An Italian opera: Carluccio's dark night of the soul
Antonio Carluccio is a spokesman for the chain of restaurants but, as Donal Lynch joyfully discovers, his life has been too packed with incident, drama and heartbreak to fit with any brand image
You have to feel for the PR people around Antonio Carluccio. At the best of times it's a dicey gamble trotting him out to talk about the restaurant chain he founded. On the one hand he's the bushy-browed embodiment of the rustic Italian foodiness that has made Carluccio's such a roaring success - it's now a publicly listed company in England - and the press comes flocking any time he opens his mouth. On the other hand he's liable to say anything - the driver on the way here politely asks if he has children and he cheerily replies "none that I know of!" - and is far too interesting and bursting full of anecdotes to be brought to heel in the name of brand management.
We're warned in advance, for example, that he doesn't want to get into any personal questions and very specifically doesn't want to be asked about his suicide attempt, when, during the throes of a relationship breakdown, he stabbed himself in the chest and checked into The Priory. But happily it doesn't matter what we want or they want because once Antonio has been served his coffee (having loudly complained about the slow service) in the brand spanking new Carluccio's in Glasthule he's already careening so deliciously far off the pre-approved corporate patter that the company PR - who insists on sitting in on the interview - is interjecting with "this is so off topic!" - and shooting me panic eyes. "No no no" he tells her, waving his hand. "It's OK, with him I can talk. If you want to have a taste of life you've got to have the ups and downs", he begins. "I have had a happy life but there was one unhappy period. Through Carluccio's I lost a little bit of my identity. If you give your name (you ask) why your name is everywhere? Why you have to sell yourself? I felt … not very good."
His absolute nadir, the moment we are forbidden from asking about, came about partly as he felt himself becoming subsumed within the corporate version of himself and as his marriage to Priscilla Conran, sister of the designer Sir Terence Conran, began to break down. In 1989 Antonio had brought the first restaurant in London's Neal Street from Terence and it quickly became one of the hottest nightspots in London. Everyone from Mick Jagger to Prince Charles to Placido Domingo ate there and as an apprentice Jamie Oliver learned his trade in its kitchen. They soon opened a deli next door and the concept took off; Carluccio was credited with introducing the 1990s mania for pesto to England and expanding notions of Italian food beyond claggy bolognaise and lasagne and chips. With Priscilla as the marketing and business powerhouse of the couple, Carluccio's quickly became the fastest growing restaurant chain in the UK and in 2005 the company floated on the stock exchange. By then, he was one of the wealthiest restaurateurs in Britain. But what should have been a moment of unmitigated triumph instead marked a period of growing despair for Antonio. He heard reports that the food had gone downhill - it's been described in the British press as McDonald's for the middle classes - and two years later he was forced to close the very first restaurant he had opened, the building's landlords having announced they intended to redevelop the site. On top of all of that his marriage was over. He felt depressed and at his wits end. In September of 2009, he plunged a dagger into his own chest. He was kept in hospital with a suspected perforated lung for three days.
"If you touch those great extremes you know what life is really about", he tells me, wearily. "You can maybe help someone else who is in the same situation. I had many people writing to me afterward saying 'I completely understand what you did.' For me I was trying to understand: OK, I did it. I am not proud of it. But the important thing is to ask, after it was over, what was it for? Why did I do it? Was it for venting aggression? No. It was the ultimate expression of saying 'I can't any more.' But then maybe if you get through it there comes a moment where you can lift your head again. Unfortunately, many people who go through something like this, they are not here any more, they don't exist. I wasn't stronger afterwards, but wiser."
Carluccio has the devil-may-care air of a man who has lived a very full life but he tells me that although he had an idyllic childhood, learning the basics of cookery from his mother, he grew up in Piedmont, Italy, in tough times, during the Second World War, and saw and heard some of the death and destruction around him. A sensitive child he was profoundly affected by the death of a youth who lived in the neighbourhood, a doctor's son, who committed suicide. Later when he went into the navy, he returned home to the news of the death of another friend, who had been killed in a motoring accident. When he was 23, however there would be a tragedy that lives with him until this day. The drowning of his youngest brother Enrico almost destroyed him.
"A lot of what happened in my life in the years after can be understood by what happened then", he begins. "I had a little brother who I thought was my son. I was brought up by the other siblings, who were much older. When he came into the world ten years after me, it made me so happy. At an emotional level, I thought he was my kid. When that child died it was completely devastating to me. It's probably something that I still carry with me. I tell you a story: one day I took the little boy to the fair, it was my turn to do so. And there was a game where there were three circles of metal that you had to drop on the circle of white underneath so that you don't show any white. It was one of those games of skill and chance. And the poor child, he didn't know that every try was costing money and he didn't succeed and when he saw I was paying he got so red in the face and I was so sorry for him. This is something that stays inside my heart now. All through my life I wonder what would he be like at this age, at that age. He would have been coming up behind me. We would have helped each other through the bad moments and celebrated the good moments together. I think he would have followed very much in my mentality, we were very close. When you have a human being you treat almost as a child and that's gone then it's gone forever."
