Interview with Antonio Carluccio OBE OMRI and Priscilla Conran
Antonio Carluccio, OBE OMRI 19 April 1937 – 8 November 2017 was an Italian chef, restaurateur, and food expert, based in London. He has been called “the godfather of Italian gastronomy”, with a career of more than 50 years including founding the famous Carluccio’s restaurant chain.
Priscilla Carluccio, owner of interior design shop Few and Far in Knightbridge, previous creative director of the Conran Shop and co founder of Carluccio’s restaurant chain. She has been described as the powerhouse behind Habitat and the Conran Shop.
“I think young people should go into an industry and experience it before they decide they are going to put aside a large chunk of their life in training, and that I think is vital.”
Can you tell me a bit about your background?
Antonio Carluccio: I started by pure chance actually. I’m not a chef so I was a cook for forty years. I never learnt to be a chef so it was pure passion that took me to cook first of all. I was a wine merchant for many years until I came here to London for private reasons, and I was still selling wine here. I met my wife Priscilla in 1980 and she asked if I would like to participate in a best cook competition, which I did. I wasn’t in the final so I didn’t win, and it didn’t bother me because I was a wine merchant.
However The Times and Observer took me in their favour because I knew about mushrooms, so I had something for the press. In the meantime I remember spending a holiday together in Sardinia with my wife and her family. We cooked there and never went out to eat. I would cook while everybody was enjoying the private pool. We had some friends staying there as well and every day we had a feast. A friend asked Priscilla to ask me if I wanted to run his restaurant. He opened this restaurant in 1971 and I had a go there. A couple of years after I bought it, it became Italian. Italian food is fantastic and I wanted to enthuse other people. So, I wrote a book about it.
The success came very quickly because television needed somebody then. I ended up with two television series in two different years, and it was nominated best food television series in the world. So I am happy about that and the books were successful too. The Carluccio thing happened later, in 1991. I had the desire to open a little shop next to the restaurant selling Italian goods. When Priscilla came to the company she said ‘why don’t we import other brands?’ So, we were initially retailing here and Priscilla would do the packaging which was good. We had 150 retailers in Britain selling Carluccio’s products.
Did you have difficulty finding backing?
Priscilla Carluccio: Not finding a partner but in finding the money. We took on some people that had run a very big business and they came in as our partners. Antonio had laid the ground with his films and books and we had a restaurant and shop, but we didn’t have exactly what it was we were about to promote so they said ‘Oh, it’s not proven’. It’s shocking actually because we had a stronger thing than most people. It was actually Americans who came in. We found them through the city.
Did you always know you wanted to build a brand or did it just emerge?
PC: I think it became obvious that we had a brand. Once Antonio started writing the books and doing TV, it was a seed brand, but it was obviously something that needed to be developed and controlled for the future. I guess that’s the bit I do really.
AC: I had a few calls about doing some publicity for supermarkets, which would have been ambiguous so I refused all of that.
PC: What we did do was to build something very long term, whereas what most people are doing is something very short term. I’m not interested in that so we ended up as we have with Antonio being this really respected person – instead of being someone who’s got his face all over every sauce jar.
AC: Meanwhile knowledge of regions has developed, which was something my mother taught me. I was born in the south and brought up in the north. It was very good being knowledgeable about that and it influences the recipes. My latest book is the pinnacle of what I am doing: it’s about twenty Italian women and it’s incredible.
PC: The branding is very interesting because I’m not a marketing person, but I have lived with brands for most of my career and I feel it is really important not to create something that is very static. A brand in my opinion has to be flexible, has to feel the marketplace and has to feel what’s going on. Therefore what we are is something that I think is very flexible. In the beginning everything was heavily branded; we don’t really do that anymore – partially because I think the market has changed but partly because I think it is recognisable.
So it’s ongoing. A lot of things now are proposed to us and have to be considered very carefully and not just considered from a particular philosophy. It has to be something that is good and I think that’s what’s interesting.
Everything in your restaurant and the products you sell are very beautifully presented; how important do you feel the presentation is in the restaurant business? Is it as important as the food itself?
AC: I think the customer eats first of all with their eyes, and so I think the presentation has to represent what it is they are going to get in the end. It can’t be wrong, it’s got to be matched visually in terms of what it is you are going to sell. I think it’s also to do with trying. I think so much of everything that one does is about trying as hard as you can to make it as good as you can. Not only with attitude, but you should also be complimented on the product that is on the plate.
