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Gennaro Contaldo: Putting some Italian passion into Jamie's Italian
IF GENNARO Contaldo decided he wanted to put his feet up and spend the rest of his days like Vito Corleone at the end of The Godfather, no one could grumble.
The Italian master has been plying his trade in England for over 40 years, has run top restaurants, appeared on numerous TV shows and mentored telly cooking’s current Don, Jamie Oliver.
But instead of taking it easy, the 64-year-old is still attracted to the kitchen like a moth to a flame.
Most days, he is at a branch of Jamie’s Italian somewhere in the country meeting chefs and staff, mentoring, making clips for Jamie’s Foodtube and generally running around full of energy.
In the hour or so we spent together, Gennaro took me around the kitchens at the Bluewater restaurant and must have shown me just about everything that is made on site.
He started on the pizza doughs, took me to look at the kitchen stocks, showed me and cooked me breaded mushrooms, demonstrated how the slow-cooked stuffed pork belly is made and why it is so fresh and tasty, fed me foccacia baked on site and even talked for five minutes about salt.
Never have I seen someone so enthusiastic and engaging about salt.
“Salt is everything,” he said, taking great handfuls and smelling it.
“Nobody talks about salt.”
For the record, Jamie’s Italian uses top quality sea salt – the same kind the Pope uses. This salt is used for all purposes, including the humble boiling water for the pasta.
Keeping up with Gennaro is no mean feat. He moves at the speed of light, shouting, gesticulating, struggling to hold in his passion.
At one stage, he was so keen for me to taste the pork belly’s stuffing that he physically put it in my mouth. I was prepared to feed myself, I just couldn’t move that fast.
He is a man who thinks nothing of grabbing your hand filling it with olive oil and telling you to suck it back.
It is no wonder Jamie learnt so much and has such a happy disposition.
At one stage, Gennaro knocked up a quick pasta sauce using just mushroom, garlic, chilli and a little bit of oil and stock. It tasted better than anything I’ve had from a jar and took him seconds.
But the cook refuses to acknowledge his genius.
He said: “Who am I to cook? You just need great ingredients.
“Italian food is all about the flavour. Simple ingredients.”
There is a tender side to Gennaro too. I asked him how proud he is of his famous protégé.
He said: “I am more than proud.
“That moment when a father sees his new born baby, that’s how I feel.”
One of Jamie’s assets, he said, is ability to give classic recipes an update.
He said: “He says to me. ‘Big Man, you make food with big flavours, but it is getting a bit old. Let’s give it a twist’.
“And I taste it, and he’s right.”
Telling me why it is important that Jamie’s Italian is not just lovingly made, fresh, with good ingredients but also good value, Gennaro welled up.
He was working in a cafe in 1970, he said, when a mother came in unable to afford a scone for her children. He slipped some cash under the table and pretended the woman had dropped it.
“She looked me in the eye, I knew she knew,” he said.
“That is why we have to make it f*****g affordable.”
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