Chef Theo Randall: ‘You’ve been cooking pasta wrong’

The InterContinental chef talks to Prudence Wade about his lifelong ‘obsession’ with the Italian approach to food, keeping things simple in the kitchen and how to get out of your lockdown culinary rut

Wednesday 24 March 2021 08:30 GMT
Randall says he has a particular love for the Italian deli: ‘I’m an obsessive shopper’
Randall says he has a particular love for the Italian deli: ‘I’m an obsessive shopper’ (PA)

With pizza, pasta and cheese galore, it’s hard not to like Italian food. But few people love it quite as much as chef Theo Randall.

Randall – who runs Theo Randall at the InterContinental in London – admits to having a “lifelong obsession with Italian food”. It stemmed from childhood holidays there, and an artist mother who was “mad about Italian”, he says. “When we were kids, we grew up on her cooking from lots of Italian cookbooks.”

The London-born chef gets almost misty-eyed when talking about past meals in Italy – particularly the first time he tasted spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams).

He has a special fondness for the Italian deli, confessing he’s “an obsessive shopper – I will go to a particular shop to buy one item, and I’ll probably buy three different jars of passata”, who often comes home laden with anchovies, olive oil and as much cured meat as he can carry.

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“I would say I haven’t got an Italian bone in my body, but I have an Italian soul,” Randall muses – and he suggests we could all learn a lot about the country’s approach to food.

“It’s about keeping things really simple and not overeating,” he explains. “Less is more – sometimes a really delicious plate of pasta is all you need, or maybe it’s a baked dish or a risotto – if that’s done really, really well, it doesn’t have to have 25 ingredients in it. It could just be courgettes, butter, parmesan and some fresh basil.”

Randall champions the Italian way of “frugal cooking” too. “It’s making use of what you’ve got, rather than going out and buying things that are completely out of season, or making things too elaborate,” he explains.

“I think we’re quite wasteful in lots of ways: people go to the supermarket, they’ll do their shop and buy lots and lots of stuff. They’ll put it in the fridge, it’ll be in some sort of cellophane wrap, and about four or five days later, they realise they bought this asparagus and it’s gone off, so they just throw it away.”

When it comes to Italian food, the biggest mistake we could be making is usually with pasta. “I think this is where we go wrong: we cook so much pasta that you end up having this huge bowl of pasta and you sit in front of the TV, then you go back for a second portion, and then about 20 minutes later you’re lying on the sofa thinking, ‘Oh my God my stomach is about to explode because I’ve eaten so much carbohydrates’,” Randall says with a moan.

This is incredibly easy to do, particularly as most of us can whip up a pan of pasta with our eyes closed – and that’s exactly what Randall wants us to avoid. “We do things automatically, we become like robots and cook things and we have our own ways of doing things,” he says. “I think we need to open our eyes and look at Italian produce, and see what’s out there and what’s available.”

The chef thinks we should all be chasing that feeling of “having something where you’re literally licking the bowl and thinking, ‘God, I wish I cooked more’, but 10 minutes later you’re actually fine, because you’ve digested”.

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Good quality ingredients can help you get this feeling, which is why Randall has written a cookbook dedicated to the Italian deli. “I think food has a personality, it’s very important that there is a story behind some of these things,” he explains – and talking to experts in a deli can help uncover these stories and give genius tips for the kitchen. Little tweaks to classic meals can make a huge difference: Randall recommends cooking dried pasta two or three minutes less than the packet says, and adding some pasta water to the sauce for extra flavour.

Immersing yourself in Italian food beyond a bowl of pesto pasta could help you out of your lockdown cooking rut: as Randall says, it’s “very versatile, the kind of food you don’t really ever get bored of”.

Randall certainly hasn’t got bored of Italian food in lockdown, and it doesn’t look like he will any time soon. Anyone familiar with the cuisine will know it’s all about family; big bowls of pasta and trays of pizza to be shared with your loved ones. Randall’s son and daughter, Max and Lola, have even managed to inherit some of his ‘Italian soul’, with the chef exclaiming: “Max’s love of pasta is almost equal to mine!”

‘The Italian Deli Cookbook’ by Theo Randall, photography by Lizzie Mayson, is published by Quadrille, priced £26. Available now.

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