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Gino D'Acampo: Oh, Gino!

Gino D'Acampo glides into the central London private members club where we are due to meet, oozing southern Italian macho charm. "I take it is this pretty lady over here?" he asks, gesturing towards where I've set up at a table near the window. Later on, as he kisses and hugs me repeatedly as he says his goodbyes, he will complain with a hint of disdain that most of the time, when he does press interviews, it is with "ugly people . . . mostly ugly men. So I was pleased to see you today."

It's obvious and cliched, but the thing about this sledgehammer sort of seduction is that it works. There's barely a woman in the world who is immune to it, and I'm no exception. I am disarmed. It's hard not to preen under the attentions of the man who has cornered the sex-and-food market faster than you could say Jean-Christophe Novelli.

In the past few months, the diminutive southern Italian chef has become both a pin-up and a national treasure. In December, he was crowned King of the Jungle after taking part in I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here! And now, everywhere he goes, women adopt mock swoons and fan their faces. He's like a comedy, Carry On-style, female-fantasy figure, with his twinkly smile and rhapsodies about pasta.

What does his wife think of all this new attention? "My wife, she doesn't mind," he says. "She knows exactly where she stands. As long as there is a respect at the end of the day and she knows that I never cross the line.

"It's a reputation that I had before," he adds, "even when I didn't do the television. I like women. I enjoy the company of women. What's wrong with that? As long as you respect the situation."

It's all part of his Italian heritage, you see. "We don't feel threatened by women, and we communicate with women very well and this is how we are. It's beautiful."

He reckons becoming a big celeb hasn't changed his life all that much, but he admits that while before, "40 per cent of the population knew me, now maybe 80 per cent of the population do." Such is what gobbling spiders and rotting eggs in a rainforest can achieve. But he is quick to point out that he was a successful businessman before, a growing one-man industry with a cookware range, supermarket lines and book deals under his belt. "I don't make more money now," he says. "I just talk to more people.

"I'm the type of person who doesn't do television just for the sake of it," he insists. "After the jungle, I didn't do any private interview with anybody. None of this fancy magazine like OK! Nothing."

So why then, the decision to do the most high-profile reality-TV show there is, I ask him. "It's a good question," he says, stopping me mid-sentence to brush away a stray hair that has fallen onto my wrist.

"I was asked to do I'm a Celebrity . . . three years in a row. The first few years I said I wasn't going to do it. Of course, I was asked to do the ice-skating, all the other ones. And I said no to everything. Before I decided to go the jungle, I signed a deal with my pots-and-pan range, food range, my new book was out and all the stuff like that. So I thought to myself, if I have to do it, this is a good time to do it. Raise a little bit of profile.

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"If I had to do it, I wanted to do something that was a challenge for me," he explains. "What attracted me was that I would challenge my body and my mind and be completely out of the world. Out of communication with my family, no mobile phone. Nothing. It was a real test."

He never expected to win, but his red-blooded Latin-lover shtick won the hearts of a nation. If ever we wanted proof that it's mostly women who vote on reality-TV contests, last year's I'm a Celebrity . . . was it. It's women who respond to Gino. Even after he alienated the more delicate-stomached members of his audience after Rat-gate.

Rat-gate, for those whom this little snippet of popular culture passed by, was the hoo-ha that ensued when Gino and fellow campmate Stuart Manning got mixed up between the show they were part of and Kill It, Cook It, Eat It. In short, they trapped a jungle rat, made it into a risotto, and inflamed the wrath of every animal-rights group from here to Queensland. They were even charged with cruelty to animals. The legal battle that followed is, apparently, still rumbling on, and I've been forewarned that Rat-gate is strictly off limits as a topic of discussion. For legal reasons, apparently.

Off the agenda, too, is the other skeleton in Gino's closet, his two-year jail sentence in 1998. Then 20, Gino was convicted of burglary after he broke into singer Paul Young's house and made off with his collection of guitars. On Gino's website, the matter is acknowledged openly and attributed to mixing with the "wrong people". But I'm briskly informed that if I try to mention it, he will stop the interview immediately. Although, once he's in front of me, it's almost impossible to imagine Gino D'Acampo coming over all Liza Minnelli. He's much too chipper. Too chatty, flirtatious and eager to please.

Now 33, Gino comes from an ordinary, working-class Italian background from a town near Naples. His family, though characteristically large, voluble and southern Italian, was not close. "I don't come from a close family," he says. "In fact, my parents are in the middle of separating as we speak.

"I think it's a good thing, because they've been unhappy together for a long time," he continues, though he admits to feeling responsible. "I left home very early. If I'd stayed, maybe I could have helped."

