I get to do some pretty cool things for my blog, but this is hands down in my top five pinch-me moments. I was invited to an Italian pasta masterclass at Jamie's Italian Kitchen in Victoria with the legend that is TV chef Gennaro Contaldo. You may remember that I previously explored this vibrant part of London, and it was great to be asked by Create Victoria to come back and experience one of the area's most popular restaurants. Jamie's may look quiet (below) when we arrived, but by midday it was packed!
After watching many a cooking show on TV I now regard restaurant kitchens as some of the scariest places on earth. And now I was going into one! At first it was serene, the chefs all had a job and were calmly getting on with it (below), including making huge trays of the most amazing smelling focaccia bread known to man….
But behind the scenes this kitchen is hot, and so, so busy. Of course the chefs stay calm, and the fact that they managed to do this in the busy lunchtime rush with not only Gennaro taking over the pasta section, but myself and journalists from Grub Club and About Time Magazine getting in the way all the time is a testament to their skill. I was excited to see how dishes at Jamie's are made (Gennaro is in charge of menus and chef training across all branches, as well as being Jamie Oliver's mentor in Italian cooking), and it's a real eye-opener. To make pasta dishes they have little pots of boiling water (below) with sieves that lift out – almost like chip pans, but it's for yummy fresh pasta.
I urge you to watch Gennaro's cooking shows if you haven't. His BBC Two Greedy Italians programme with Antonio Carluccio is hilarious, and Gennaro's amazing cockney-Italian accent makes him all the more fascinating to listen to. He moved to London in the early 1970's and told us that he pretty much introduced broccoli to fine dining when he found you couldn't buy it in shops. Ditto with red peppers – an Italian staple, but apparently in the 70's only green peppers were sold, and only in specialist Indian shops. It's good that vegetable availability has moved on in the UK, and when I apologised to Gennaro straight off the bat for being vegetarian (this doesn't usually endear me to chefs), he declared loudly that he "lov vegetarian!" and reeled off a list of vegetarian ingredients Italians typically use. Gennaro showed us three different dishes (kindly making veggie versions each time) and the core ingredients of each one were fresh tomatoes (never keep in the fridge, Gennaro warned us!), chilli, garlic, and olive oil (so much oil!), and then other items are added depending on the dish, including seasoning which was mostly fresh basil or parsley.
As well as having what appeared to be heatproof hands (he stuck fingers into the boiling water to check the pasta!) Gennaro magically knew when everything would be perfect, which is something I also try to do when cooking – use instinct instead of timers – and it never bloody works.
The dishes were so simple and quick, well – they were made to look like they were by the expert – and it just goes to show you don't need to make complicated sauces to enjoy really fresh, tasty pasta dishes. I'm not a fan of spicy food (oh, chefs love that about me too), but the chilli kick to these dishes was subtle and warming.
As well as making the most amazing mushroom tagliatelle (above, with a pancetta version too) using vegetable stock, Gennaro showed us how to make seafood pasta and not die from eating wrongly prepared muscles. These dishes and more are in Gennaro's new pasta book, which is a must for lovers of all things Italian and carby.
After the learning came the best bit – sitting down with Gennaro, the dishes, and some wine, and having a good chat. The kitchen was great – but even better to be on the other side of the restaurant where the temperature is cooler and the vibe very relaxed. Gennaro was such great company, he answered all our questions about where he grew up and how he trained. He told us that if he wasn't a chef he'd still be a chef (lol) because everyone has a destiny and a desire in their blood. He explained that he's great at British dishes too, particularly Lancashire Hot Pot which he fell in love with on arrival to the UK, and also Shepherd's Pie and Victoria Sponge Cake, both of which he makes regularly with his twelve year old daughter (whom he assures us is a great cook). I asked Gennaro if he watches the Great British Bake Off and he proceeded to tell us how much he "lovs Mary Berry" and also that he worked with Paul Hollywood for years and always told him he would make it big. I think Gennaro is a magnet for mentoring future stars of cooking TV.
The pasta dishes were to die for, but we also had to try some of the new season dishes from the main menu. I went for the vegetarian buckwheat pancakes with spinach and ricotta filling (below), which arrived as a cheese explosion over the plate. I was intrigued by such an unusual main dish and they were absolutely yummy. The others had meatballs and a lentil salad with avocado and goats cheese.
As we left Gennaro gave us kisses and hoped we'd enjoyed it. Hell yes! I will never forget this amazing experience, and hopefully my pasta dishes will henceforth be less 100% less boring. Jamie's Italian is just one of many fab restaurants in Victoria, which is fast becoming one of the best areas in London for food, drink and entertainment. Nova, Victoria - a new destination due to open next year will feature an exciting dining quarter with restaurants from Jason Atherton, D&D London, and Bone Daddies. This emerging district also has pioneering offices, the St. James Theatre and the stunning Curzon Cinema. Well worth a visit, and maybe you'll see Gennaro checking in on the Victoria branch of Jamie's Italian…. he would lov that.