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An empty place at the table

I was so sad to hear the master of Italian cooking left the table today. At a recent dinner he was on fine form.

    A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to meet one of my food heroes, the Italian chef, Antonio Carluccio OBE.

    No longer working full-time at the head of his eponymously named restaurant chain, he was there to launch their new vegan/vegetarian menu. Fittingly, the launch was in Covent Garden, the same postcode in which he opened his Neal Street Restaurant, 36 years ago in 1981, and which traded for 26 years.

    With the room of bloggers and journalists hanging on his every word, Antonio explained how Italians had not traditionally had much time for vegetarians and vegans but how that these days, the move to eat less meat was even taking hold there, although "the Italians still remain carnivorous and 'fishiverous'".

    The 80-year-old, who has been making our mouths water with his books and television programmes about Italian food since 1983, explained how each region of Italy has different vegetarian dishes, describing how to transform a Savoy cabbage, Fontina cheese, garlic and stale bread into a "something together that is fantastic". "It's end of the world" he enthused, urging us to try it ourselves. 

    Well aware of his age, he was proud to still be very much a part of the chain, and shared that he always had something to say about the menu and how his dishes, like his invention, penne giardiniera, were cooked. "For the first time I am totally happy with the menu," he said.

    "I don't think there are many other companies where the founder is still working with the company. Thank God I'm still ok at 80. The head is fine.The legs are a bit wobbly, but the most important thing is that the head is fine."

    He was utterly charming, describing going to the aid of a female cyclist who had been hit by a car and was on the ground. "I was very upset" he said, "so I rushed over to her. She opened her eyes, saw me and said 'I know who you are!' I said: 'well that's fantastic because I saw what happened and if you need information [let me know] because I saw everything'. In the most unlikely situation you find fans! That's life!"

    He explained that he had spent his career "spreading the gospel of Italian food" and that his cooking (learned from his mother) had always been about simplicity - "My motto is a minimum of fuss and a maximum of flavour."

    Carluccio's Penne Giardiniera
    Carluccio's Penne Giardiniera

    His skills were also useful for charming the ladies "I didn't need to say to girls 'come and see my etchings' but instead 'eat my pasta' and it was very successful." 

    He remained a passionate advocate of his native cuisine.The Italian government appointed him Commendantore - equivalent to a UK knighthood - in 1998 for his services to Italy, and he  never stopped spreading the word. "I'm convinced Italian food is one of the best cuisines in the world because of its simplicity, because it's very pleasurable to eat, easy to make and not very expensive. With a few ingredients which you can find almost anywhere, you can make it yourself. With one egg and some flour you can make your own pasta and that's it. It's not very special." 

    He was still slightly bemused by veganism — "The vegan is a special race. It's interesting that one can go to extremes but I understand that people can do that. That's fine, because liberty is the best thing in life."  Converting the menu to vegan had been a challenge, but not one he shied from.

    It is so sad that it was his last challenge. Buona notte Signor Carluccio — Italian food has much to thank you for.   

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