“If I had to vote for a saint Jamie would be it. He’s good for the country.”
At the BBC Studios on Great Portland Street, Gennaro Contaldo talks to Lucy Holden about his childhood on the Amalfi Coast, Alec Guinness’ passion for tuna steak, and why Jamie Oliver should be heralded as a saint.
Gennaro Contaldo and I are walking along Great Portland street when he turns to his PR, Chloe, and asks if she likes wood-pigeon. He spent the previous day shooting in the countryside with an old Italian friend and came back with a flock of birds that he slow roasted and had for supper. Without waiting for a reply, he’s off: “there’s lots left – It’s cleaned and frozen. Are you working tomorrow? I’ll bring it in. Your boyfriend can cook it for you”.
We’ve just left the BBC studios in London where Contaldo has been speaking a-hundred-miles-an-hour Italian-English to BBC Dublin in advance of the big opening of Jamie’s Italian in the Irish capital. In the studio he gives Chloe his Iphone. “Take a photo of me for Jamie”, he tells her; “Write: ‘Love You. Miss you. Gennaro. Kiss kiss’, but make a mistake so he knows it’s me”. I wonder if their busy schedules might be taking a toll on their relationship – has it been a while since he’s seen Jamie? Gennaro looks at me in complete surprise. “No- I saw him yesterday.”
Jamie is of course Jamie Oliver, and Gennaro the man credited for ‘finding’ him. The pairs’ adoration of each other is not even slightly played up for the cameras and stems from a long history of working together, firstly in Carluccio’s Neal Street restaurant in the 70s where Oliver turned up one morning asking for a job, and now in the Jamie’s Italian empire which the pair run as a sort of double-act.
Amusingly, Contaldo describes the memory of first meeting Oliver as a dream-like rendezvous with a “beautiful woman” who he went on to marry and then forget how he initially met. A beautiful woman with a dodgy cockney accent judging from Contaldo’s impersonation. According to Gennaro he gave Oliver a chef jacket and soon realised he was right in taking on such an enthusiastic young chef: “I opened my heart and taught him everything I knew, but that was not enough, he wanted more”.
Nor is Jamie’s the only ring on Gennaros’ hand. He is, after all, only one half of Two Greedy Italians and also describes his relationship with Antonio Carluccio as a sort of marriage. “Without anything else” he quickly adds. When producers saw the chemistry between Contaldo and Carluccio on set they abandoned scripts, accepting a more spontaneous approach to filming. What we see on screen therefore are two greedy Italians in their element; eating, drinking and bickering their way around the country they grew up in. “We were like boys again” says Contaldo. The countryside was again their sweetshop. But it wasn’t all relaxation for Contaldo. From the Giulietta which sailed the Italian countryside Carluccio spotted figs and oranges sliding off the branch of road-side fruit trees and sent Contaldo out to collect them. “I’ve got to feed Antonio all the time – every five minutes he wants something to eat. He’s so demanding” says Contaldo with mock-exhaustion.
The small Italian fishing village of Minori on the Amalfi coast where Gennaro’s youthful legs ran the Mediterranean ground is one which was replaced by smoky 70s London many years previously. Their contrast is polar. In Minori “the sea was my swimming pool, the mountain was my back garden and the village was my playground” reminisces Contaldo romantically; “I didn’t wear shoes. I used to swim like a dolphin to catch Octopus”. Would he not consider moving back permanently? “No, there is no need.” Despite the trace of Minori sunshine still evident on his skin from a recent holiday, Contaldo says everything has changed. “Everybody knows me but they are not my old friends anymore. I love to sleep in the house where I was born, but my mother’s not there, my father’s not there. I’d look at the same sea every day, the same mountains, the same playground that I used to look at when I was a boy, except I’d go back a pensioner.” It took Gennaro three years to visit Minori after his move to the busy London metropolis and when he saw his old village he couldn’t believe how beautiful it was, but also how small. “I didn’t realise that it was me who had grown” he says with a hint of sadness. For Contaldo, London was freedom.
