One of London's most lauded Italian chefs, Giorgio Locatelli, has spread his wings with the opening of two restaurants in the past 12 months. Janet Harmer talks to him
Giorgio Locatelli descends the stairs at full speed, at the same time as removing his black leather jacket and motorcycle helmet. He apologises profusely for being 45 minutes late, but blames it on an air-conditioning problem at his latest venture, Spiga, in the heart of Soho. These days he is always glad to get back to Zafferano in Knightsbridge, where the interview is conducted. It is somewhere he has confidence in and therefore can feel relaxed.
"I cook lunch and dinner every day at Zafferano, and after nearly three-and-a-half years here I'm enjoying it more than ever," says Locatelli.
But while services are conducted at Zafferano, the majority of his remaining work time is spent keeping an eye on his second restaurant, Spighetta in Blandford Street, as well as dealing with the inevitable teething problems associated with converting what was formerly a cinema into his third - Spiga - which opened in March.
"Work is crazy at the moment," he says. "I'm doing about 110 to 120 hours a week." A scooter gets him speedily between the three restaurants. He did have a large motorbike, but with 11 points on his driving licence he can't take the risk of riding it any longer.
Locatelli is not complaining about his workload, though, because he knows it is of his own making. Having created one of the most talked-about Italian restaurants in London with Zafferano, and got it to a stage where it was running smoothly, he was keen to open a larger restaurant, offering the best pizzas in London as well as a selection of simple Italian meat, fish and vegetable dishes.
He has undoubtedly proved to himself that he can do it, with the opening of not just one, but two such restaurants in the past 12 months. Spiga, the larger of the two with 100 seats, is now averaging about 300 covers a day and serving up to 600 covers on Fridays, its busiest day of the week. Spighetta, in a quieter part of town, is serving about half that number of customers.
Now very much enjoying a high in his career, Locatelli has been driven from the very beginning by the cut and thrust of working in a kitchen. At the age of 12 he was attracted to work in his uncle's kitchen in Corgeno on the banks of Italy's Lake Maggiore by the chefs he regarded as uncompromising heroes. "As children we helped lay tables for banquets, but I was always so clumsy - but not in the kitchen. I was never clumsy with a knife. The chefs did terrible things to me, but I was fascinated by them. I loved their free spirits."
After three years at hotel school in Varese, Locatelli went to work for Corrado Cironi, the man who inspired him more than anyone else. "He was tough, but very fair. He would punish you if you did something wrong - I used to get hit with a polenta ladle - but he also encouraged you when you did something good. Cooking, for him, was a mission. He would pick ingredients from his garden and cook with them straight away. He always said there should be no more than three ingredients on a plate, and it's as a result of his influence that I am more likely to take something off a dish, rather than add to it."
After one year in the Italian army and a spell working in Switzerland, Locatelli moved to England, attracted by the glamour of the Savoy. Although he had no job when he arrived, he landed a position as a commis at the hotel within three months. "I was so happy I stood in front of the mirror in my whites for 10 minutes."
Locatelli valued his three-and-a-half-year stay at the Savoy enormously, learning about standards, how to be organised, how to teach and talk to people, as well as be a good cook. He helped head chef Anton Edelmann prepare dishes for The Savoy Food & Drink Book, and then landed himself the job of creating the food for the Peter Greenaway film, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.
A love interest took him off to Paris for two years where he worked at Restaurant Laurent and La Tour d'Argent. Locatelli hated the second job, suffering from racist taunts for the first time in his life. "I was never once called Giorgio, just 'the Italian' - it completely stressed me out."
As a result he jumped at the chance to return to London - to replace a chef who had suffered a road accident - at the opening of a new restaurant, Olivio, in Victoria. The move was fortuitous, enabling him to cook Italian food for the first time in a number of years. He stayed there for nearly three years.
While working at Olivio, Locatelli met the next major influence on his career. Claudio Pulze, an entrepreneur, was a customer who was keen to get Locatelli started in business. After some initial delay with securing the property - when Locatelli went off to do the consultancy work for Red Pepper in Maida Vale, where he honed his concept for a mid-spend Italian restaurant - Zafferano opened in Lowndes Street in February 1995.
It was an instant success. In its former guise as a fish restaurant it was doing 120 covers a week: now it serves 160 covers a day. Olivio, where the food was centred on Italian peasant cooking, had proved to be the perfect stepping stone for Locatelli. Combined with the refined skills he had picked up at the Savoy and in Paris, he was able to create a stylish Italian cuisine.
Central to Locatelli's style is the simplicity instilled in him by his mentor Cironi. One of the most popular dishes on the menu is a simple chargrilled chicken, marinated in olive oil, herbs and seasoning, served with roast potatoes and spinach.
"I spent one-and-a-half hours this morning checking the quality of the produce coming in the door - if the ingredients are the best, simple treatment of them should be enough. It takes courage to cook food in a minimalist way - my chefs often ask me, 'Is that all?'"
A walnut sauce, made from crushed walnuts, Parmesan, olive oil, salt and pepper, is bottled, ready for adding punch to a pasta dish. At service, a spoonful of the sauce is combined with fresh herbs, more Parmesan and fresh tomato flesh and added to some pasta tubes for a light but full-flavoured dish.
Locatelli never cooks anything for more than two hours, to retain a lightness to his food. Duck legs and thighs are roasted with honey to create a confit, while the breasts are flashed in and out of the oven and served pink, with pan juices enhanced with a 22-year-old balsamic vinegar. The dish is served with pearl spelt (a grain), soaked for two hours and then pan-fried in olive oil with pine kernels and sultanas.
Many of the dishes from Zafferano crop up on the menus at Spighetta and Spiga, which Locatelli writes in conjunction with the restaurants' chefs, Franco Parsi and Michele Franzolin, respectively. But essential to the concept at Locatelli's two newest restaurants is the wood-burning oven. "I'd never really eaten a good pizza in London prior to Red Pepper and I knew the answer had to be a wood-burning oven," says Locatelli. "They create the perfect convection oven, with temperatures reaching 500ºC." The result is a crispy, full-flavoured base.
While part of the pizza topping is cooked with its base, extra ingredients are added when the base comes out of the oven. "A lot of flavour in pizzas is lost in the oven," he says. "We create a really fresh taste by adding extra bits and pieces at the last moment."
So, for pizza buffalo the home-made base is topped with tomato concassé before going into the oven. Fresh tomato, buffalo mozzarella and basil vinaigrette is then added just before being served to the customer.
Installing wood-burning ovens into kitchens in central London has proved a major - and expensive - headache for Locatelli. Made in Italy, they cost about £9,000 to install. Then, in order to comply with Westminster City Council's clean-air policy, tests, costing a further £6,800, have to be run to ensure that the ovens, which use about £450 worth of beech, chestnut and olive wood per month, do not contravene that policy.
For Locatelli, three restaurants are as many as he can cope with - for now. He certainly has no intention of adding to his mini-empire, intending to spend more time with his wife and two young children in the coming year.