'Life goes on, we learn' - Gennaro on collapse of Jamie Oliver's chain
After the collapse of his restaurant chain with Jamie Oliver, Gennaro Contaldo says you learn and then you move on. And that is just what the passionate Italian chef has done with his new book, Pasta Perfecto, writes Katy McGuinness
Arriving in Britain from his home in Minori on the Amalfi coast of Italy in his late teens, chef Gennaro Contaldo was a given a permit that described his status as 'alien'.
"What did that mean?" he asks, in an accent that can have changed little since. "An alien from outer space?"
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
Now, 50 years later, as Brexit looms ever closer, he's furious at the notion of having to apply for settled status.
"I have lived in the UK for five decades. My children were born here, my home is in England - even though my heart is Italian - my life is here, yet I have no status. For the last three years people like me have been on an electric wire. For what reason? I want to know why. The economy was good. So why?
"I feel it is the biggest mistake ever. How can a country be in Europe for 50 years and then say it's going to leave? It's crazy! And terrible for young people. I have fears for the farmers and about the North of Ireland, the bang bang bang… And what about the scientists, the doctors, the chefs… what is the country going to be like without them? The stupidity of it makes me so angry. Europeans think the British are mad. I have no words… Oh, mamma mia!"
It's not only the prospect of Brexit that's causing Contaldo distress. He - understandably - doesn't want to talk about the collapse of the restaurant chain, Jamie's Italian, either, other than to say that, "It was a great experience, we met so many beautiful people, we did it, life goes on, we learn…"
Contaldo is of course best known as Jamie Oliver's mentor and side-kick, on telly and in business. The pair first met when the young Oliver arrived to work as a pastry chef under Contaldo in the kitchen of Antonio Carluccio's Neal Street Restaurant in the early days of his career. These days they are business partners in Jamie's Italian, which announced earlier this year that it would close 22 of its 25 restaurants after the injection of a whopping €25m of Oliver's fortune failed to save it. One thousand jobs were lost.
Despite the stresses of business, relations between Contaldo and his protégé remain as strong as ever, as evidenced by an emotional (though sometimes hard to follow) monologue in which the older man describes Oliver as being both like a piece of bread (wholesome?) and a crystal glass of water (transparent?).
"I have known Jamie for a very long time," he says on the phone from his home in London. "We met when working for Antonio, whom I miss so much - he was such a good friend, we were friends for 35 years and spoke every day, we were like family. It's the same with Jamie - I fell in love with him straight away, he is so talented. He is an incredible human, there for everyone. His goodness and generosity are such that his heart is full of gold. He tries to help everybody; sometimes I call him a saint, and in our business, I am the bad guy. I am very proud of the work we do together. He is like a son."
The Irish outpost of Jamie's Italian in Dundrum is unaffected by the troubles in the wider group and continues to trade profitably under the ownership of Gerry Fitzpatrick. Contaldo visits regularly and is involved in menu development and chef training; Fitzpatrick says that he is a popular presence, known affectionately by the Dublin team as 'Papa G'.
"I love Ireland," says Contaldo, who lived in Larne and Dublin for a short time in the early '70s. "I made so many friends there, and I like to go fishing for trout in Lough Conn whenever I can."
The notion that pasta may have fallen out of fashion in an age of carb-avoidance is one to which Gennaro Contaldo gives short shrift.
"Pasta will never go out of fashion," he says, "it's so healthy! Even people on a diet can eat pasta - it all depends on the sauce. 100g of flour doubles in size when you add water and makes 200g of pasta, more than enough for two people.
"Even if you add an egg it's not very many calories. Simplicity is the key - you can make a sauce with a few cherry tomatoes, good olive oil and a little cheese and you have a beautiful dish that is very healthy. The problem is that portions here [meaning Britain and Ireland] are too big, much bigger than they are in Italy. People want big mounds of food on their plates and that's too much.
"Until the age of 96, my father was eating 60g of pasta each day. He wasn't doing very much by then, so he didn't need more. When he died I drank some very good prosecco. He had told me that I could have a little cry - your father is always your father - but that I had to celebrate his life."
Contaldo's new book, Pasta Perfecto!, is a collection of 'essential' classic recipes that are simple enough for even inexperienced cooks to follow, "especially if they cook with the seasons". He says that it was a joy to work on, with his sister, partner and children all involved in preparing the dishes for the photoshoot.
"I was so happy that I burst into song rolling out pasta," he says. "But picking my favourite recipe is impossible. It would be like picking one of my children over another."
One recipe that catches the eye is for Carbonara Mare e Monti - carbonara from the sea and mountains. Amongst the ingredients are clams, spicy salami and…shock horror!.. cream. Surely not? But Contaldo says that cream is appropriate here yet has no place in a classic carbonara made with guanciale (cured pig's cheek) where the sauce should be made creamy with a little of the cooking water from the pasta. So now you know.
