I am 100% sure that some of the people working in the best restaurants in the world are such miserable bastards.
The career of a professional chef is a marathon like no other. Like athletes in line for the Olympic gold, they live a strange and dedicated life; starting young, training hard and striving for perfection. Often travelling across continents to cut their teeth in the world’s culinary capitals, these young chefs pick up their second language, family and the lessons of resilience on the kitchen floor. Running each service like a military-run, they are the hidden force behind the menus that shape the nation’s’ appetites. Each day, legions of chefs around the world step up to the challenge, sweating through 18-hour days in steamy caves in service to the culinary art. The kitchens of the capital’s finest restaurants have built a fearsome reputation for being both a brutal boot camp and the launch pad for legacy. Sitting down with Giorgio Locatelli, one of the finest Italian chefs in the world, he shares the key to staying focused and keeping the passion alive.
Welcoming new chefs in a baptism of fire, the kitchen is a ruthless training ground. From the ranks of the high command that trickle down to the platoon of commis, its character occupies a position somewhere between brigade and orchestra, where the delicate harmony of moving parts dictate the survival and stamina of its reputation. In the face of the mounting pressure to achieve and uphold culinary greatness, the biggest struggle for most chefs is seeing if their passion can weather the storm. Unless they are able to hang onto a spark of passion or purpose, a chef’s career is short lived. The gruelling schedule and demands of the kitchen can burn out even the strongest of characters.
Chef’s at the top of their game often speak about having to pull away from their legacy and step out of the limelight for the sake of their sanity. Losing money faster than they could claw it back, Ferran Adrià famously closed the doors of El Bulli after the “bestial pace” when the pressure proved too much to bear. More recently, the French chef Sebastien Bras shocked the culinary world when he publicly surrendered his Michelin star to save his business from collapsing under its weight. In his time, Locatelli has borne witness to countless young chefs who have burnt out in their late 20’s because they choose to push too hard too soon in pursuit of the Michelin.
I hate the idea that when you get to a certain level the food is above the people.
“I hate the idea that when you get to a certain level the food is above the people”, remarked the chef. Arriving at this realisation was a lesson he learned the hard way.After consuming the writings of Escoffier, the father of the brigade de cuisine, he was desperate to become a haute de cuisine chef in the classic French style. So, in 1990, a young Locatelli chased his culinary dream across the channel to Paris, landing in the emblematic kitchens of Restaurant Laurent and La Tour d’Argent. Here, he was met by a hostile and racist French workforce who insulted his style and beloved homeland. Rejected and over-worked, the chef who had set out with great admiration into the Parisian scene, was left diagnosed with clinical malnourishment and a bad smoking habit. At a shaky 58kg, he returned to his grandmother’s kitchen, resolute never to cook again.
Born into a culinary legacy, 5-year-old Giorgio learned the marvels of cooking in his grandfather’s restaurant in Northern Italy. Trusted with a small curved fruit-knife and surrounded by his extended family, it was here that the great Italian chef was born. Looking back, he recalls one particular memory that has stayed with him; the way the head chef expertly skinned, jellied, garnish with truffles and served up the fat pink salmon as if his knives were an extension of himself. For the toothless little boy who wasn’t allowed on the restaurant floor, he was in awe of the spirited chefs who could conjure up the classics at the guest’s requests. Laughing, he adds “then when I was at the Savoy, sometimes my job was to prepare twenty of those salmon in the morning. I’d look back and think, ‘Oh Jesus’.”
“Being a chef is not one thing,” he explains. “At the heart of all cooking, whether you are rich or poor, is the spirit of conviviality, the pleasure that comes from sharing a meal with others.” At its core, it is the enduring and intimate relationship between food and people that keeps the craft alive. “There is this guy who cooks for a hospice in north London,” the ebullient chef adds, “and he is the happiest guy I have ever met in my life. The people he cooks for give him a reason to stay, to turn up and go into work the next day. That is what food is all about.”
For Locatelli, it’s not the tables and chairs set the foundations for a restaurant, it is the people who fill it. It is this passion for food and serving others that sees him bolt into the kitchen seven days a week, 365 days a year. In a message to the younger generation of chefs, Locatelli calls them to “follow their heart”.
I get up in the morning and go in to teach the guys in the kitchen. It’s very rare for me to not want to go; I’m here 7 days a week. It’s my life, it’s my rhythm, that’s it.
Reeling off his numerous side projects, the new ingredients and long-forgotten Italian recipes that he has uncovered just this year, Locatelli is very much a man still in love. For this chef, each meal is like falling in love for the very first time, it is curious, sensual and bubbling with possibility. “The bread crackles as you break it, you hear the crunch and then it hits your taste buds — it’s a whole body experience.” Like any new lover addicted to the thrill, he adds “I have this … innamoramento, every now and then I fall in love with a new ingredient and it pushes me to find a place for it in the repertoire.”
Born into a cooking dynasty in Corgeno on the shores of Lake Comabbio in Northern Italy, Giorgio Locatelli is considered by many to be one of the finest Italian chefs in the UK and the world. At the Michelin-starred London restaurant Locanda Locatelli, Giorgio serves traditional Italian dishes, emphasising the quality and freshness of the produce as well as adding his own creative touch. In October 2016, Giorgio was awarded the Commendatore OMRI by Italian Ambassador Terracciano for services to Italian gastronomy, the equivalent of a British knighthood. His latest book, ‘Made at Home’, was published in October 2017.