Friday, 13 May 2011

Interview - Theo Randall

I talk to Theo Randall, who's the most Italian Englishman I'm ever likely to meet...

It’s after a busy lunch service and at the start of prep for dinner at his eponymous restaurant at the Intercontinental hotel on Park Lane that Theo stops for a chat. “Everyday’s really busy now” he says, referring not only to the obvious success of his restaurant but also the post-recession recovery of the restaurant industry, “people are having lunch again.”

Footfall is just one of the restaurant’s obvious successes. Having become quite an industry favourite, Theo Randall at the Intercontinental has had much acclaim and won many accolades. Theo beams as he talks about his proudest one, winning the title of Italian Restaurant of the Year at the London Restaurant Festival. The award is particularly special given that Theo doesn’t have an Italian bone in his body. He’s as English as they come.


He laughs about his foodie mates, Italian chefs Gennaro Contaldo and Giorgio Locatelli teasing him for his Englishness before justifying, “I have an Italian soul. I have a passion for Italy. I love Italy, I love Italians. I love the country as a whole, it’s a fascinating country. I try to go there five or six times a year to get inspiration.” He admits to not being a ‘proper’ cook by Italian standards, “I’m cooking my interpretation of Italian food. Someone who’s from a certain region of Italy will cook food just from that region, whereas I mix it all up. I like to think I’m cooking authentically, but in terms of being authentic to the Italian philosophy – fresh, seasonal, simple, passionate - rather than a specific Italian recipe.

Theo’s flair and passion for Italian cookery comes through in every sentence, but it’s something that’s been with him for so long that he can’t remember quite how it came about. “We were a very foodie family. My mum’s a brilliant cook and most conversations we’d have around the dinner table would be about what we were going to have for the next meal” he explains in a bid to find the roots of his love of food. “I always thought this was normal, that everyone was so food obsessed, but I realise that I was actually very privileged in my upbringing”.

Theo’s always had a hankering after restaurants, too. He speaks of his childhood, saying: “We used to go on holiday to France and Italy. We were always having to go and see things. My father’s an architect and my mother an artist, so there was a lot of sightseeing and museum visits. As a kid this was OK, but sometimes a bit much. On these trips it would always be the food that was the best bit. We’d go out for dinner to local restaurants, and I remember getting really excited about the amazing atmosphere that comes with eating out. Looking back, I think that’s where my passion for the restaurant industry started.”

It was undoubtedly the same holidays he speaks of here that made Italian food such a big part of his life. “I remember these holidays in terms of dishes, ingredients, flavours. I remember having Spaghetti alle Vongole for the first time in Venice and just thinking, ‘God, this is so good’.” His passion is obvious as he talks of this memory: “Even after all this time, I can remember just eating the clams with my hands and loving it – it was really special.”


Having grabbed his passion by the horns and decided to go pro, Theo moved from cook to chef over a four year apprenticeship, receiving classical training from Max Magarian at his restaurant Chez Max in Surbiton. Finishing the apprenticeship in his early twenties, his next move was to a small restaurant named River Cafe which had just opened up near Hammersmith. This would prove to be a career defining move which saw him at the helm of a rapidly growing restaurant with an international reputation, as well as giving him the chance to work with the now legendary Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray.

“It was a wonderful place and I saw it from very early on. It was fantastic working with Rose and Ruth, they really were inspirational. For me to have effectively grown up with two people like that is really special. They’re two very different characters and I’ve learned different things from each of them.”

Letting good quality ingredients speak for themselves is a hallmark of The River Cafe, and something which Theo has continued. A quick look at his restaurant menu which features simple dishes such as Ham with Melon, Crab with Fennel and Eel with Beetroot and Dandelion shows the extent of this. The roots of this go beyond the River Cafe days, though. “As a kid we had a garden which we’d grow a lot of vegetables in and it would be my job to go out and pick some carrots or a rocket,” Theo explains before laughing. “It sounds like The Good Life, doesn’t it! It wasn’t quite like that... but it did give me a love of ingredients”

Giving ingredients such prominence may seem simple, but as Theo explains, it’s also quite brave. Every bit of produce really has to pull its weight or the dish won’t come together. It also means menus are entirely at the mercy of seasons and harvests. Theo admits that a lot of the produce he uses comes from Italy as it’s got the flavour he needs. “I buy a lot of ingredients for the restaurant from Italy, but I shop like an Italian would, which means buying locally wherever possible, so long as it’s of the right quality,” he explains. “We have fantastic fish in this country and so I use it, and likewise for most of our meat. I buy some English vegetables, like swiss chard and root veg, but to cook really good Italian food, you need really good, ripe, flavour-packed ingredients and the season’s so short here for things like peppers, zucchini and tomatoes, so I import them from Italy.”

Cooking seasonally is crucial, and another mantra which has been instilled in Theo from an early age. “I cook to what the season dictates”, he says. “I find the produce and then write the menu rather than deciding what I want to make and then setting out to find the ingredients. We write the menu every day. Not everything will change, but some things will. At the moment I’ve got some really good Cornish monkfish so we’ve got a dish on the menu cooking it on rosemary sticks.” Though Theo is clearly dedicated to the cause, he admits that it can be frustrating at times. “Often I want to use something but it’s not ready, or I have an idea for a dish but it’s not the right time of year. At the moment I’m desperate to get my hands on spring lamb and put it on the menu, but it’s not quite there yet so I’m having to be patient.”

Cooking seasonally is more than just about the taste, it makes sense for a restaurant financially as well. “When ingredients are in season they’re cheaper,” Theo explains, “I’m not afraid to say that this is important because it’s not about being stingy, it’s about offering good value to the customer.”


As if the restaurant doesn’t keep Theo busy enough, he has a growing portfolio of TV commitments and public demonstrations to add to the balance. He’s a regular on BBC1’s Saturday Kitchen as well as a host of shows on the Good Food channel. Does he consider himself a celebrity chef? “I don’t know, really”, he says modestly, “I know I really enjoy doing the TV stuff”. He continues, “It’s a funny phrase that I know a lot of chefs don’t really want to be labelled with. There’s an image that if you’re a ‘celebrity chef’ you’re never actually in the kitchen.”

Not being in the kitchen is an alien concept to Theo. “It’s very important to be in the restaurant on a regular basis,” he asserts. “Restaurants are very personal things and at the end of the day no matter how good the team is, it’s my name above the door.” He’s adamant that he’d like to open another restaurant someday even though it will mean being less hands-on, but the timing has to be right. “It’s a big move and you have to be sure you’ve got the right team in place before you make the jump,” he says before referring again to River Cafe. “If they’d have wanted, there could have been ten or more River Cafes now. They could easily have rolled them out, but that would ruin it. It’s because it’s stayed true to its original ethos that the magic is still there so many years later.” 

Theo’s first book Pasta came out last year and he’s already working on the next, not that he’s disclosing the topic. With so much on his plate, he has to work to find enough time to spend with his wife and children. The restaurant’s closed on Sundays, so this is dedicated family time and he’s rightfully proud of the fact that amongst all his work commitments he still drives his children to school each morning, “the car journey is quality time and I make sure I’m always able to do that. Although I’m busy, I actually feel quite lucky to be able to do this every day. I have friends who work in totally different jobs in the City and they’re not able to do this.”

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