Frittata Di Pasta Avanzata
This is a tasty way to make use of leftover pasta and any other ingredients you might want to use up, such as cheese, cured meats or grilled veggies. In the Italian kitchen, this has long been made to deal with pasta leftovers, but nowadays it is specially made in mini portions and sold as street food.
125g/4½ oz/1½ cups grated Parmesan
85g/3oz/ ¾ stick butter, melted
10 basil leaves, roughly torn
10 baby plum tomatoes or 4 tbsp leftover tomato sauce
Leftovers, such as pieces of ham, salami, other cheeses, grilled (broiled) vegetables (optional)
350g/12oz leftover cooked pasta
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. In a large bowl, beat the eggs, then stir in the grated Parmesan, melted butter, basil leaves, tomatoes or tomato sauce and any other leftovers you like. Season with a little salt and black pepper, then combine well with the leftover cooked pasta.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large ovenproof non-stick frying pan (skillet) over a medium heat, pour in the mixture and cook as you would an omelette for 4-5 minutes, until the bottom is set firm. Carefully flip the frittata on to a large plate if you can, then slide it back into the pan to cook the other side for another 4-5 minutes. Alternatively, place under a hot grill (broiler) until golden.
3. Serve hot or cold.
Piatto Unico di Cap D'Anno Lentils
Cotechino, the rich pork sausage traditionally served with lentils on New Year's Eve in Italy, makes the perfect filling for delicious cappellacci pasta. As the name suggests, cappellacci are shaped like little hats. My recipe title translates as 'New Year's Main Course' because it combines all the foods eaten on this day - even the pasta course. Rich, substantial and delicious, it is the perfect dish for the time of year.
Serves 4-6 (makes about 48 cappellacci)
1 x quantity of egg pasta dough (see panel at end )
Plain (all-purpose) flour, for dusting
1 egg, beaten
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra to serve
1 rosemary sprig
2 sage leaves
Grated Parmesan, to serve
For the filling:
250g/9oz pre-cooked vacuum-packed cotechino sausage
1 potato, peeled and cut into chunks
75g/2½ oz ricotta
20g/¾ oz/¼ cup grated Parmesan
For the lentils:
200g/7oz/1¼ cups small green or brown lentils
1 bay leaf
1 garlic clove, left whole
1 small carrot, chopped
1 banana shallot, finely chopped
1tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 litre/35 fl oz/4⅓ cups vegetable stock (bouillon)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Make the pasta dough. Wrap it in clingfilm (plastic wrap) and refrigerate while you make the filling and lentils.
2. For the filling, put the vacuum pack of cotechino into a saucepan, cover with cold water, bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes (or according to the pack directions). Drain, then carefully cut open and drain off any excess liquid. Weigh out the required amount of cotechino and place in a large bowl.
3. Meanwhile, cook the potato in boiling water until tender. Drain and combine it with the cotechino, then add the ricotta and Parmesan, and mash with a fork until well combined and fairly smooth. Set aside.
4. Put all the ingredients for the lentils into a large saucepan, bring to the boil, then gently simmer for 20-30 minutes, until the lentils are tender (check the pack directions). Check seasoning, set aside and keep warm.
5. Roll out the pasta dough on a floured surface to 5mm (¼ in) thick and cut into 6.5cm (2½in) squares. Brush each square with beaten egg, place a heaped teaspoon of the cotechino mixture in the middle, then fold the pasta over into a triangle shape, enclosing the filling. Press down the edges to seal. Take the two corners on the long edge of the triangles and fold them round to join each other at the bottom of the triangles. Press firmly to secure. You should have made little hat shapes.
6. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil, add the cappellacci and cook for about 3-4 minutes.
7. Meanwhile, in a large frying pan (skillet), heat the olive oil with the rosemary and sage over a medium heat and add the cooked lentils.
8. Transfer the cooked cappellacci to the pan with a slotted spoon and cook for 1 minute or so. Serve immediately, with Parmesan and olive oil.
Lasagne Al Frutti di Mare
If you enjoy seafood, you will love this lasagne! It takes a little time and organisation to prepare the fresh seafood and the various different elements, but once all the basics are ready, it's really simple and well worth the effort. If you can't get fresh seafood or don't have the time, use a 1kg (2lb 4oz) bag of prepared mixed seafood instead, which you can simply sauté in a little extra-virgin olive oil with a little chopped garlic and parsley, then proceed to assemble the lasagne as directed.
