Chef Gennaro Contaldo, Jamie Oliver's 'London dad', tells Simon Caldwell that careful cooking can lead you to God It was a sweltering afternoon in the July heatwave and as I sat at a heavy oak table in Jamie Oliver's Fifteen restaurant, watching ice cubes melt rapidly into the dregs of a swiftly drained glass of orange juice. I was wondering Mud the legendary Gennaro Contaldo would be like.
This was, after all, the Italian chef who taught Jamie his trade while running Antonio Carluccio's restaurant in Covent Garden. Today he is, in common with Jamie, a "celebrity chef', the author of two books and a regular on Saturday morning cookery shows. He and hillrliC are also best friends. They take days off together to cook, to shoot clay pigeons or to go fishing. Jamie, in his effusively affectionate way, refers to Contaldo as his "London dad", describing him on another occasion as a "mythical man".
From the bustle of the restaurant floor Contaldo is shown to my table, catching me almost by surprise with his discreet, almost shy, demeanour. His earnest expression masks a warm personality, however, which bubbles to the surface as soon as we get down to business.
I was there to talk to Contaldo about his public endorsement of food produced by the Monastery of Vallechiara, a community of nuns and monks who rehabilitate young drug addicts partly by putting them to work on their I50-acre estate south of Rome, making buffalo mozzarella cheese and olive oil and growing apricots, cherries, plums, pears, peaches, strawberries and tomatoes, among other things.
Contaldo uses the products in his own restaurant. Passione, which last year was named as the Tio Pepe ITV London Italian Restaurant of the Year, and also in his own home. He tells me how he was swept away by the work of the monks after he spent a weekend at the monastery with his girlfriend and their three-year-old twin daughters. "1 have never found such a peaceful place," he said. I was more than happy to talk to Contaldo about food. But he wanted to talk about religion. The monastery, he said, reminded him of his childhood aspirations to be a priest; as a boy growing up on the Amalfi coast, he "always wanted to go to church". His parents were also very religious and when he fell mysteriously ill at the age of eight his mother, Eufemia, took him to San Giovanni Rotondo to see Padre Pio.
Contaldo remembers breaking through the crowd and running towards the friar but failed to make eye contact. Instead "in my mind I spoke to him and said: 'Look, I am not well. I don't know what's wrong with me. Can you make me better?'."
He has a memory of the friar somehow responding to him with the words: "Go home, don't worry, you are going to be all right." Contaldo said at the time he did not understand who Padre Pio was. However, within days the sickness had left him.
At this point, Contaldo reaches into his pocket and produces a photograph of Pio revealing his stigmata. "I have never stopped thinking of him," he continued. "I am now 55 years old and I still try to talk to him one way or the other. Many times he has told me off."
Indeed, Contaldo VMS among the half a million people who converged on Rome in June 2002 to witness Pope John Paul II pronounce the monk St Pio of Pietrelcina. "I believe it was the happiest day of my life," Contaldo said.
So he has found in the Monastery of Vallechiara two things that matter to him: God and food; religious belief manifested as charity and a seasonal fare of sue supreme quality he ranks it among the "best in Italy".
counts to a chef whose h 411 professionalism is clearly underpinned by what amounts to a philosophy of' cooking and dining, an understanding of what food is and should he. It is in this that he expresses his own Christian beliefs.
"It's all to do with fresh food, the correct ingredients, service and most of all the lovely passion of the cooking," he said.
"You have to have passion for whatever you do, you have to love whatever you do and source the best ingredients. This is where Vallechiara comes in. Since I have tasted those tomatoes, 1 cannot do without. But also I have seen the people working behind the food. When it s done with so much love, so much innovaion, of course you are going to get the best." Obtaining the tastiest produce available on the market just one part of the job. The craft of turning
them into dishes
for customers is another. "To be a chef is not easy," Contaldo explained. "To he a good chef it means you care so much ,„for food. The reason why you care so much for food is because you care for ople. You want to give the best.
"To give the best sometimes is not easy," he continued. "A chef is working endless hours, kitchens are very hot, there are endless arguments with your suppliers. At the end of the evening you are so tired. Do you know what a chef does on his day off? He sleeps. So the first thing you have to do when you get up in the morning and see the light is to thank God for the day and to say your prayers. Ask God if everything is going to be all right."
Prayer is something
Contaldo takes very seriously. He makes the effort each day to say a mystery of the rosary with his daughters, for example. He possesses the humility necessary to acknowledge his dependence on his Creator. He also acknowledges his sinfulness. Being a religious man "doesn't mean I don't swear", he said, adding that he can also enforce discipline among fellow cooks in such a way that "they think I am the devil". Well, he is a chef. Nor does being religious mean he regularly attends Sunday Mass. Separation from his wife and the onset of a new relationship have barred him from receiving the Eucharist, "That is a punishment," Contaldo admits. "Sometimes it is hard not to take it but that is the law of the Church and you can't change it. If the Church one day tells me 'you can' (receive Communion) then I will but until then I won't do it. That doesn't mean 1 don't love God or Christ."
So what does Jamie Oliver make of Contaldo's convic tions? "Jamie knows I am a religious man," he said.
"Jamie in his own way is a believer. He does believe. I don't talk religion with him but I can see what a good man he is. You can see the care for everyone. For goodness to come out of someone like that they have to have their heart full of love.
"I have tried to find a fault with him," he added. "I couldn't find a fault, but he's not a saint. I wonder if he will be one day because of the things he's done. People have already called him St James. No-one has ever called me St Gennaro."
Jamie's benevolence was tangible amid the post-industrial chic of Fifteen, a restaurant set up with the specific aim of turning deprived youngsters into first-class chefs. He has also successfully campaigned for junk food to be removed from school dinners.
Listening to Contaldo speak, it makes you wonder how much he has influenced Jamie in each of these projects. After all, Jamie was Contaldo's protege and they now share precisely the same views on food and cooking.
"What Jamie is doing," Contaldo said, "is educating people to see that they don't need to go far to eat well
Contaldo argues that the last time the British people truly understood their food was during the Second World War when they were heavily reliant on home-grown seasonal produce. Today he feels too many people treat their bodies like cars, regarding food as little more than fuel: they tank up, then move on. Decades of abundance have failed to instil a greater understanding of food and the art of eating.
'What really is very important, said Contaldo, is "food in season, where food comes from and who is behind the food. Who is the grower? Is it a man who looks after his land properly, is it a man who looks after his pigs and his chickens?"
He said: "It is no good for me to have cherries in the middle of winter when cherries come out at the end of June. You can buy grapes all year round but I wait until autumn when they come out. I believe a lot of food has to be eaten at the right time, in the right weather. It is no good to eat a tomato in the winter time. There is no such thing as a tomato in the winter time.
-All this food comes from the other side of the world. It is tasteless. By the time it is peeled, chopped and packaged, all the goodness has gone.
"When I walk into a supermarket I always try to find the manager and say 'why have you put out so much rubbish? Give us something in season'.
"Here in Fifteen and in Passione we have tomatoes on the vine that stay out. They do not stay in the fridge."
And to make sure they taste great he is doing all he can to import. promote and sell the seasonal produce of the Monastery of Vallechiara.