It was his grandfather who first got him interested in food. Papa D'Acampo was a professional chef, and used to cook big dinners for all the family, often up to 20 people at a time. "He was making something very simple and making all these people very happy. Just with food," Gino says. "He would bring everybody together just with a plate of pasta."

Gino had a natural gift in the kitchen.

"I understood food from a very early age. I understood the combination of ingredients very early," he says.

So aged 18, he left and went to work, in Sylvester Stallone's Mambo King restaurant in Marbella. It was there that he met his wife, Jessica. "She was my first woman," he says, with a look and the hint of a smile which, for some reason, prompt me to ask: "How, exactly, was she your first woman?"

"She was the first woman I had sexual relations with."

I have to admit, I'm surprised. TV's biggest lothario chef was a virgin until he met the woman who was to become his wife?

For this, he blames the girls he grew up around in old-fashioned, traditional southern Italy. Tough, and with their minds firmly fixed on getting married, they refused point-blank to give it up, immovable despite even Gino's charms. So it was his half-English, half-Italian wife who introduced him to the pleasures of the flesh. And once he'd had a taste, he was hooked.

Jessica had none of the qualms of his teenage girlfriends, and was more than happy to show Gino the ropes. "My wife is a few years older than me," he says. "She abused me, and I loved it!"

The couple did have a break-up of about a year, so Jessica isn't the only woman he has ever slept with. And though the break-up was important -- because otherwise he "would always have wondered" -- all that did was reinforce to Gino the quality of his first catch. "They say the grass is greener, but it's not," he says, with a laugh. "You might have longer grass or shorter grass, but it's not necessarily greener grass."

It was Jessica who prompted the move to the UK, a fact that Gino credits as being crucial to the development of his career. There, he believes, was the only place he could have found such an appreciative audience.

Gino got married young, at 24, and the couple had children early. This, he says, was a conscious effort to mark a change and a new phase in his life.

"I was a boy, so I decided to get married and then I will be a man," he says. "When I decide something, I have to do something to make it happen." Which, of course, immediately makes me wonder whether the spell in prison had anything to do with this very deliberate bid to become a grown up. Since we're not allowed to go there, I ask him how parenthood changed him instead. Was that a similarly transformative experience, marking his transition into adulthood and responsibility? "I was always very responsible," he says. "Well, not always." He gives a little smirk. And that's as close as we will get to discussing his chequered past.

The D'Acampo family remains very Italian in character. Despite the demands of Gino's career, they still make a point of doing the whole big-family mealtime thing. And his two boys, Luciano and Rocco, are more Italian than they are English, which he seems pleased about.

"My son, when he likes a girl, he's very passionate," says Gino. "He can tell you exactly what he likes about her hair, her face. He's very expressive.

"When you have children, you always feel guilty," he says of the struggle to get the balance between the many demands of maintaining the Gino brand, while also wanting to prioritise being a good dad. On I'm a Celebrity . . . he chatted about his desire for a daughter, but today, he's adamant that his family is big enough. He won't have any more children, time resources are stretched enough as it is, and "it wouldn't be fair to Luciano and Rocco".

His sons, at least, understand that though he's often absent, it's a necessary part of the privileges they enjoy. "If they break something, I always tell them, 'Because you broke this, Daddy has to work more now to pay for a new one. Daddy has to work harder, for longer.'" After all, swimming pools and computers don't pay for themselves.

Does he think the rise of his profile and his brand has changed the dynamic of his relationship with his wife? "You ask very serious questions," he says, giving me an intense look. "Honestly? I think I am becoming more of a pain in the ass." It's the demands of his work, he admits, that make him more difficult at home. His wife doesn't work. As he puts it, she is a "woman of leisure". So sometimes, if he comes home from a long day, and a shirt isn't ironed properly -- "my wife doesn't do the ironing, we have somebody who does that" -- he finds it hard not to demand of her: "What have you been doing all day?"

She knows how to handle him, though. "My wife is a very clever woman," he says, "she knows when to say something and when to bite her tongue." She runs rings around him. She can second-guess and use to her advantage his need to be "the man of the house". In actual fact, he admits, "she is the one who is really in charge." And, undoubtedly, he loves that too.

Gino D'Acampo will be conducting demonstrations on Thursday, June 10 and Friday, June 11 at Taste of Dublin. Taste of Dublin in association with LIFE magazine, the social event of the summer, returns for its fifth year to the elegant surroundings of the Iveagh Gardens, D2, from Thursday, June 10 to Sunday, June 13. Bringing together the capital's finest chefs and restaurants, as well as fantastic live entertainment, Taste of Dublin invites you to celebrate the great outdoors as you sample the best local and international cuisine at Ireland's premier food and drink festival. Tickets from €15, see www.tastefestivals.ie


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