It was this freedom that made London such an alluring destination; Contaldo tried his hand at a few things; romance, antiques, but always came back to cooking, and eventually settled down. When Contaldo moved from Carluccio’s employ to open his own restaurant, Passione, he of course took Oliver with him, and several years after opening, Contaldo’s new venture had been awarded the best Italian restaurant in London. He had become chef to the stars: the King of Jordan, Madonna and Alec Guinness amongst his eclectic mix of his regulars. Guinness, who came in every Thursday with various members of city media, used to shout at Contaldo for letting Oliver jump all over him in the kitchen; he was impatient for his tuna steak.
Anybody that knows this time in Contaldo’s life cannot doubt that he deserved every accolade he was getting; he was putting his heart and soul into it. It wasn’t long after the restaurant’s opening that Contaldo’s wife fell pregnant with their twin girls and every morning at half four they would drive the short distance from home to restaurant, Liz in dressing-gown and slippers, so that Gennaro could make the morning bread and set up for the day’s service. Regularly finishing in the early hours, Liz would settle herself in the office upstairs and Gennaro would spend his last gasps of energy breathing life into a blow-up mattress that he’d squash under Table 8. “Table 8” Contaldo remembers with a sigh; “that was a cosy corner”.
According to Contaldo it was the love that made the exhaustion bearable and when Passione was ruined by the recession less than a year later, it was Oliver who picked up his devastation. “He told me that Passione was a dream, but that the dream wasn’t over because Jamie’s Italian was still part of that dream. Our adventure never stopped.” For Contaldo there is something beautiful in the way English ventures operate side by side: “when one pub closes in the evening, the landlord goes next door to drink” he says simply.
Famously said by Contaldo is that Oliver wanted him to work on the Jamie’s Italian “collection” because he didn’t want Contaldo to work so hard. “He told me I looked rubbish, but without cooking he knows I wouldn’t be Gennaro. I’ve put an apron on every day of my life. I’d work in the kitchen even if I was a millionaire.”
So what about the criticism: is Jamie taking over the world? There’s a flash of fierceness in Contaldo’s eye when he considers anyone saying anything against Oliver, and the answer, of course, is no. “Jamie does what he does for the country – not for himself. He doesn’t need the money, he just enjoys what he does; he’s very adventurous and he likes to give back to those who’ve helped him. If I had to vote for a saint Jamie would be it. He’s good for the country.” So how are they handling the competition? Well, Contaldo doesn’t believe there is any. “We are the original. We are the proper stuff” he says, with an air of confidence only the Italians are lucky enough to inherit.
It seems as though Oliver has a protective attitude towards Contaldo and I wonder if it is recognisable to the man himself but his answer, again, is easy. “I taught Jamie love, passion and respect and now he’s teaching me that giving is better than taking” he explains. “Jamie’s given me a million times more than I’ve given him.” Despite Jamie’s protective efforts to kit Contaldo with a private car that could slide him easily around the country, he therefore remains one of the people. “I want to be with the people of London; I want to sweat like everybody else” Contaldo says with rapture.
Plus he gets a free bus pass now he’s over 60 and Contaldo is over the moon. He flips it out his pocket. On the front is written ‘FREEDOM’ in big, blue capitals. “I’m free!” he shouts in mock-ecstasy, dragging the shrill sound into the air like you’d imagine his 20-year-old self did with his first step onto English soil.
“Oh and there’s something else I need to show you” he says, reaching again for his bus pass and tugging the wallet open. On the other side of the plastic is a cut out photo of Gennaro’s Saint, and behind that, a fairly ragged photograph of a scrappy looking 15-year-old with auburn hair falling over a skinny, grinning face. It could only be one boy. Jamie, along with Gennaro’s Freedom, goes everywhere with him.