You know you’ve met extraordinary talent when a chef feeds you aubergine and it is lip-smacking delicious. But then it should hardly be surprising if the chef in question is Aldo Zilli and the dish his signature fare.
Best known for his fleet of Italian restaurants in London, international celebrity chef Zilli, 57, made his Asia debut in December with Zerruco by Zilli at The Ashok in Delhi. Zerruco is a contemporary Mediterranean dining restaurant that Zilli has co-branded with the main promoters Kashif Farooq and Prashant Ojha of the Urban Pind fame. A popular TV chef, Zilli is also a best-selling author (he has written over 12 cookbooks including two autobiographies) and a successful restaurateur (he opened his first at age 26 in Soho).
In the indoor dining area of the restaurant, Zilli is reclined on a cream couch with his arms spread out on the backrest. He is wearing a short-sleeved chef’s coat with Delhi winter being more “like spring” as he puts it and quite unlike London. A skylight in the textured ceiling just above the bar washes the interiors in natural light. The walls are panelled with shiny dark wood and embedded with mirrors. It was a much-anticipated visit, says Zilli of his maiden trip to India. “Indian food is a big part of the global cuisine especially in England. A trip here was much anticipated in the last ten years. So when I got a chance I jumped at it,” he says.
Zilli sold his seven London restaurants two years back and is in partnership with 18 restaurants at present. In 2012, he teamed up with The San Carlos Group of Italian restaurants to launch their second Cicchetti restaurant at Piccadilly Circus. This all-day Italian dining in the heart of London is famous for its small plate, tapas-style cuisine, something Zilli has brought to Zerruco as well. “The offerings here will be the same as London, which is small dishes so that people can try 3-4 different dishes. That I think is the way to eat anyway. I don’t like big portions of food anymore,” he says. The menu here has been designed entirely by him and he has prepared an entire section just for vegetarians. “We cater to everyone and there is lots of vegetarian food on the menu. What I have in mind here is to keep the menu very fresh and source the main ingredients locally.”
This may be his first trip to India, but Zilli says he has sampled a lot of Indian food in England and finds a lot of similarities between the Indian and Italian food cultures. “In England, English chefs have to be taught everything, but you guys come to the kitchen with flavours already that you’ve learnt from your parents and grandparents, much like Italians. We have a similarity in the sense that we both like flavour in our food. Our food is not bland, especially in the south of Italy from where I come.”
Zilli’s journey from Italy to England is a remarkable story and would make for a silver screen blockbuster.
The youngest of nine children, Zilli says his older siblings went to work on their farm while he was left behind to help his mother in the kitchen. That is when he learnt cooking. “We were a very poor family and food was at a premium. The farm offered everything, but what grew in the farm had to be sold for money,” he says.
At 17, he left home to realise his dream of working in a kitchen. The reason being one most Indian boys who enjoy cooking would identify with. “My father didn’t want me to be a chef as he thought cooking was done by women,” he says. He first went to Germany and France to learn the trade. “I learned the best skills and techniques in France,” he says. In 1976, Zilli moved to England. “I met some friends there and got a job straight away.” An entrepreneur at heart, Zilli saw a gap in the market that he could fill and pretty well too. “Italian food in London in those days was terrible. It wasn’t cooked by Italian chefs. People were cooking oily lasagne, overcooked pasta and terrible pizzas,” he points out. At 26, he began running his first restaurant, Il Siciliano on Dean Street in Soho, which was the most successful Italian restaurant in those days. He thus began building his spectacular empire.
The scene here in Delhi he admits is a lot different. There is plenty of good competition.
“There are some good Italian restaurants in Delhi and I’m looking forward to competition,” he smiles. Zilli will be back in town in February. “I will be here every season to change the menu as I like to cook with seasonal food. Other than that I am in contact with my chefs here every day. We Skype, it’s easy.”