Michelin-star chef on guerrilla gardening, cookbooks and truffles
Today it seems that anyone aspiring to be a ‘celebrity chef’ needs a Michelin star and/or a restaurant in Dubai – the Michelin star usually comes first, closely followed by an opening over here. It’s no coincidence that Dubai is often the first port of call for any chef embarking on an overseas venture – Gordon Ramsay saw Dubai’s potential a decade ago, and was gradually joined by a slew of culinary stalwarts including Giorgio Locatelli, who opened Ronda Locatelli in the salmon-pink Atlantis hotel in 2008.
Fast-forward three years and I’m sat in this very restaurant waiting to meet the man whose celebrity status is emblazoned above the door. ‘Celebrity’ is an adjective that most high-profile chefs despise, but I feel it’s appropriate for Giorgio – not only does he have a Michelin star, but he’s appeared on various TV shows and even has Kate Winslet endorsing his new cookbook Made in Sicily (I’m dubious about her culinary credentials, but nonetheless impressed).
Sure enough, Giorgio, dressed entirely in black and sporting a pair of expensive dark glasses, arrives with a small entourage of assistants. I fear the worst: I came to talk truffles, but now I worry that I’ll be handed from minder to minder, managing only to extract a few generic soundbites from the man.
Luckily, this is not the case: armed with frothy cappuccinos, we take a secluded table in the far corner of the restaurant. It soon becomes clear that Giorgio exudes Italian passion, which makes conversation – about anything and everything – very easy indeed.
Made in Sicily
The obvious conversation starter is Giorgio’s new cookbook, Made in Sicily: promoting the book is the reason for his Dubai visit, as well as heading Ronda Locatelli’s new seasonal truffle promotion. ‘I’ve only done two books before,’ says Giorgio, pushing a hand through his greying mane. ‘I’m really slow at writing, so I take six or seven years to write a book. It’s a very difficult thing to do; a very different thing to do. I have two deadlines in my life – lunch and dinner – so writing is something I never feel obliged to do because there’s no sense of urgency. With cooking, I have to get it done because there’s a guy out there waiting for his food. My editor says I’m very lazy, but it’s not true – I’m just very slow.’
The trials of running a restaurant empire
While some chefs churn out one or two books a year, Giorgio is happy to keep writing as a side project while he concentrates on managing his restaurants. I’ve always been intrigued by how chefs run their culinary empires, and can’t help but wonder: with so many openings in so many locations across the globe, does a man like Giorgio ever feel as though he’s spreading himself too thin?
Not at all, it seems. ‘All the decisions we’ve made up until now – and, I hope, make in the future – are really based on the fact that we have this big, strong training ground in London [Locanda Locatelli],’ he explains.
‘The restaurant has 220 covers a day, it’s a Michelin-star restaurant, people grow inside the company – “the family”, as I like to think of it – and get to a point where they can’t go any further.’ He makes the example of Alessandro Botazzi, Ronda Locatelli’s executive chef. ‘He can’t take the job of [Locanda’s] chef, he can’t take my job, so we have to expand based on the fact that we have people who want to take [the brand] forward.’
Giorgio says the biggest challenge he’s had to overcome is delegating responsibility and trusting people. In the days when he only had Locanda to worry about, he would taste every single dish that was leaving the kitchen. Now, he has to trust his own talents as a mentor and the skills he has instilled in the staff who have flown the nest to oversee his restaurants abroad.
Ronda was the first outpost of Giorgio’s culinary empire, which is why he claims it has a special place in his heart. I’m initially cynical, but he seems genuine, rather than just pandering to what a Dubai-based journalist wants to hear. ‘The way I got involved [in Ronda Locatelli] is incredible,’ he says, leaning back in his chair (I can tell an anecdote is forthcoming, and I’m not disappointed). ‘When I was working at Zafferano [in Belgravia, London], one of my customers, Butch – nice guy, I liked him, we always got on – tells me that his father is opening a hotel. And one day he says: “Would you like to come to Dubai? I want to show you something.” So, we arrive at the airport, get in a helicopter and fly out to a patch of sand in the middle of the sea. I get out of the helicopter and look at this place and I think: “This guy is mad!”’
