A stone’s throw from the City, you’ll find the dazzling Luciano by Gino D’Acampo, a venue that’s bursting with authentic Italian flavours and charm.
The man behind it all, TV chef Gino D’Acampo, has worked hard to imbibe the restaurant with dishes that pay true homage to his home country, and he has certainly succeeded.
Recently, the City Matters team was lucky enough to meet Gino at Luciano’s for an exclusive chat and a spectacular meal. Read on for some laughs, home truths and real-world advice.
For our readers who don’t know your background, talk us through your journey to being a chef and to restaurateur? How did it all begin?
How did it all begin? That’s a big question. It began when I was about 10 years old. I was in my grandfather’s and grandmother’s kitchen, and my grandfather was making gnocchi – potato dumplings with tomato sauce and parmesan and mozzarella – freshly made. And I remember looking at him and thinking, how the hell does this guy put two, three or four ingredients together, and then all of a sudden, he cooks it, and he has food for, I think it was 20 people.
So, I got very interested in cooking at that point because I wanted to understand how he could do that. Then, later, he had a restaurant that I used to visit a lot. I didn’t go to school very often… I used to go to school one or two days a week and spend five days in his restaurants!
That’s not a bad way to grow up!
Well, not really because I got my ar** kicked by my dad a few times… But I used to go to my grandfather’s restaurant because it just really impressed me the way he did it all. And after a while I decided that I wanted to go to catering college. I also found that, at the time, catering college was the only college which didn’t require you to study…
In those days, everybody going to catering college were all people that, who, like me, didn’t enjoy going to school. So, they would go to catering college and, I think about 80 per cent of them were pretty much wasting their time. You know, it’s like when someone says ‘I’m going to go to university’ just to waste three or four years of their life, because they don’t know what to do, right? Catering college at the time was very much like that. I, on the other end, wanted to go to catering college because I wanted to be the best. I really liked the cooking side of it – so much so, that I qualified as a Master Chef when I was 16, so two years early. And that’s how it happened. Then, I worked at one restaurant after the other, and the rest all worked out beautifully.
Sometimes I think, was I lucky? You need to have luck; everybody needs luck and has their own luck. So, I followed my dream – the only difference is that the television side of it was not my dream. That’s never been my dream. Writing books has never been my dream. So, in that sense I’m living someone else’s dream. I’ve always wanted to have a restaurant, work in the restaurant, cook and do what I do, the television came after. Just a little plus.
How did the TV and books come about?
I was just cooking at my restaurant, and a guy called Michael Carnac saw me. He came to me and said, ‘Look, there is a new channel on UK TV. Would you consider doing the show?’ I said ‘no’!
He came a week after and he asked me the same question. I said no again, but he kept coming back; eventually, it really started to bother me – this guy really started to bother me, hah! So much so, that I said yes, just to get him off my case!
And how did the show go?
One of two things will happen when you do live television for the first time, you’re either going to freeze and you’re going to mess it up, or you’re just going to get on with it and it goes well. I remember that I went, and I didn’t really care, because I didn’t want to do it. So, I just did my thing and chatted, then they asked me to do another and another.
In those days, viewers used to send in letters to the studio, not like now with social media and stuff like that, they used to send actual letters into the studio, right? And everybody was sending in these letters saying, ‘Who is this Italian guy?’ and badda bing badda bam… that’s how it happened. That was when the golden era of TV cheffing started – it was the era of Gordon Ramsey, who started more or less at the same time as me, and it was the era of Brian Turner, and, God bless his soul, Gary Rhodes.
It all started when Jamie Oliver did The Naked Chef, and, we should say thank you to Jamie, really, because he made our job cool, believe it or not. When I was first a chef in this country, I had a restaurant Kentish Town, and nobody wanted to know about my job. Nobody cared! As far as most people were concerned, it was a smelly job, a job with long hours and it was unsociable. Nobody asked chefs any questions. Then Jamie came along, and all of a sudden, we went from just cooks to rock stars. Through and through, we became rock stars. At that point, it wasn’t just cheffing anymore.
What inspires your cooking and your menus?
My recipes all come from my travels in Italy. I spend six months of my year in Italy; I travel a lot and meet other chefs, and people come to me with ideas for new dishes. Essentially, this is how it happens: I get the idea or get given it, I go home or to one of my restaurants, wherever I am, and I study the idea and work on it. If I like it, it goes into my books. Once it’s gone into my books, it then comes to the menu in my restaurants.
Sometimes we listen to what our restaurant guests are asking, too, but we can’t always, because if we had to listen to everybody, they would tell me that I need to put cream and mushrooms in my carbonara! That means that I have to start selling fish and chips… That means pineapple on pizza or chicken wings or some weird stuff like that… We’re very good at listening, but we have to filter them!
What three dishes must guests try from your new seasonal menu when they visit Luciano London? Do you have a favourite?
Okay, ‘which one is my favourite’ is impossible to answer because every day I have a different taste in my mouth. That has happened to you, right? Perhaps today, you really fancy fish, then tomorrow, you don’t want fish, you want meat. So, it’s very difficult. I can more easily tell you which is my favourite child.
