HOW WE MET; ANTONIO CARLUCCIO AND IREK MUKHAMEDOV

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The Independent Culture
The restaurateur and cook Antonio Carluccio, 59, was born in Italy. After studying wine in Germany, he came to England in 1975, where he became a wine merchant. In 1981, he took over the Neal Street Restaurant. Married with three step-children, he lives in homes in London and Hampshire. The dancer Irek Mukhamedov, 36, was born in Russia. In 1981 he won the Grand Prix at the Moscow International Ballet Competition and joined the Bolshoi; nine years later he defected with his second wife to join the Royal Ballet in London. He lives in London with his wife and two children

ANTONIO CARLUCCIO: Firstly, I saw Irek dancing; then, about two years ago, I saw him a few times in the restaurant eating with some friends. I wanted to approach Irek because I knew he was Russian. I am not a socialite; I try to leave my customers in peace - but it was too tempting to talk to him about mushrooms. Russians, like Italians, are fanatical about mushrooms. Being the star he is, and me being a restaurateur, there's always a danger that one would like to profit socially from the other. Because of that I was rather shy, so I left it a time. After a while we talked: when he came into the restaurant I would suggest dishes or cook something special for him. He likes ravioli with mushrooms which is similar to a Russian speciality called Pelmeni. Irek was wary of me at first. You have to be when you are in his position, because there are an incredible amount of people who are dying to take you into their social circles and say, "Look who I know!"

I wanted to know more of the Russian life becuase I am very interested in seeing the way other people live, their customs and so on; and I thought I could give Irek an impression of what Italy's about through my food and books. We found we shared an appreciation of the same things - love for food, love for family. We are both away from home and we appreciate the style of life in this country.

I had in mind to write a ballet regarding mushrooms and I asked Irek and Viviana Durante, because I know her as well, if they were willing to dance. The idea for the ballet with mushrooms came when I saw The Tales of Beatrix Potter being danced. I thought, you can take any member of the mushroom family and compare it with a human being. I was encouraged by the fact that my nephew Jasper Conran would like to do the costumes and Andre Previn was interested in writing the music.

Last year, I invited Irek's family to my house in the country for Christmas. It was a lovely afternoon. Irek is good company, and his wife Masha is a charming person. I could see the similarity between the Russians and Italians in the warmth of their behaviour. Masha is very supportive of Irek - apparently she gave up her career as a ballerina to follow him to this country. If a woman opts to do that, the relationship must be quite something. They are a warm normal family, which in the arts world you almost never find.

Irek is a star, but he's extremely down to earth and modest. I don't think Irek has many other friends. He has two children now, and if you want to lead a little bit of a family life on top of what he has to do all the time, I don't think you have the time to cultivate them.

Sometimes I see a little twitch of depression in Irek's eyes. Maybe it's the desire everybody has to be in his own country. I am talking about myself, too, because I feel the same and I've lived 39 years abroad; Irek has only been here for six years. The fact is, if you leave your family and friends living in your old country, you feel a sadness.

Irek and I have talked briefly about his relations in Russia, but it was painful for him. I think he would like to go back to Russia if things were different. But I don't think it is an option. All his interests are here, and it would be impossible for the family to go there and suffer in a tiny flat. It may be that in the absence of his own father - and also because I am quite a bit older - that Irek looks up to me as father. I don't mind; it's a lovely feeling. I would prefer to be a young athlete on a par with him, though. When I watch him perform, his body reminds me of mine when I was a young athlete. I am a bit envious, especially when I see what mine has become.

IREK MUKHAMEDOV: I met Ant-onio in his restaurant two years ago. Some ballet critics from Austria came to see me perform in London, and took my wife Masha and me to the Neal Street Restaurant after the performance. I was surprised to find a restaurant in London where you could find real mushrooms. I tried pasta with ceps; it was incredible. After a while, I was introduced to Antonio Carluccio. I'd heard the name of the Italian restaurateur but didn't know he was mad about mushrooms. I was surprised, because I thought only Russians or Polish people picked mushrooms; I never thought Italians did too. Then I started coming to the restaurant whenever I wanted a really nice meal: it's very handy for the Royal Opera House.

One day Antonio had a conversation with me about his idea to do a ballet about mushrooms. He had seen me dance, and thought it would be a nice if I was in this ballet. At first I thought it was a funny idea, but then Antonio explained more and I found out that the ballet would be more about philosophy rather than just mushrooms. It was not just a sudden idea, he'd thought about which choreographer he could find and invited a musician to think about the music. He'd invited Viviana Durante to play the princess in the mushroom world and thought maybe I would be the prince. I thought, "Why not?"

Then whenever we saw each other we talked about art, about opera, about dancing, about music. And, of course, mushrooms. In the summer I take my family mushroom-picking. I used to do it in Russia; it's really relaxing. Antonio gave me his book about mushrooms. I thought I knew everything about mushrooms, but when I opened the book I found I didn't know so much.

I do meet famous people at parties and in restaurants, but it never goes further than "hello, bye bye". I'm frightened to call people friends, because so many times in my life I've had friends, and then they've disappeared. My friendship with Antonio happened because he opened his arms to me. He is warm and hospitable to everyone who comes into his restaurant, but not everyone who comes into his restaurant can call him a friend.

Last year Antonio invited the three of us - Masha, our daughter Sasha and me - to his house in the country for Christmas. Because we are foreigners he wanted to make Christmas nice for us. His house was built specially for him and it is a huge place. If I wanted a house in the country, I would want to buy his house. Antonio has a special place in the garden where he grows all the vegetables, so they are all at hand. We met his wife Priscilla, who is very smiley and open like Antonio, Antonio's step- son and step-daughter and his step-grandchildren. Antonio gave us each a present: a special stick with a forked end which you take when you go to pick mushrooms in the forest. Mushrooms always hide from you, so you lift the leaves with the stick. It was a perfect day, and it was because of the the warmth of the people, the warmth of the house with its big fireplaces, the nice chat, the nice walk. It was a very moving day.

I've never seen Antonio sad or depressed. Recently he's been ill with gout in his knees. When he was getting out of his car he couldn't bend his knees, so instead he bent his head and pulled his neck. He was in a lot of pain, but he didn't moan about it; he talked about it in a funny way.

Antonio is Italian. He's not cool, he's warm; it's in his blood. Even the way he cooks is open - his movements and gestures are big and wide. His openness makes you want to be open, it makes you want to be part of his life. Nowadays, I am trying to make a conscious effort to be open towards other people - like Antonio has been towards me. !

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