The ‘patch of sand’ that Giorgio is describing eventually turned into The Palm Jumeirah, and Butch turned out to be Howard ‘Butch’ Kerzner, son of South African hotel magnate Sol Kerzner and the man behind Atlantis. However, the plans to bring the Locatelli name to Dubai was thrown into uncertainty when Butch died in a helicopter crash in 2006. Giorgio, understandably, thought that his Dubai dalliance had come to a tragic end until he received a phone call from Butch’s father. ‘Sol called to ask whether I would be interested in finishing what Butch and I had started. Because of the story, it felt very important to be here. It’s been an incredible experience and an incredible learning curve.’
A plate of truffles, encased under a glass display case, has been staring up at us since we sat down, and only now does Giorgio reach over and lift the lid to allow the rich, pungent smell to fill our nostrils. ‘These are from San Pietro in Umbria,’ he explains.
‘The white truffle is also known as the Alba truffle, because it was first commercialised in that part of the country. In the past, if the king of Holland came to visit you, he’d bring Delft pottery; if the king of Italy came to visit you, he’d bring a truffle.’
The reason why truffles are so expensive is because their production is so limited: they can’t be regulated or grown like other crops, and the demand for them is very high. In fact, their price is still determined in Alba, which is known as the ‘stock exchange’ of truffles.
Giorgio is a passionate man by nature, and all the more so when he talks of truffles. ‘The truffle is an expression of nature – it shows the best of nature,’ he sings. ‘If you have a truffle field, or a place where truffles have grown for hundreds of years, and you build a road, the truffles will stop growing 500m from one side and 500m from the other. If you have electricity cables running overhead, truffles will stop growing underneath. They’re very sensitive; much like mushrooms. There must be a balance – the pH of the ground, the trees, the positioning of the moon…’
As Giorgio explains, there are a lot of factors involved in growing the perfect truffle. ‘Obviously [farmers] will create these environments [for truffles to grow] – they will do this kind of guerilla gardening. I remember when I went to San Pietro two or three years ago – it was a dry year, and the farmer was there in the wood, on his hands and knees, digging a little channel for water to flow through with his hands. I asked him why he wasn’t using a shovel and he says that he doesn’t want to break the roots. If he found the roots, he’d dig under them. It’s not like you have a flat piece of land with seeds and insecticides – it’s not hard to do that – but it is hard to leave nature in charge. It’s possible sometimes to pick an unbelievable truffle, then pick another one 100 metres away – maybe from the same spores – and for it not to taste the same.’ So what are Giorgio’s truffle tips? First, he says, always buy a whole truffle, not one that has been cut.
It’s also important to choose truffles with the dirt left on them – the mud keeps in the moisture. Back in the kitchen, the best way to deal with truffles is also the most straightforward: ‘After I go truffle hunting in the morning and we come back to taste it, I have a piece of bread with fried eggs and a truffle on top. Just slice it over with a mandolin.’
Giorgio nurses a truffle between his thumb and forefinger, and looks at me with a playful glint in his eye. ‘You haven’t eaten this truffle, but you’re experiencing it,’ he says. ‘The smell is 50 per cent of the flavour, which is why we slice it very thin onto something hot, then the smell hits you. We never slice the truffle in the kitchen, we always slice it in front of the guest. We always try to put truffle onto something very simple – something with a high protein content, such as eggs, or starchy things such as potatoes, pasta and risotto. I see chefs and they go crazy and they make these great inventions with truffles, which I think is a waste of time, I think the simplest way is always the best.’ Buy Giorgio’s book, Made In Sicily, for Dhs299 at Ronda Locatelli and all good bookstores. The truffle menu at Ronda Locatelli runs until the end of November or early December, depending on the length of the season. Ronda Locatelli, Atlantis, Palm Jumeirah (04 426 2626).