Tribute to Antonio Carluccio
08 November 2017
Long-time Guild member, renowned chef Antonio Carluccio, died on 8 November 2017.
Jenny Linford has very kindly let us share with you her tribute to this special gentleman.
The sad news that Antonio Carluccio – cook, restaurateur, cookbook author, TV presenter – had died was greeted with shock and great sadness in the food world. There was a palpable sense of loss in the reaction. Despite Antonio’s age – he had turned 80, a fact of which he was very proud – he was an enduring part of our food landscape and we felt he would be with us forever. It is rather as if a great, gnarled, old oak in the woodland which he loved so much – a magnificent landmark tree, whose existence gave one pleasure and yet somehow one took for granted – was suddenly gone. His going has left a huge gap and there is real grief at his loss.
Gathering memories of Antonio from fellow food writers for this tribute brought home to me the very real and deep affection in which he was held. The stories shared with me are warm and funny: tales of extravagant gestures, memorable meals, enjoyable, convivial encounters. They evoke a man who loved life, a raconteur, a bon viveur, a huge, vibrant personality who, however famous he became, was never grand with it; someone who was generous and kind throughout his long life. ‘He was like a big hug,’ says Thane Prince simply. Susan Fleming worked with Antonio, helping him write ten of his cookbooks, a process which saw them becoming close friends. She has happy memories of Antonio joining her and her husband while on holiday in Lake Maggiore in order to work on one of his Greedy Italians books: ‘We worked hard but we also had great fun, with Antonio buying the best produce from the shops and market and then cooking it for us at night. He was a master joke-teller. It is quite difficult to tell jokes in a language that is not your first, but he managed! We laughed a lot, Antonio and I.’
I myself experienced how kind Antonio could be at first hand. In the late 1980s, when I was a fledgling food writer, researching my first book, Food Lovers’ London, a cosmopolitan food shopping guide, for Macmillan. I wrote to Antonio Carluccio, whose cookbook An Invitation to Italian Cooking I admired, asking if I could talk to him about Italian food in London. He courteously replied inviting me to meet him for a coffee at the Neal Street Restaurant where he spent time talking to me. When I asked him about Italian restaurants in London – bear in mind this was the 1980s – he replied candidly, with an expressive shrug of his shoulders, ‘Mostly they are Brit-alian.’ He thought about it and told me of a restaurant in ‘ammersmith, a recommendation which sent me off to meet Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers at the, then little-known, River Café. His consideration didn’t stop there; he thrilled me by coming to my book launch to congratulate me and wish me well. That real kindness – taking the trouble to come to my launch – and his willingness to share knowledge and time was typical of Antonio.
Italian food was important to Antonio in a powerful way, saturated with meaning and memory. As a child in wartime Italy, food was scarce and he always remembered his mother’s remarkable skill in being able to provide meals. He spoke and wrote movingly about how when his younger brother died from drowning – a family tragedy which shaped his life – he turned to cooking for comfort. The sharing of food was something as natural to him as breathing. Fiona Beckett recalls going to interview him and how he showed her to make a fried pizza, ‘which sounds terribly heavy, but it was crisp and light as air. He anointed it with a fresh tomato sauce and some basil leaves and it was quite delicious.’ James Steen describes how when he asked Antonio to describe his final meal, Antonio thought for a minute and then said: ‘I’d like it to be set in the middle of the Italian countryside, beneath a pergola. It would begin with spaghettini with cherry tomatoes and basil. Very simple.’ Next a ragu of offal served with rice. For dessert, ‘I’d step away from the pergola and pick a white peach. One peach picked directly from the tree. Then I would bite into it and – whoosh – the taste would take me straight back to my childhood.’
He was a deeply social person and the world of restaurants, with their inherent hospitality, suited his gregarious, outgoing personality. ‘He was born to be in a restaurant chatting to people,’ says food writer Thane Prince fondly, who knew Antonio from his Neal Street Restaurant days. ‘Once, he told me with enormous pride that Pavarotti came into his restaurant, still in costume from a performance at the Royal Opera House, and Antonio carved slice after slice of ham for Pavarotti. He loved that. You can imagine him and Pavarotti having the best time, both Italians with a huge appetite for everything!’
Like an oak tree, Antonio’s roots ran far and deep and he touched many lives, inspiring several people in the food world in ways which are only now becoming apparent as we talk and share our memories of him. Diana Henry met Antonio just after she had left TV and was beginning her career as a food writer. Her first job was to work with Antonio on his first big vegetable book. ‘I researched the background to all the vegetables, and then I would go and talk to Antonio at his restaurant in Neal Street every Thursday morning. We drank a lot of coffee and talked about his memories of different vegetables, how he or his mum cooked them. Then I wrote all this in Antonio’s voice. It was a big project, which went on for months, but it was lovely to spend every Thursday morning with him. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who was so enthusiastic about food. Often if he mentioned a flavour or an ingredient he would just pick up the phone and ask for it to be brought up from the shop – fennel seeds, or salami or something like that. Then we would talk about the flavour while eating it. Food and flavours were never far from his mind.’