PC: It is also the people because in this particular industry it’s the people that make it – the people are the brand.
Can you tell me more about it?
My first belief is about people in this industry that the customers meet, such as the waitresses or the managers. Firstly, they actually have to be nice people – people that take pleasure in being nice to people. Then you have to train and stimulate all the time.
It’s nurturing all the time. Not convincing because at the end they are convinced that it’s fun. Also people don’t always know the product so you need to explain. This in my opinion is what is wrong with some of the supermarkets – where a member of staff doesn’t know anything.
It’s about trying to get across the passion because I think there is no point in working unless you are a bit passionate about what you are doing, and then it’s a pleasure going to work. I think essentially it’s whether you can make the workplace a nice place to be, where you are appreciated, where you are given a lot of knowledge and people take care. It’s very important.
We take chefs on board – we see their attitude and when we see that they are willing to learn then we send them to the restaurant college for three weeks. Then they learn what cuisine is all about and we teach the rest. But on top of that they are sent to Italy. We send them for two weeks – in fact we will go to Italy to see the results, because at the end of the course they cook and we go and see them.
It’s quite complicated because what we really have is a brasserie and there isn’t really a tradition in this country for brasseries. So you get people that work in little restaurants like this but you don’t really get the people that are terrific at doing a job very precisely – where they are producing a lot of food – and so we have to train them.
Carluccio’s is one of the only series of shops/restaurants which has proper chefs in each place with proper cuisine – and we don’t cook centrally. The food is really taken care of in the place and we train people all the time. I talk to the chef then redevelop the recipes for the future and then we learn to put them together.
What do you think makes other restaurants not succeed?
I think it is a lack of care.
If this restaurant were in Italy then Italy would sort out the good from the bad, because they wouldn’t go into the bad one. Over here there are some who don’t do the job properly but they exist because British people are not 100% knowledgeable. Many people don’t go to Italian restaurants, which shows how much people really are bothering about good food.
I think most people have a passion for what they are doing and also an understanding of the restaurant business. The restaurant business is one of the most demanding and difficult businesses to run because it’s based on people. I think they need to have an understanding of food, they need to have a concept which is very clear and that they technically need to know, but above all they need to be really passionate about what they are doing.
How important do you think formal training is in the restaurant business?
Essential. I think that’s what we have got now, people think that they can by-pass that so we are finding out that people simply don’t know how to do it.
Particularly now one of the things that has changed in the food business is that people want to know about the provinces. It’s sad to see a waiter standing there not knowing the answer when somebody is asking him about it. It’s embarrassing for them and it puts them in a terrible position I think.
When you started how many hours a week were you working?
As many as necessary, our job is not measured by hours. We have different types of jobs really. I’ve got marketing and buying and Antonio does his stuff.
If someone wanted to follow in your footsteps should they expect 7 days a week?
Absolutely. If you want to passionately start a business and be successful you have got to be prepared to give your life to it.
What kind of people do you think this industry is suited to?
I think it’s a very tough industry and it’s not for wimps.
What questions do you think people should ask themselves before they decide to open a restaurant?
I think they should know exactly what it is they want to achieve, what messages they want to give to the customers, what kind of service they want to give and where they are going to be in the marketplace. Then work backwards and say ‘we can afford to be there but we can’t afford to be there’, ‘we need that much space and not that much space’. It’s all a balance between the ambience and people you employ. It’s not just about the food. You take care and you really think about location.
When you started did you envisage that it would take off?
Yes. It was created to be a big business in the beginning. In my opinion you can’t take something you have created that is small and unique and turn it into something like we have now. You need to start from the beginning with where you want the concept to be. Think long term rather than short term because there are things that you must think about.
Have you made any mistakes since you started?
I don’t think we have made big mistakes but we have learnt a lot. The first place was in a market place and we spent about a year before we started developing other sites so that I could really know the business. I think everybody was amazed that it took off immediately; it’s quite a rare thing to be profitable within the first month of opening.
Did you think a lot about exactly how you were going to market it?
Absolutely. I studied how people were using coffee bars and so on. I was interested to see for example that young mothers would go with their babies and sit in a coffee bar and read a book, which made me feel that people actually wanted to be together – because I think they are isolated. Our St Johns Wood place was full the other day with young mothers meeting together.
