Giorgio Locatelli: The good food guy

Stars aplenty turn up to eat, but the founder of celebrity favourite Locanda Locatelli is more excited by his quest to feed his staff - and our schoolchildren - than by his A-list bookings. Hermione Eyre met him
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The Independent Online

The celebrities' chef is sitting in front of me, making a disgusting slurping noise. Schmack, schmack, go his squidgy lips, while with his hands he mimes grabbing food and dangling it into his mouth. He is imitating how Brad Pitt ate when he visited his restaurant, of course. "He ate - schmack, schmack - like a real man, like an animal, with his hands. It was fantastic!"

Giorgio Locatelli is used to luminaries visiting his Michelin-starred restaurant, Locanda Locatelli, in Mayfair. The Clintons, the Blairs, Liz Hurley, Madonna... "To be honest, we don't even notice them any more. We are used to them," he shrugs. But Brad was different. "I loved him! I have never in my life seen a man with so much power. By the time he sat down the whole restaurant was silent. Imagine. Silent!" Poor Brad. "I think he likes it well enough," grins Giorgio, wolfishly.

We are sitting at a table in Locanda Locatelli - "Locatelli's place" - looking across a landscape of blond wood and buttery leather banquettes. For once, the joint is empty. It's 10am, and instead of London's glitterati there is only one man, vacuuming. Giorgio, arranged on a banquette, nurses an espresso. He is evidently not a morning person, but he beams with pride when I mention his new book, Made in Italy. "It took me six years," he says, and you believe him. It's what the French call a pavé - a paving slab of a book, full of pictures, memories, recipes, and bigger than a bible. "It has a great ... physicity, no?" he says.

Locatelli was born in 1962 on the shores of Lake Maggiore, where his family ran a hotel and restaurant. By 14 he knew the kitchen was where he belonged and served apprenticeships, one in Switzerland and one in Varese, Italy, for "Il Re Risotto" - "the risotto king". In 1985, he moved to London. "I fell in love with it when I came here. I loved the multiculturalism. I came from this tiny village where everyone was in each others' pockets. If your great-grandad shagged a sheep you are still called the sheep-shagger." He laughs, exasperated. "By comparison, London was amazing." But its food was not.

"I got a job in an Italian restaurant. It was a shithole. Sorry, but they were taking the piss. I thought: if this is what Italian restaurants are like, I must open one myself. I needed to show the English that there is more to our cooking than lasagne and pollo sorpreso! Pizza should not come in a box on a motorbike!"

Twenty years later Locatelli's mission seems accomplished. His phenomenally successful restaurant serves delicacies such as truffles and bottarga (dried tuna roe) to a now far more discerning public. "Finally, people realise that there is no such thing as Italian food," he says.

No such thing as Italian food? "In Palermo, it is 36C. In Udino, it's 16C. It's the same country but it's very different from one side to the other. My grandfather always had mild Ligurian olive oil. If he had tasted Tuscan oil he would have said 'Schifo!' and spat it away. The regional particularity of Italian food is everything," he says, tasting every syllable as it rattles off his tongue.

Giorgio is clearly in this business for the food, not the fame.

Other celebrity chefs are love-rats; he has been happily married for 13 years, to Plaxy, who masterminds the front-of-house operation at Locanda; he has a stepson, Jack, and a daughter, Margherita. (In a cruel irony, Margherita is severely anaphylactic and has allergies to 600 foods. "We have a special ventilation system at home, to extract the volatile food compounds which are so bad for her," he says, adding lightly: "The neighbours always smell what we are cooking more than we do!")

Other celebrity chefs curry favour with stars; he maintains he doesn't court them at all - indeed, he says he only puts a little extra something on a plate when it is going out to a real connoisseur. Lucian Freud and Kate Moss get the same fare as every other punter. And he hasn't written a gossipy name-dropping memoir; Locatelli's book is a guide for serious cooks. It has a section on how to bake your own focaccia.

But it has also been written "to set the record right". Locatelli had a spectacular falling-out with the restaurant he used to work at, Zafferano, which, he says "took my money and all my recipes. They raped me!" So this book puts Locatelli's stamp on his work, once and for all. "This is the book of my life - I don't care if it sells or not!" he splutters.

Locatelli's Latin temper is unmistakable, although he maintains it has calmed down since his Zafferano days, when he once sent china flying by ripping a tablecloth out from under the noses of some particularly annoying customers. This morning, he is angry with a woman diner who complained about the service in the restaurant last night. "If she wanted it quicker she could fackin' go to McDonald's!" he fumes. The great school meals debate also exercises him. "We spend twice as much on feeding convicts than we do on feeding schoolchildren. What could be more important than feeding children well?"

He is not just jumping on the bandwagon here. Nutrition at school was close to his heart before it became a national obsession. In 2003, he was only half-joking when he said: "We should eliminate studying French and teach cookery instead. French is a useless language anyway."

Giorgio's francophobia began when he had a miserable time working in Paris in the Eighties. He felt thoroughly exploited. Although he was working at one of the city's best restaurants, La Tour d'Argent, he was diagnosed with malnutrition. "Even today a Michelin-starred restaurant I know of in London serves its staff cornflakes for lunch." But not Locatelli's. All his staff sit down together to eat a pasta lunch and a three-course dinner, he tells me. "I want to see them get fat!"

As if to prove his point, Giorgio escorts me into his gleaming chrome kitchen and introduces me with paternal pride to his bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked, aproned young things, chopping fennel, washing fish and jumping to his every order: "Yes, chef. No, chef!" None of them, for the record, seems malnourished.

Life and Times

Giorgio Locatelli's mission started early - but slowly. Born in 1962 near Lake Maggiore, he worked at his family's Michelin-starred restaurant from the age of 14 but was told by his uncle, "You'll never be a chef." He then trained in Switzerland, in Varese, Italy, and at Laurent and La Tour d'Argent in Paris.

In London he lived for a while with Damien Hirst and cooked the food for Peter Greenaway's film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. This involved making 6kg of dog turds "edible" and preparing a swan.

In 1995, he opened Zafferano, which won best Italian restaurant at the London Carlton restaurant awards two years running and a Michelin star in 1999. In 2002 he and his wife, Plaxy, opened Locanda Locatelli, which also won a Michelin star.

He lives in Camden with his wife and children, Jack and Margherita, and rides a Vespa to work.