we find something good we do buy it as well,” he says.

If his definition of Italian food seems broad, it’s because of his experience of the diversity of Italian food. As Contaldo puts it, the differences in Italian food aren’t “region by region; it’s not town by town; but house by house”.

Which begs the question: is there any room for an Italian restaurant to innovate? His answer again refers back to family.

“Italians want to change very little in their cuisine. If we have a spaghetti in Italy, it has to be spaghetti the way the mama made it.

“They always want to feel at home – it doesn’t matter wherever they are. That want that flavour, that warmness – and the way they get that warmness is through food. My mama’s not here – but at least I can taste her flavours.”

So what is it that unites Italian cuisines, from the south to the north?

He says no words, but thumps his fist on his heart.

If it seems odd that this angular fellow from the Amalfi Coast has joined with an Essex lad to sell homely Italian food across the world, it makes more sense when you consider that this is a story of loyalty.

The mega-famous Oliver could no doubt survive without Contaldo – and probably vice versa – but they’re family now.

“When you’re with someone very famous, everything is changed. But Jamie does not forget his friends, and also the people who need something.”

He promises that he will be coming to Australia soon, including Adelaide.

“We can’t wait to get inside the restaurant and cook.”

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