10-12 dried eggless lasagne sheets
For the seafood mix:
300g/10½ oz octopus (ask your fishmonger to clean)
300g/10½ oz calamari (ask your fishmonger to clean)
500g/1lb 2 oz fresh mussels, washed, de-bearded and any open shells discarded
500g/1lb 2 oz fresh clams, washed and any open shells discarded
A splash of white wine
3 garlic cloves: 1 left whole, 2 finely chopped
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
200g/7oz ready-peeled prawns (shrimp)
2 tbsp finely chopped parsley
For the sautéed tomatoes:
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
250g/9oz cherry tomatoes, halved
1 tbsp finely chopped parsley
For the white sauce:
700ml/24 fl oz/3 cups fish stock (bouillon), made with a fish stock (bouillon) cube
50g/1¾ oz/3½ tbsp butter
50g/1¾ oz/generous ⅓ cup plain (all-purpose) flour
For the gratin mixture: 40g/1½ oz/¾ cup breadcrumbs
1 tbsp finely chopped parsley
1. Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil and cook the octopus for 30-40 minutes, until tender. Remove from the heat and leave to cool in the water until you are ready to use, then roughly chop into small chunks.
2. In another saucepan, cook the calamari in boiling water for about 20 minutes, until tender.
3. Leave to cool, then chop into small chunks.
4. Put the cleaned mussels and clams into a large saucepan with a splash of white wine and the whole garlic clove, cover with a tightly fitting lid and cook over a medium heat for 3-5 minutes, until the shells have opened. Discard any shells that have not opened. Remove from the heat and, when cool enough to handle, remove the flesh from the shells, pass the cooking liquid through a fine sieve (strainer) and set aside.
5. Preheat the oven to 180°C fan/200°C/400°F/gas mark 6.
6. Meanwhile, prepare the other elements. To make the sautéed tomatoes, heat the olive oil in a pan over a medium heat, add the garlic and sweat for 1 minute, add the cherry tomatoes, parsley and a little salt to taste, and sauté over a medium-high heat for about 3 minutes, until tender but not mushy (the tomatoes must still retain their shape). Remove from the heat and set aside.
7. To make the white sauce, combine the hot fish stock with the liquid left from cooking the mussels and clams. Melt the butter in a saucepan, then remove from the heat and whisk in the flour. Add a little of the stock and mix to a smooth paste. Return the pan to a medium heat, gradually whisk in all the stock and cook until the sauce begins to thicken. Remove from the heat and set aside.
8. For the gratin mixture, combine the breadcrumbs and parsley, and set aside.
9. To finish cooking the seafood, heat the olive oil in a large frying pan (skillet) over a medium heat, add the chopped garlic and sweat for 1 minute. Add the mussels, clams, octopus, calamari, prawns and parsley, and sauté over a high heat for 3 minutes. Remove and set aside.
10. To assemble the lasagne, line the bottom of a baking dish with a little of the white sauce and top with a few sautéed tomatoes. Place a couple of lasagne sheets on top, followed by a layer of the seafood mix and a few more sautéed tomatoes, sprinkle over some gratin mixture and then add another layer of white sauce. Continue making layers in this way until you have used up all the ingredients, ending with a layer of white sauce and a sprinkling of the gratin mixture.
11. Cover with foil and bake in the hot oven for 25 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to bake for 15 minutes, until just golden. Remove from the oven, leave to rest for 5 minutes and serve.
To make one quantity of egg pasta dough
* 200g/7oz/generous 1½ cups Italian '00' pasta flour, sifted
* 2 large free-range organic eggs
1. Put the flour into a large mixing bowl or heap on a clean work surface.
2. Make a well in the centre, add the eggs and mix well together to form a dough. Wrap in clingfilm (plastic wrap) and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes, or until required.
Rigatoni alla Zozzana
This robust Roman recipe takes its name from zozza, which in Roman dialect usually means 'dirty', but in the case of this recipe means 'rich', because all sorts of ingredients are added. It's a cross between the other classic Roman pasta dishes cacio e pepe and carbonara, and uses up all the typical leftovers, making it a substantial but extremely delicious dish.
300g/10½ oz rigatoni pasta
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
100g/3½ oz pancetta, finely chopped
100g/3½ oz Italian pork sausage, skinned and crumbled
1 egg yolk
30g/1 oz/scant ½ cup grated Pecorino, plus extra for sprinkling
2 tbsp single (light) cream
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil and cook the pasta until al dente (check the instructions on your packet for cooking time).
2. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan (skillet) set over a medium heat, add the onion and sweat for 1 minute. Add the pancetta and sausage meat, and sauté for 10 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, whisk together the egg yolk, grated Pecorino and cream, along with some salt and pepper, in a small bowl.
4. Drain the cooked pasta, add to the pan with the pancetta and sausage meat, mix well and cook for 1 minute over a high heat. Remove from the heat and mix in the creamy mixture.
5. Serve immediately, with an extra sprinkling of black pepper and Pecorino.
* Extracted from Pasta Perfecto! by Gennaro Contaldo, published by Pavilion Books, photography by David Loftus, €26.60, Easons