‘I’ll always consider Jamie my boy’
“I post pictures every day – lots of people want to know where you are and what you’re doing,” reasons Gennaro Contaldo, pouring his morning coffee with one hand and scrolling through his busy Twitter feed with the other.
“I find pleasure when I look on my Instagram, Twitter and Facebook; in a way I’m in touch with everyone, and I feel like its one big family,” he continues, inviting me to peer over his shoulder. “There’s so many nice people in the world; I want to meet them all!”
Sitting in the idyllic garden of his East London family home, the 67-year-old chef and restaurateur – widely credited as the maestro who taught Jamie Oliver all he knows about Italian cooking – is in great spirits.
When he’s not posing for selfies with his 13-year-old twins Olivia and Chloe – “It’s everyday, everyday, everyday, and I don’t get fed up, I enjoy it, I like it” – the passionate foodie splits his time between cooking demos on his popular YouTube channel, training chefs, TV work (he regularly appears on Saturday Kitchen and has his own series, Two Greedy Italians on BBC Two) and penning cookbooks, as well as his brand ambassador duties for Bertolli.
“I’m a person who has to move all the time,” he cries in that familiar accent. “As soon as I’m finished here, I’m going to [Jamie’s Italian at] Shepherd’s Bush to see my chefs, and then I have a Facebook Live, which is fantastic, and then I have cookery school.”
It’s exhausting just hearing it – does he ever slow down?
“Slow down?” he retorts with a chuckle, serving me up a delicious slice of home-made olive oil cake with raspberry coulis, baked especially for the occasion by his daughter Chloe.
“I’m my own worst enemy. When there’s so many nice people, why do you want to slow down?” he continues. “If I feel I can, I will do it. When I can’t, I’ll stand back.”
His latest literary venture, Gennaro’s Italian Bakery, pays homage to his lifelong passion for baking, recalling the hours spent as a young boy at his uncle’s bakery in Minori on the Amalfi Coast, and memories of tucking into freshly baked bread in his family home.
Gennaro hopes his collection of easy-to-create recipes will encourage more people to take the plunge.
“Everybody should make their own bread!” he enthuses, throwing his hands in the air.
“You can even go into a supermarket and buy a mix, just add water and bake it,” adds the chef, who left Italy for London aged 20. “The secret is to use good flour, that’s all.”
The book features a hearty mix of regional and traditional fare with a modern twist, from Parmesan Breadsticks and Pumpkin Bread to Focaccia, Pizza, Brioche and Biscotti (“just like Nonna used to make”).
The foreword goes to his protege, Oliver.
“Jamie is incredible,” gushes Contaldo, who first met 41-year-old Oliver when he worked under him at London’s Neal Street Restaurant in the Nineties. “When you show him how to do something the Italian way, he takes it in straight away; and when he does it, he does it better than me!”
While he’s heavily involved with Oliver’s ever-expanding Italian restaurant chain, creating dishes and training chefs, the veteran foodie’s friendship with Oliver goes far beyond the kitchen.
“Jamie considers me his London father, and I’ll always consider him my boy,” Contaldo confides. “I have six children [as well as the twins with current wife Liz, he has three from a former marriage], and the sixth one is Jamie.
“My father always believed, which he was right to, that Jamie was my son. He died believing that.
“I had to learn from him how beautiful and wonderful the world is,” Contaldo continues, eyes widening as he talks about Oliver. “And I learned that to give is much better than to receive, and to help is incredible.
“This is his philosophy and mine as well. We don’t take away – the world is beautiful so let’s enjoy it.”
Fancy having a go a baking Gennaro-style? Try out one of these recipes for size.
Pane al pomodori (tomato loaf)
7g baking powder
45g grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for sprinkling
1tsp fennel seeds
40g melted butter, cooled
2tbsp double cream
50g sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped
1/2tsp black pepper
Handful of basil leaves
120g baby tomatoes, leave the stalks on a few
Preheat the oven to 180C fan/200C/400F/Gas mark 6 and line a 19 x 9cm loaf tin with parchment paper.
Combine the flour, baking powder, grated Parmesan and fennel seeds and set aside.
Whisk the eggs, melted butter and cream together in a large bowl until well combined and creamy. Stir in the sun-dried tomatoes. Fold in the flour mixture and mix with a spoon until it is all well incorporated. Stir in a little salt (careful, sun-dried tomatoes can be quite salty), black pepper and basil leaves. Pour the mixture into the prepared loaf tin. Push a few baby tomatoes into the mixture, sprinkle a little grated Parmesan over, and place the tomatoes with stalks on top, pressing slightly, for decoration.
Cover with foil and bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for a further 10 minutes until golden. Check by inserting a wooden skewer as you would for a cake; if it comes out clean, it is ready. Remove from the oven, leave to cool, then remove from the tin, slice and serve.
Fagotto di funghi con farine miste (mixed grains mushroom pie)
For the bread dough:
12g fresh yeast
150ml lukewarm water
250g plain flour
25g buckwheat flour
25g polenta (cornmeal)
25g Italian chickpea flour
For the filling:
50ml extra virgin olive oil
60g pancetta, diced
1 leek, finely sliced
3 thyme sprigs, leaves only
600g mushrooms of your choice, sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Splash of white wine
Dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water. Combine the flours and salt in a large bowl, add the yeast mixture and egg and mix well into a dough. Knead for 10 minutes, cover with cling film and leave to rest in a warm place for about one hour, or until doubled in size.
To make the filling, heat the extra virgin olive oil in a pan over a high heat, add the pancetta, leek and thyme, and stir-fry for three to four minutes. Stir in the mushrooms, then add some salt and pepper. Add the wine and allow to evaporate, about one minute. Reduce the heat to medium, cover with a lid and cook for five minutes.
Preheat the oven to 160C fan/180C/350F/Gas mark 4. Line a pie dish or a flat baking tray with parchment paper.
Roll out the dough into a thin square sheet big enough to line the pie dish or baking tray, and place in the prepared dish or tray. Prick the dough all over with a fork. Place the mushroom filling in the centre, then take the four corners of the dough and make into a parcel. Tie with kitchen string and brush all over with egg wash. Bake in the oven for 45 minutes.
Remove from the oven, leave to rest for five minutes, then slice and serve.
Castagnaccio (chestnut squares)
(Makes 8 squares)
Marsala or sweet wine, for soaking
200g chestnut flour (available from Ocado, or health food shops)
Pinch of salt
40g caster (superfine) sugar
2tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for greasing
20g pine kernels
Needles of 1 rosemary sprig
40g dark chocolate shavings (at least 70% cocoa solids)
Preheat the oven to 180C fan/200C/400F/Gas mark 6 and grease a 20 x 30cm shallow roasting tine with extra virgin olive oil.
Soak the raisins for the filling in enough Marsala or other sweet wine to just cover.
Combine the flour, salt and sugar in a large bowl. Gradually whisk in the milk, extra virgin olive oil and one tablespoon of the Marsala, whisking well to avoid lumps. Stir in the pine kernels, raisins, rosemary needles and half of the chocolate. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin, top with the remaining chocolate shavings and bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Insert a wooden skewer to check if cooked through; if it comes out clean, the cake is cooked.
Remove from the oven, leave to cool in the tin, then cut into squares.