Theo Randall Interview
With a face you will recognise from Saturday Kitchen and an illustrious career at the helm of one of the World’s most famous restaurants, Theo Randall has carved an amazing career from what he would describe as ‘happy chances’ and coincidences. Sally Thomson caught up with him to discuss his love of Italian food and his partnership with Mazzetti Balsamic Vinegar…
So when did you start cooking?
From a very early age. So a bit of my background – I grew up in a very foodie family, my mother is an artist and my father an architect. My Mother is a brilliant cook, so we grew up with really good food. We used to go on lovely holidays and to special restaurants and as a child I always loved going to them. Food was just part of the fabric of life. I was the kid that went to school with homemade bread and gorgonzola sandwiches, when everyone else had Mother’s Pride and ham and cheese. I always loved eating and it was very adventurous. Mother would bake three times a week, bread and cakes and I would always help her, even if it was just licking the bowl!
You were there watching what she was doing and learning along the way.
Yes, and she was very inspirational. She taught art and was a very good teacher. She has an amazing number of cookbooks and I just used to devour them. In particular she used to cook Elizabeth David’s Italian dishes.
Was that your entry into loving Italian food?
I guess so. As an artist Mother loved everything Italian. She used to cook pasta and create dishes that many families didn’t eat at that time. When we went on holiday to France or Italy, we used to come back with a car load – we had our knees up to our chins as there were so many bottles of olive oil and all manner of ingredients that you couldn’t then get in this country – including fabulous wines.
We also had a trailer we were loaded to the gunwales. The thing is that we live in a world where we can now get anything at any time. But then everything then was much more seasonal. I was lucky enough to travel to experience different foods. I was able to appreciate many things at a young age.
You are discussing seasonality – so do you love any particularly foods at the moment?
At Theo Randall at the InterContinental our menus are totally seasonal. We find the ingredients and then write the menus. We write the menu every day and it will change according to what is seasonally available. Each season offers lots of different things – I particularly love the bold and rich flavours of winter.
My husband absolutely loves Italian tomatoes. He has got a thing about them.
Have you tried datterini? He must try them – they are delicious little plum tomatoes from Sicily. Close your eyes and they are like eating a grape, they are that sweet.
How did your career start?
I started working in a French bistro and a friend asked me if I wanted to be a kitchen porter on a Thursday night and as I was 15 at the time, and as I needed a little bit more pocket money I went along. I went into the kitchen and thought that this is the place I want to be. I loved it, the whole atmosphere. It was a French restaurant with a Spanish chef, who took a liking too me and was always feeding different dishes he was making, and as a result I really enjoyed it.
From there I want onto a restaurant on my 18th birthday called Chez Max. I spoke with Max Magarian, who was Chef Patron, and I explained that I really wanted to cook. He told me that he didn’t have any jobs in the kitchen but that I could work as a waiter, on Friday and Saturday nights. The most antisocial nights of the week. I wanted to learn, so I decided to do it. I think that I was probably the world’s worst waiter! I still loved being in the restaurant. I had good luck that the girl who was working with him decided to leave. He then said to me, ‘there is a position for you, do you want it?’ I then thought right place, right time.
I have to say it was gruelling. It was 5 days a week from 8 to midnight. Having said that it was the most amazing learning experience. I did three and a half years there, and then went to the River Café. I was very happy there and worked with the legendary Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray. Again, it was the right place at the right time. At that time nowhere in London was doing that type of food. It was Italian food that I just loved. The River Café just grew and grew.
I then went to Chez Panisse in California, with Alice Waters, where I gained more experience. When I was there Ruthy called me up and asked if I would come back and that they would make me Head Chef and partner at the River Café. It was a great highlight of my career. The River Café evolved with a Michelin star and became more and more successful. It was an amazing time working there, I loved every minute of it. I discovered myself. It was a fantastic platform to be on and it was very difficult to leave. It was such a wonderful place.
Well, may I ask why did you leave?
I got to the point of my life when I thought this isn’t my restaurant. I felt that it was about time that I did something for myself. I needed to prove to myself that I could do something on my own. I was looking at various sites thinking that I am not going to leave unless something fantastic comes up. The opportunity of the InterContinental came up and I remember meeting the General Manager who told me that he would like me to open up a restaurant in their hotel. The space can be yours and you can design it. I though wow, this is amazing – what an opportunity. To open on Park Lane with your name above the door, it doesn’t get much better than that. So I took that and we opened in 2006 and in 2007 we won ‘Italian Restaurant of the Year’, which was a superb accolade. The restaurant has been very busy ever since. The main thing is consistency and keeping your guests happy.
Three years ago I opened a restaurant in Bangkok. Then in March this year we opened in Hong Kong, again with InterContinental. Then we also have a restaurant in Kensington. So I guess that there have been lots of achievements and very busy times. Lots of research goes into every restaurant – there’s no point in doing things unless you do them properly. You can open up a restaurant and 6 months later it could close.
So what got you into working with Mazzetti Balsamic Vinegar?
Both are classified as ‘four leaf’ under the leaf system, with this model developed by ‘AIB’ (the Italian Balsamic Vinegar of Modena Tasters Association) with four leaf suggesting use for special dishes – this makes it a great ingredient. Four leaf will add a rich depth of flavour to a wide range of foods. It can still add a real difference to a salad, but this classification takes Balsamic Vinegar of Modena into a much richer space of food partners, ideal as it is for Prosciutto and chunks of Parmigiano, ice cream and gelato, fresh fruit or great cuts of meat.
So what did the Randall household get up to over the Festive season?
It’s always a bit mad as the restaurant is so busy – had lunch with the family then headed over there. We tend to have duck – I am not against turkey as there are some very good ones around, but I do love roasted duck, which we had with lots of lovely vegetables, such as Jerusalem artichokes, carrots and all that stuff. And I always love getting a side of wild smoked salmon, which becomes even more horrifically expensive each year. But wild smoked salmon, there is nothing like it.
What do you serve that with?
Some fantastic organic bread, unsalted butter and then I add a huge slice of the salmon with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of black pepper and that is to me one of the most delicious things of things in the world. It’s just so simple. Plus we had a panettone, the leftovers of which were turned into a ‘bread and butter pudding’.
You definitely are a busy man! Do you make time to have holidays as you have to work when everyone else is enjoying special days including Christmas.
Yes, I do take 3 good holidays a year. You can’t what I do without taking a decent break, otherwise you would just run yourself into the ground. I always go away with my wife in January. We go away for a about 10 days. We’re off to Sri Lanka and I’m looking forward to it – not just the break because I love finding out about different food cultures.
You can find Mazzetti Etichetta Oro and Mazzetti Etichetta Bianca priced at £9.90 and £5.90 RRP respectively in Sainsbury’s. Mazzetti and Theo were kind enough to share some of their recipe collaborations with us. Please head to our recipes pages to check them out..
Catch Theo Randall at the InterContinental, One Hamilton Place, Park Lane W1J 7QY. Tel: 020 7318 8747