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interviews

Chef Alessandro Riccobono on Cooking – “It’s more of a lifestyle than a job”

Cooking on a TV Show in Bulgaria, “Кухнята на Звездев”, Copyright Polina Pen for Palpable Pictures

Chef Alessandro Riccobono from The Hide (39-45 Bermondsey Street, SE1) agreed to talk to Gourmet Pursuits about food, cooking and life in general. Working in London for the past 8 years, he has some interesting insights to share with our readers. We arranged to meet at his home, where he feels most comfortable playing guitar in his lovely garden. Full interview by Polina Pen.

  • How are you today?

Fine, thanks.

  • How do you spend your days off?

I rest, eat some good food and play guitar.

  • Is it now a busy period for you at The Hide?

Not at the moment as everyone is on holiday but the busy period is coming soon. Christmas times for a chef start in September – people start booking canapé parties and the bar gets really busy.

  • What is on your menu?

The menu is designed to suit the cocktail bar needs’ and to keep up with the standard of the drinks. We have some starters and appetizers, a few main courses to attract those who would like to have a dinner and a good selection of platters, which allows parties to share some food and enjoy the atmosphere even more. We also have a separate canapé menu for private parties and bookings.

  • Is that your first experience as a head chef?

Yes, it is. I found it hard at the beginning but I think I managed to rise to the challenge. I’ll let people decide. It’s a small kitchen though compared to other ones and that in a way made it easier.

  • What is your first memory trying to cook?

When I was very young, I was very manually challenged. I couldn’t even warm up the milk – I’ll end up burning it! When I was a teenager, I decided to go to catering school – being from Sicily one does not have much choice there. To become a chef seemed like a good perspective for a boy. Unconsciously or not, I also followed in my father’s steps who also used to be a restaurateur.

  • When did you learn how to cook?

I am still learning. Chef’s learning curve never ends. After a couple of years though you learn how to invent new things and your own recipes but cooking itself is so diverse that you can always learn something new.

  • And that makes it exciting, doesn’t it?

Yes – on one side, and no – on the other. Your ego is never satisfied, you could never be the best and therefore you can never be satisfied on the inside.

  • How does a typical day of the life of chef Riccobono looks like now?

If I don’t have to start early, I stay home playing some guitar or go to the gym. When I get to work, I first check all the deliveries as supplier companies can be funny at times  – delivering things that I did not order or vice versa. Then I get changed and start ‘prepping.’ Preparation time is a very important stage as you don’t want to have problems during the service. Service starts at 5.30 pm and after 40-50 orders, we close the kitchen at 10 pm. I clean up, check the fridges, place the order for the day after and finally have a drink at the bar before I run to catch the last train home from London Bridge.

  • What do you have to say to a young inspiring chef?

It’s a very hard profession to pursue; but it helps you grow very fast. It’s like the army – you learn discipline because there is no fooling around. That is a great life skill to acquire. Also, working in a kitchen gives you a different perspective on life as you learn to do everything now rather than postpone. It’s more of a lifestyle than a job.

  • Where have you worked in London?

My first job was back in 2004 at one of the Paradiso restaurants – most Italians coming to London tend to work in Italian restaurants as it is easier at the beginning. That was my first big experience in a kitchen as a pizza chef. That’s when I realised how hard is a life in a kitchen but also – how exciting – the feeling of having done a good job of the end of the day and delivered an excellent service. Afterwards, I moved to work in the Knightsbridge area where I used to do 5 doubles a week – that means you start at 10 am, do some prep followed by a lunch service, then a small break, soon back in the kitchen for prep, then dinner service until close at 12 am. After a couple of years working in Italian restaurants, I decided I’ve had enough of this craziness and of Italian people. I wanted to work for a British chef so that I learn some international cuisine. That’s how I found the Mocotó restaurant – then the biggest and most expensive Brazilian restaurant in town. It was a big change for me as the kitchen was huge – 16 chefs with a really exciting service, almost like a symphony! Darryl Healy and Gustavo Rozzino were the head and sous chefs respectively. Since then I’ve worked with Derryl for another 3-4 years at The Village East and The Garrison on Bermondsey Street before my departure to The Hide Bar.

  • What is the worst job you had?

Ha! (He laughs quietly and after a small pause he continues.) I think there are two contenders for this title. One is working for The Reform Club, the famous gentlemen’s club in Pall Mall, and the other one is working for the Tate Britain Restaurant. Both have a very impersonal feel to them and from a food point of view, I didn’t learn much…. (small pause) Now that I think about it, maybe the Reform Club deserves the title of the worst job, as I had a ball of ego instead for a head chef, who couldn’t be bothered to teach anyone anything. But I guess, you try to learn even from bad experience…

  • If you weren’t a chef, what would you like to be?

If I look back in time, I think cooking saved me from my own misery. Had I had a choice, I think I would have liked to study music…

  • What is your favourite dish?

Everything! (he says with excitement) I like all sorts of food but I think I would always enjoy a pizza or a lasagna, just like mom used to make them!

  • What are your plans for the future?

I would like to open my own food temple, where I could serve very exciting and fresh food. I would also use the opportunity to talk to and engage with customers more.

  • Tell us quickly a funny incident that has happened to you at work.

When Pelé came to have dinner at the Mocotó, all the chefs immediately ran upstairs to greet him, leaving the service behind. It took the management half an hour to bring us back to the kitchen!

  • And at the end, when are you the happiest?

I feel the happiest and most relaxed when cooking at home for friends.

23rd of August, 2011, 23:23, London, UK

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About Polina Pen

Writer, Photographer and Professional Eater

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