Chef’s Table: Giorgio Locatelli

Have you ever wondered what a chef cooks at home or if their kids behave any better than yours in a fine dining restaurant? We grill some of Britain’s best chefs for the lowdown. This week, Giorgio Locatelli talks about his daughter’s life-threatening food allergies and why restaurants should welcome children but throw out the kids menus.

Family Cooking

Who does the cooking at home?

Everybody. The kids really enjoy a bit of cooking. My wife was the main culprit when the kids were growing up, but as our home meals are always based on the restaurant menu, the benefit is that the veg is usually prepped. I always joke with her: ‘you’ve been cooking for the kids for 20 years but you’ve never peeled a carrot!’. We spend hours and hours every day sourcing the best meat, chicken and veg for the restaurant, it would be stupid to then go to supermarket to feed the family.

Home cooking for your family was affected by your daughter Margherita’s severe food allergies. How did you adapt your kitchen or cooking when she was diagnosed?

It was a great shock, it felt almost traumatic, like, ‘She won’t be able to EVER taste all of these things that people respect and like me for? My food? She’ll never be able to appreciate that!’ And then you grow to understand, it’s a challenge to make something delicious she will enjoy. She is allergic to more than 600 things. We learned to be creative. We made ketchup with banana and beetroot and all the things she could have – but it was not the same colour. When you’re little, the colour is the most important thing.

Do you think awareness of food allergies has increased since the time of your daughter’s diagnosis? 

Nearly 20 years have gone by and awareness has definitely increased – before they couldn’t diagnose as they really didn’t know about it. It was a scandal that something as serious as her allergies couldn’t be recognised. She suffered a lot. She got septicaemia and nearly died, we thought we were going to lose her…

But now some people use the term ‘allergic’ when they’re really not: maybe they can’t digest something, which is different. I think professional kitchens like ours should be able to deal with all requests. A lot of chefs say it’s ridiculous to have to list all ingredients on the menu, but since we opened Locanda Locatelli we had a menu of procedures and ingredients, if you ask, it’s there. I train my waiters and chefs that whatever someone says, take it on board and don’t be judgemental. If they want something and you really can’t make it, that’s fine, send them somewhere else.

How did you navigate school meals for your daughter?

She went to Francis Holland, which is very close to the restaurant so I spent a couple of weeks going in every lunch time and taking pictures of the food so that we could recreate the food – the same size and colour. We would replicate it every day and at 12pm I would take it up there and she would eat with everyone else. The other kids didn’t realise her food was special. I remember making a fish finger – it took two or three attempts to get that terrible orange colour.

It’s extreme, but we wanted her to feel normal. That’s why we promote the fact that people with allergies can come to the restauarant. They lose out so much in the great conviviality of sitting around a table and eating together with family, friends and work colleagues. When you eat together, you manage to connect and feel more relaxed. We wanted to ensure she wasn’t scared of food – I know people in the same condition who won’t go into a food shop, sometimes it’s enough to trigger a reaction. We all tried not to make here feel like it was a big deal.

Many schools in the UK now prohibit nuts and other common allergens in school and this often triggers complaints from parents with non-allergic children. What is your view? 

If you watch somebody having a strong food reaction, well I don’t think there’s anybody in the world who wouldn’t take that seriously.

What advice would you give parents who think their child has a food allergy?

It’s very important to check their skin as it’s a very telling thing. If you see something not right, investigate. Try separation diets: for this month you can’t have this… You have to work at it and assess it. But then go to hospital and see other kids with serious conditions while yours only have allergies, and realise you’re blessed.

Do your kids like to cook? 

I don’t think they are going to follow me in my footsteps, though I always have a little hope. I’ve been teaching them from when they were little: I always cooked with them and never for them. When Jack was at university in Leeds, people would buy stuff and bring it to the house for him to cook! We always cook and eat together – we have managed to bring that Italian way with us, but for the rest we are a very British family. I’m definitely a Londoner!

What are your children’s favourite dishes?

There’s always pasta. A good spaghetti with tomato sauce – that’s what their Grandma always cooks when we go home. Jack has a very oriental slant. Margherita can’t even get close to that. When we cook at home it’s always something really simple like roast chicken. Margherita would do the vegetable bake. Jack will do the sauce. I’ll do the chicken. Jack is a very good cook, we have the same taste – although we don’t have the same taste in clothes…

What is your view on sugar for kids? 

Be very careful. Kids can get along very well without sugar. Fizzy drinks! Why? We still don’t let them in the house and our kids are nearly 20. There’s nothing good about them. I would only allow a certain amount of sweets too. There’s so much sugar and salt in everything. I think the fewer packets left over after dinner the better. Moderation is the most important thing. Anything consumed in moderation is ok. Kids should be taught at school how to chew and how to eat.

Do you think Italian kids overall have a healthier diet than English kids? 

No it’s worse in Italy than here. There is a lot of concern around diet and work to try to sort it out, but Italians eat a lot of carbs and obesity is as much of a problem as it is here.

On Restaurants

Locanda Locatelli is well known for being child friendly. Do many people bring their children or do you think there is still a fear that ‘posh’ restaurants aren’t really for kids?

We don’t want people to think of us as a posh restaurant– that’s important. I can’t see us saying, ‘you’re welcome but your kids aren’t’. If my kids are not welcome, neither am I.

We try to do things for kids, let them eat with parents and then take them to the kitchen and let them help. Saturdays and Sundays are the best days, the kids and families are there and you are cooking a meal that’s more than just a meal – you’re part of the tissue of the family and the food makes it special for them. It gives me great pleasure that I had kids come in when they were 6 or 7 and now they come back with their girlfriends to taste our spaghetti with lobster. That’s worth more than a Michelin star – the biggest compliment ever!

Family is a very important part of life and the restaurant, and lends a longevity to it. Yes you can have a restaurant that makes a lot of money for 10 years and disappears, but I don’t care. It’s not about money. The environment has to work. Food is a great equalizer, we’re all the same: rock star or grandmother.

Do you eat out as a family or avoid restaurants when off duty?

The job is a bit of a curse, the attention is not on the family and all on me and it’s not what we like. We prefer to cook and eat at home. A lot of the children’s friends want to come for dinner – sometimes I come home and my son has 8 of his friends and I say ‘we can’t feed all of these people!’

How do you find working with your wife every day?

It works, you know, we do very different things. This morning we travelled to work together, now I’m going home, and she will stay there – it’s not like we work on top of each other. I grew up seeing my mother, father, uncle and grandmother working like that.

What do you think of Britain’s separate kids menu culture?

I think it’s completely insane. It’s not a kids menu, it’s a delinquents menu. It’s so important not to have that – I’m always happy to make a smaller portion, I hate to think there’s a nice menu and then all this dry shit for kids. Whatever the parents eat, the kids can.

Your top places to eat out as a family?

  • If we come home late we go to Market in Camden Town
  • We all like Nobu
  • We love Chinese. If we’ve been working all day we don’t want pasta. We love the China Club on Baker Street.
Giorgio Locatelli is one of the leading Italian chefs in the UK. At Locanda Locatelli, Giorgio serves traditional Italian dishes, emphasising the quality and freshness of the produce. He and his wife Plaxy live in Camden with their two children.