Visiting Ronda Locatelli restaurant for the white truffle season, the Italian chef (Madonna’s favourite) talks to Penelope Walsh about mellowing with age.
What is your food philosophy?
Philosophy is a big word... I remember going in the car to Alba, Italy, with my grandfather and my brothers to collect truffles. I remember the smell and being around my family. I think food memories are so intertwined with smell. So when you walk into a chip shop, for example, it’s different for me, because we have attached different memories to that. My philosophy is to dig into these flavours that have made me passionate about food, to find that excitement and then transfer it to other people.
You don’t like the word ‘philosophy’ in this context?
I don’t like to talk about food as philosophy or art. I feed people, you know? There’s a difference.
But food can be artistic, no?
Art is a difficult thing to judge. If you give me a plate of spaghetti I can tell you if it’s good or not. We just finished working at Frieze Art Fair in London. We had a pop-up restaurant there, serving
300-400 people a day. One day, the takings were Dhs95,798. And in front of us, there was a drawing by Picasso for Dhs15.4 million! So, that’s art... what we do is different. If you say cooking is art, then everything is art.
Do you have a more democratic view of food?
It’s a big thing for someone who sits in London and charges Dhs445 for a meal to talk about democratising. We have this idea that good food is for the rich. I’d like everyone to have a good meal that is sustainable, seasonal and green. I really try to poke at the commercialisation of food and create a direct line towards the guys who produce the food. Sustainability in Dubai needs to be looked at. We are not growing enough here.
But you often talk about social fairness in food?
I’m not as angry as I used to be. I used to be really angry when I was young, all the time.
I grew up in an environment that was very family orientated, I never saw anybody shouting or treating anybody badly. The people that worked for us were like our family. And then obviously I left and worked around the world. And I worked in places where I thought, how can this be possible? In Paris, I worked in a place where spinach with cream cost as much as I got paid for a whole day’s work. This was wrong.
In London, our guy that does the washing up has been there for 11 years and gets Dhs130,400 a year.
And in Dubai?
Hmmm... it’s difficult. You can, however, chew away a little bit, and then it doesn’t feel like the proverbial fight against the wind. Ten years ago I would have been banging my fists on the table, shouting [laughs]. You can’t make a revolution every time. Obviously in [London restaurant] Locanda Locatelli we can make a revolution every day, because we are the owners.