A forager from his childhood days, when the ability to find wild food was vital to sustaining his family, it was through his love of wild mushrooms that Antonio initially came to public attention. Thane Prince first met him when she wrote an article for The Telegraph on his book A Passion for Mushrooms. ‘I went mushroom hunting with Antonio and Gennaro [Contaldo] in Bedgebury Pinetum and we had a wonderfully funny time. We looked for mushrooms and then Antonio cooked them in the woods and we became friends. I asked them how they knew which ones you could eat, as there were so many different ones. Antonio said, “It’s a bit like with your family; you recognise the ones you know.”’ Diana Henry, too, remembers his fondness for mushrooms: ‘He wanted to create a mushroom ballet; he described how the porcini would be dressed. I’m so sorry that he never managed to do that. He honestly saw different kinds of mushrooms as personalities.’
His influence on Britain’s food scene was considerable; he was a seminal figure in transforming our understanding of Italian food. Antonio was a great communicator and this, of course, made him a wonderful television presenter. His ability to connect directly to people – to make them feel that he was really listening to you – which was remarked upon by so many, came across vividly in his shows. While genial and entertaining, Antonio was always committed to promoting proper Italian food through his restaurants – first at the Neal Street Restaurant, then with the successful Carluccio Caffes, co-founded with his then-wife Priscilla Conran – his cookbooks and his programmes. ‘Even though he was a TV star, there was an integrity to his food on television,’ observes Thane. ‘When I went on to teach Italian cooking in Italy, his influence on me was to make me understand that there are classic ways to cook things in Italy and for good reason.’ The beautiful respect for ingredients which lies at the heart of Italian cuisine is something Antonio communicated with masterly effectiveness. ‘He explained better than anyone that Italian food was about simplicity, not about food trends or what was fashionable,’ reflects Bee Wilson. ‘He was a great ambassador for vegetables. Where the British tended to speak of vegetables as duty, he taught us to look at a head of radicchio or a bundle of asparagus with refined hunger.’
‘He wasn’t a chef, but a home cook (he learned from his mother), and that is what comes across in all his recipes in all his books,’ observes Susan Fleming. ‘He wasn’t trying to mess around with the traditions, he just reported them as they were, and so I think his food had a truthfulness to it. Anna del Conte may be the queen of Italian cooking in Britain, but Antonio was so much the king.’ For Diana Henry, too, there is no doubt of his influence. ‘He was the person who introduced us to Italian food. He had a much bigger impact than Elizabeth David because he reached a much, much bigger audience. His impact was partly to do with the fact that he was just so Italian. I mean sometimes it was hard to understand Antonio because his accent was just so strong. His rise on TV coincided with The River Café and together they had a big impact on what we eat. Like the best TV chefs it was his warmth and accessibility that marked him out. He wasn’t any different in real life to the way he was on screen. He was a natural enthusiast and communicator. It wasn’t fame he was after, he just wanted to share his enthusiasm.’
There was an open-minded quality to Antonio and a willingness to engage with the world. Joanna Blythman remembers how, in 1999, she, Darina Allen and Linda Brown got together to found Food Writers against GM Food and worked with Greenpeace to spread the word. ‘We started speaking to chefs and the first chef to come on board was Antonio Carluccio,’ she recalls. ‘We had a launch at the Savoy Hotel – we were trying to say this is a big, important thing – and Antonio came along to lend his support. I remember we went for lunch afterwards, a group of us squeezed into a taxi, and I thanked him for his support. He looked at me and said, “This GM food gives me a very bad feeling.” We all laughed, as we’d spent all this time trying to stress that we had done our research and make all the arguments. And he just said “no” and that was a very legitimate feeling to have. I loved that – it was completely intuitive, a visceral thing.’ Joanna has huge respect for Antonio: ‘He was a very progressive and forward-thinking man. It was very early days in the movement against GM food. He lent his name to the cause and he didn’t need to do that. He was a person with instinct and intelligent emotions, which weren’t subjected to a prism of calculation of “Should I be seen to be doing this? How will it affect my restaurant?” He was a heart person.’
His many cookbooks – through which he shared his love for and knowledge of Italian food – remain to keep us company and connect us to him. ‘His Invitation to Italian Cookery is one of the most splattered books in my kitchen. I still make the chicken thighs stuffed with mortadella,’ says Diana Henry. Bee Wilson remembers how when she got married twenty years ago, someone gave her a Carluccio cookbook. ‘There was a recipe in it for pumpkin risotto that I have made countless times since. There’s nothing much to it, but there’s something about the way the pumpkin is softened in butter with garlic and rosemary that is utterly delicious. It smells like autumn. I always think of him when I make it, and now my thoughts will be tinged with sadness for this curly-haired, big-hearted cook.’
Antonio Carluccio, born 19 April, 1937, died 8 November 2017, a long-time, much-loved and respected member of the Guild of Food Writers. May he rest in peace.
Photograph by Laura Edwards