The youngest of nine children, award-winning chef Aldo Zilli grew up in Alba Adriatica in Abruzzo - but made his name in England. One of the first to introduce authentic Italian food to London in the ‘70s, in the 40 years since, healthy food has become his specialism. As well as an innovative restaurateur, Aldo is a prolific cookery columnist and book writer, runs his own marketing agency Zilli Media, and is a popular regular on British TV. His expertise has led him out of the kitchen and into the world of current affairs – from discussing food waste to mentoring the homeless. He works with UK supermarkets on pizza ranges and organic baby food - to Italian brand Alfa Romeo. He runs cookery schools in the UK and Italy, and counts Sir Paul McCartney as a foodie fan. He resides in London with his family and has three children.
What are your memories of your hometown?
‘Growing up on a farm in the heart of the national parks of Abruzzo, I took everything for granted as a child. I drank milk from our own cows, livestock was readily available and of course all the fruit and veg were organically grown by my dad. As the youngest, I was very spoilt by my mum and I would be allowed to help her cook in the kitchen…there was no other way of spoiling me because there was no money, TV, gas or electricity where we lived. When I was 12, my father decided to sell the farm and buy a house by the sea and that’s where my love affair for fish began - and indeed my passion for cooking it, as I worked for a fishmonger and got paid in fish to cook for the family at home!’
In 1976 aged 20, you became a UK resident. How did the transition from Italy to England feel? ‘Following hotel work in Germany at the age of 17, I was invited to come to London by a young girl and her brother who worked in the same restaurant as me, so I did! I came to England for two weeks’ holiday and I’m still here 35 years later…
The transition to the UK was not easy for me. First of all, we had a car and I couldn’t get used to driving on the left hand side – that was just the beginning! The food and culture I soon noticed was very different to Italy. Italian restaurants in the ‘70s in England didn’t really exist and even when they did they didn’t serve Italian food as such - and didn’t have Italian chefs in the kitchen. I realised there was a gap in the market and an opportunity for me to stay and try to improve the situation.’
As one of the first to introduce authentic Italian cuisine to swinging London, your career quickly took off in the UK, yet you’re not well-known in Italy…
‘My very first restaurant in London’s Dean Street became a celebrity haunt due to the food and atmosphere. We introduced real Italian food including home made fresh pasta and lots of fish. Sadly, it’s true I’m still better known in the UK than I am in my own country, although in my region of Abruzzo, everyone knows me. Maybe I should go back there and do some cheesy Italian TV!’
In your opinion, why are Italian chefs so popular in the UK?
‘At the moment I feel that there’s quite a lot of us Italian chefs working on TV, writing books and running restaurants in the UK. The popularity of Italian food is the number one reason, I feel. I believe there’s room for all of us, as Italian food doesn’t really exist as such – we’re all from various regions of Italy and all of us cook different foods with different flavours and tastes. I admire them all! I feel that I am a specialist in the healthy approach to food i.e. fish and vegetarian dishes, which Italy thrives on in general.’
How do you think the typical British diet compares to the Italian/Mediterranean?
‘In the World Famous Diets TV show I filmed for ITV in the UK, my Italian Mediterranean diet was the most popular and the one which enabled people to lose the most amount of weight. It proves to me that if you eat more Mediterranean style food i.e. fish and veg you will not be obese and you will live longer. I think the British are well aware of this now and have actually got a lot better with their diets over the past five years.’
You famously lost weight (21 kilos) publicly on TV's 'Celebrity Fit Club'. As a chef, is it hard to keep the weight off or do you think that eating healthily is the future of cooking?
‘Following my appearance, keeping weight off was not easy. Being a chef you constantly taste dishes, eat out of hours and eat on the go but if you’re conscious about calories and health then it becomes a part of your life, hence the fact that I’ve written the Zilli Light cook book for everyone to follow my tips.
I definitely think the future mentality of food is ‘less is more’ regarding cooking methods; my favourites are roasting, poaching, steaming and grilling. My favourite food recipe has to be sea bass with black pepper crust. I love fish as it’s so versatile and when in season it’s unbeatable. It becomes healthy fast food.’
How does running your new restaurant compare to previous experience?
‘My latest venture, Cicchetti, in London’s Piccadilly, is run by the San Carlo group of restaurants, and I don’t have to worry about the day to day routine of running it… but I can put my own stamp on the food and get to work with professional Italian chefs and restaurateurs such as Mr Carlo and his son Marcello. It’s a great partnership and I’m very much looking forward to the future and being back in the West End where I belong - right back where it all started.
‘Cicchetti’ means small Italian bites of food… a concept I feel that can be taken anywhere in the world – and here it’s taken to another level. The focus being very much on fresh, seasonal and regional ingredients.’
Which other associations are close to your heart?
‘As I have a big passion for cars, when Alfa Romeo asked me to join them in the opening of all of their UK showrooms, I jumped at the chance! I regularly do cookery demonstrations for them and include them as sponsors in my on-going projects. I liked bringing a little bit of Italy – through my pizza Calabrese with Calabria’s salami, Ndjua - to the UK supermarket chain Morrisons here. I am also an ambassador for the charity Heart UK; I believe it’s vitally important to raise awareness of disease that can be caused by poor diet and lifestyle. It’s a great opportunity for me to remind everyone that knowing their cholesterol levels and eating healthy recipes can help save lives. On another level, having a beautiful new family with two very young children in my fifties is close to my heart!’
How has having experienced a dual culture flavoured your life?
‘I feel extremely lucky in coming through so many different cultures in food in this country, as every decade seems to change. The best years for me, by far, are now, as people are so much more interested in cooking food and coming to my cookery class to learn. A highlight is taking my students shopping to famous Billingsgate fish market and see their eyes light up - even though it’s 6.30 a.m.! Overall, my Italian culture and heritage has to be my strong point when it comes to cooking in season.’
For more on Aldo’s consultancy to cookery classes and private dining experiences, see www.zillialdo.com and www.zillimedia.com. His books, including the most recent, Fresh & Green, can be found on Amazon.