You have groups of secretaries from offices that do their meetings in the morning there. It’s so varied and fantastic because what is common is the desire to have good service and good food in a nice ambience.
It’s not aimed at a particular social economic group – it’s aimed at people. The idea behind the menu was always to have ‘what you see is what you get’. So you can have soup, but no garnish or bread, whereas a lot of places are overloaded because it has a garnish on the side and a bit of bread but you are paying for it. The principle is to be very honest about the food, this is part of the total liberty we try to give.
People ask why we don’t have advanced table booking, particularly in places like Hampstead where I’m afraid they have to queue because it’s quite small, but you start excluding people immediately when you put booking in.
How challenging is it to attract different types of people?
I think you have got to think about it, of course. We wanted to create a contemporary but non-threatening environment, somewhere that you felt was new but not scary. The attitude of the staff is enormously important – they need to smile, make you feel welcome and explain to you if you don’t speak Italian. A very important element is to develop each place the same with regard to colour scheme, and working together with the architect.
Sometimes for example we have a site which takes maybe two or three years to come to fruition and we will have created a design at the beginning, and you come back to it and say ‘well actually guys I’ve moved on a bit so I want to change it now’. You consider the site, the architecture and the kind of customer that is going to be in there.
The most wonderful result is that people recognise this and tell us all the time how wonderful the food, the service and the place is. They must see a difference to others.
But they also complain which is terrific, actually it’s really important for people to complain. The most important thing is that you learn out of it, and examine what’s happened and why. You can then try to address the problems and you then communicate to those people. This is important because I know of places where they are complacent. We investigate everything. The best thing really is to do that and maybe try and get people back by giving them a meal or something like that. If you have converted a complaining customer they are a better customer than you had before.
You see a lot of restaurants around with the minimalist approach to décor and food. What do you think about minimalism vs dramatics?
Everything depends on what you feel. I don’t think you can make rules like that. I would say the food trend is to simplify things. I never changed my opinion that Italian food should be simple and I believe that many of the restaurants are coming over to that now. In Italian food you have got to get the best ingredients you can at the beginning. We import all our own brands but we use Italian ingredients as much as we can. Invest in the best ingredients.
Is there anything you compromised on when you started?
No. I suppose all businesses sort of compromise in that we have to have very good suppliers, so you might swap somebody who is brilliant but was unable to perform properly for somebody who is not quite as brilliant. So you probably do have to compromise a bit. I’d love to say we don’t, but I don’t think it’s honest.
Would you say to somebody who’s starting to really go for it and ask for the maximum that they can?
No, I’d ask for what you think you can get away with. Handle the cash flow carefully because I think you learn a lot out of that. If you play around with too much money you don’t learn. When you start you have to handle your cash every day – it’s a far better way of learning.
Is there anything you would say to young people wanting to get into the restaurant industry? To become a chef with a view to opening their own restaurant?
I think it’s very difficult for chefs because they are not necessarily business people. I think a chef needs to match himself or herself to a business person. Each person should be special in their own way. It’s impossible to expect a chef to also know all the books and taxes, you need to leave that to specialists. The message is to do something if you are enthusiastic about it, but otherwise don’t.
In our instance, we recognised what we are, what our abilities are, and what we liked and that’s why we took on partners for things that we think we are not terrific at – like finances, property, and operations. We are really essentially creative people and creative people need to match themselves to somebody else that understands that.
For example, if you go high up to a president it isn’t just him, there are specialists doing things. No business is one or two people; a business is the team and I’m convinced of that. You may start it but actually it’s made up of those people. It’s teamwork. People you really like that know where they are going and like doing it.
Should people get experience before they actually start a university or college course?
I think you get much more out of a course if you know why you are on it and I think if you have had some practical hands on experience that course does a lot more for you.
It’s a very competitive market isn’t it?
Definitely but it’s a market which is desperate for good people. I have to say in this city it is the Polish people that are supporting things. You know why, because they know how to work, they want to learn and they are enthusiastic. They want to succeed. We actually had two people that started and have ended up being chefs. Talent is recognised.
Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you think young people who want to go into the restaurant industry should know?
I think young people should go into an industry and experience it before they decide they are going to put aside a large chunk of their life in training. That I think is vital. They need to be educated. Start as a waiter, go to Thailand or Australia and see the world. See all the aspects of a restaurant.