After the death of Enrico, Carluccio's mother turned to religion, becoming a devout Jehovah's Witness and the chef tells me he has "no time for religion. I'm not into Communism but, like Marx said, (religion is) opium for the mind."
He left Italy partly to leave the worst memories of this tragedy behind him, he says, but party to satisfy his sense of adventure. "I went into the navy because I was adventurous", he says. " I left the navy to study and visit Europe and learn languages, I learned five languages, I went abroad because a wonderful girl was there. I moved always the entire life for a lady, not the same lady, a different one." He had stints in Vienna and as a wine merchant in Germany where he married his first wife, Gerda. He tried to kill himself when the relationship broke down, consuming pills and walking toward a lake. He collapsed on the bank and was brought to hospital. In 1975 he moved to London to be with a woman called Christa. Three years into the relationship he caught her kissing another man and again thought about ending it all, drinking a bottle of whiskey and driving his car toward the Thames. As he stood on Battersea Bridge a passer-by saw him and rescued him but he would subsequently overdose and was again admitted to hospital. Things would improve in his life after he met Priscilla. She met him after he came runner-up in a cookery competition in London. Nobody ever again heard of the winner.
"It was a good relationship with them (the women) but somehow it eluded me, the fatherhood", he tells me. "I am a romantic, I thought the biggest mark of attention I gave to my feelings. When you love someone else and it doesn't work from your side it's bitter but not as bitter[as when it doesn't work from their side]. But then the little backfire comes: was it right, the decision to end it? The most important thing is to be able to find another person corresponding to the image of what you think you perceive as intimate and very deep. If you find that mirror in different forms then it can work but if you don't find it at all you won't feel alive inside."
The decision to never have children was, he says, "pure coincidence." He was married three times but none of the women bore him children. "Well it happened like this: The first woman couldn't have children. The second one only acted like they were the right one but they weren't and the third one (Priscilla) already had three children." Did he not feel like a father to those kids?
"Jein" he says, (a German word meaning 'Yes and no' - he speaks multiple languages.) For example now I have a girlfriend, she has three children. The first thing I did when it came to being with her was say to them 'listen I will never be your father.' That might sound strange. But they listened, they could relate to that and understand that. They enjoy me a lot."
In recent years, he has found huge success as one of the stars of the TV series Two Greedy Italians - starring himself and fellow restaurateur Gennaro Contaldo as a sort of Roman answer to Two Fat Ladies. I wonder if, like that show, the programme was a marriage of convenience or if he still sees the other Greedy Italian? "Gennaro? That old donkey?" he laughs. "He's incredible. I knew him when he was nothing! He was selling those Florentine paintings, he'd buy them for a few pounds and sell them for £30-40. Huge profit! Gennaro was always very, very streetwise."
He doesn't have much time for other TV chefs and even less for the ones who put their faces on jars of pasta sauce. "Lloyd Grossman - he wasn't really a chef. Him, and the others they wanted to make money and jump on the bandwagon of Italian food. I find it a little unfortunate. In all the years Antonio's pepolato sauce - was the only one I made. Quite a lot of sauces are well made but not by me. The problem is that they're made with cheap ingredients. They use, for instance, sugar to make the tomatoes seem sweet and ripe instead of having ripe tomatoes."
He was once invited to improve the lasagne made by a particular supermarket, he says, but they balked when it turned out that his new and improved version would cost a few pence more. Despite the ubiquity of Carluccio's in England you can tell that their figurehead and mascot still really cares about food. All during the interview he gobbles tiny morsels of parma ham, all but swooning at their quality.
He tells me he reflects a lot and is slowly getting around to reading his ghost written autobiography - he does a passage at a time - which reminds him of some things he'd forgotten. Although he has made a fortune as an evangelist for Italian cuisine he never again lived full-time in the country after the tragedy with Enrico. Despite the girlfriend, he says he's not sure if he can see himself marrying again but in old age he has learned to value friendship even more. "I had quite a turnover of people in my life. When I invite people in my life it's never with the intention of doing business. I put them together to talk about things. Like a salon, yes. It would be very sterile just to talk about business."
I couldn't agree more but the PR folk who are here specifically to steer the conversation around to the marketing angle probably wouldn't. Carluccio's discourse meanders around a point and you imagine he could be quite maddening - he is completely unbiddable. He says that he can't see himself fully retiring and he thinks he has another good decade and a half left in him. "I'm 78 now", he tells me. "The question is do the body and the mind still collaborate together? I want to enjoy all of the good years I have left, to have fun." He winks amiably at the PR who is by now quite white. "It's very difficult for me to behave like most of the people behave."
Carluccio's second Dublin site has opened in Glasthule, offering fantastic regional Italian food in the all-day restaurant, deli and food shop. The restaurant is located at 73 Glasthule Road, Glasthule, Co Dublin. Tel: 01 231 7971 Visit: www.carluccios.ie
Sunday Indo Living