You can’t say that!
Yes, I can. Of course, I can. It’s Mia, my little girl. However, there is one thing that people should absolutely try when they come here. It’s something I always have when I’m here – the Neapolitan fried pizza. We make the original Montanara, which is made with leftover dough.
You have this small dough like a tennis ball, you make it into disc that can you fry, and then you make a beautiful, very concentrated tomato sauce with fresh basil and pecorino cheese on top. You can have it as a nibble or as a starter, and it is delicious.
We don’t sell a lot of it because unfortunately, the title doesn’t sell it! When people see fried pizza, they freak out sadly. But I have to say what is! If I were to tell people to just order this because I say so and shut up, I probably would get more people to try it, hah!
We only do Italian food the way it should be done. Our carbonara is made with pork cheek and lots of cheese, with the sauce made from scratch. When I say we do proper Italian food, this, sometimes, goes against us. We could sell 10 times more carbonara by putting cream and mushrooms in it, and we could sell many more pizzas by putting pineapple on top. Well, we won’t, we need to stay true to Italy.
Sometimes, I feel I have a responsibility for Italian foods. I can’t compromise. If I do, the new generation are going to look at me and they’re going to say ‘Well, if Gino did it, it must be okay to put pineapple on pizza’, right! And then, when I go to go to heaven, or hell – I’m going to put more stock in the latter; I think I’m 70 percent likely going to hell, where my grandfather and my dad are, my grandfather is going to come to me he’s going to say ‘What the hell have you done? You’ve had the chance to show everybody what Italian food is, and you put cream in the carbonara!’ So, it’s a big responsibility.
What does the restaurant have planned for Christmas? Any special dishes or menus and events coming up?
Do you mean the restaurant, or my son? As you know, the name of the restaurant comes from him! So, at the restaurant, we have some amazing set Christmas menus, for all diets, including vegetarian and vegan. We have many amazing dishes, and we do have turkey but we only do it as breast, thinly sliced and with masala wine, which is Sicilian sweet wine, and this is excellent.
How are you managing the challenges faced by the hospitality industry at this time? Do you have any advice for any struggling restaurants or chefs or caterers?
Look, it’s hard. Yesterday, we would pay £1,000 a week for electricity, today we pay five times that. The problem is that we are not losing money, thank God, but I don’t have enough money in the restaurant business. I don’t make enough profit to reinvest into the restaurant or to reinvest into the people or ingredients.
That is where the problem is, it is not about me making a lot of money or being able to pay everybody more money. The problem is it becomes a situation for everybody; if it carries on like this and we can’t reinvest money into the business, then we are going to lose eventually.
But there is a positive in all of this… and the positive is that all the crap Italian restaurants that don’t do their job properly, they will be out of my way!
Are they the ones that put cream in carbonara?
Yes! They won’t be able to survive. They’re too small. Their brain is not there because anyone who puts cream and mushrooms in a carbonara, is not staying true to Italy. So, when they are gone we should see a pickup on customers in the restaurant.
But will the guests who come into the restaurant have money to spend? That should be the main question. I think that we will have to slightly change the menu for 2023 to adjust recipes and give people dishes that are from £10 to £50.
You take Luciano’s, which is a five-star restaurant, previously, we didn’t have anything that was £10. So, I said to the team, I’ll tell you what we’re going to do, let’s add more dishes like that. So, if, say ‘Mary’ wants to come and she wants to spend £15, she has this chance to do so.
But then if ‘Theresa’ wants to come and spend £100, she can do it too. So, that’s how we have to adjust.
One thing I will not compromise on, is the quality of the ingredients, nor the quality of the people – they’ve been with me for a long time. These people work very hard. So, I will not compromise on those kinds of things. You just have to be clever in how you spend your money as a restaurant and how you adjust. But it’s going to be hard.
You’ve opened an amazing assortment of new restaurants over the past 18 months. What is the secret to running an exceptional restaurant?
First of all, you need to know your numbers. Let’s be practical, the first thing you need isn’t a restaurant, it’s not passion and everything else, you need to know your numbers. Because if you make £100, and you spend £110, the numbers don’t work.
On top of that though, it is very important to have passion for what you are doing, and you need to stick with it. It’s very easy to get distracted and to do things cheaper. And it’s very attractive, by the way, for me to buy cheap pasta, but then this would be pasta that comes from Greece or Poland, and it wouldn’t be Italian, so the restaurant wouldn’t be properly Italian.
So, you need to have the courage to stick with your passion when times get tough, but regulate it, because sometimes if passion gets too much it is not a good thing; know your numbers, and then stick with your plan. If a true Italian is your plan, stick with it. That’s the advice I would give.
That’s very good advice. We come to our last question; a more personal one. When you’re in London and not at your own restaurant, where do you like to go? Do you have any favourite restaurants?
I go often to go to Gordon’s restaurants because we’ve been friends for a long time. He does the same. He was in Liverpool three or four weeks ago and he stopped by my restaurant there, and I do the same and when I’m in London. I tend to go to Golden’s place in Chelsea.
For more from Gino visit lucianobyginodacampo.com, 336-337, The Strand, WC2R 1HA