Just over a week ago, an Italian friend Antonella got in touch to say she’d like to introduce me to a Sicilian chef. With my love of Italy and Italian food, meeting a Sicilian chef was an offer too good to resist and the next day I found myself sitting in the Knightsbridge branch of Fratelli La Bufala and being introduced to Enzo Oliveri, also known as The Sicilian Chef. Over a glass of a wonderful prosecco and – of course! – some gorgeous buffalo mozzarella, flown in from Naples that morning, we three talked food, Italy and life for a while and I asked if I could go back to interview Enzo another day.
I met Enzo at their flagship restaurant in Shaftesbury Avenue, just a little way up Piccadilly Circus. It was quite early so we found a quiet place upstairs to sit and talk. Before we began, Enzo got one of the waiters to take photos – so here we are together!
One of the things I love most about interviewing chefs is their amazing passion for what they do. Many of the chefs I’ve interviewed have told me that they knew at a young age they wanted to cook. But I think knowing what you want to do with your life at the age of six – and actually following it through – must be a record. Enzo told me that – as in most Italian homes – food was a very important thing. His mother would bring him a coffee (very milky, I was assured) to his bed in the morning before school to wake him up. And then she’d ask him what he wanted for lunch. Barely before he’d opened his eyes, he was having to think about food. There was always a lot of activity in the kitchen, Enzo told me. He’s one of six children but also cousins would come in after school, neighbours and other family, and there was always enough food to feed maybe 20 people. His mother would prepare plenty – just in case!
Enzo described how one day he was in a bar with family and could see cooks making pastry behind a glass partition and he asked the owner if he could go and look and help. He described how it felt to him: it was as if he was on a stage with all the stainless steel around him and food being cooked. That’s when the passion began: he wanted to be a chef. And he was only six!
It was only a couple of years later that Enzo got a job delivering bread for the local baker. But he knew what he really wanted to do was to make the bread. Slowly he was allowed into the kitchen to help cook. A crate was provided to make him high enough to reach the worktop. He was 8.
True ambition set in when he was 14. Already he knew he wanted to work with the best people in the best restaurants. The best restaurant in Palermo at the time was Roney’s (now closed). Although still at school, Enzo found work there in the kitchen, learning all he could. Aged 15 he got work in the Zagarella Hotel – the best hotel and still there. He felt he’d made it. But soon his ambitious feet wanted to move on … the hotel had catered for many different nationalities and Enzo knew that he had to learn more about other cuisines so he moved to Belgium, where he had relatives. But that was too small and his real ambition was to work in London.
He came to London in 1979 and got his first job here in Bacco 70 in Old Compton Street, Soho. But soon he was ready to move on again and learn more. He took a job at an Indian restaurant at Marble Arch which taught him a lot about the use of spices and the food of different cultures. But after a while he wanted a greater challenge and moved to Trust House Forte’s St George’s Hotel in Regent Street right by the BBC TV Centre, which meant they had lots of BBC customers. All the while, he was studying at Westminster College – famous for its catering and cooking courses (Jamie Oliver, Ainsley Harriott and others went there).
His next move was to Germany. He couldn’t speak the language and despite his now extensive experience cooking in excellent kitchens, he took a job doing the washing up in the Munich Hilton, telling them that once he’d learnt the language he wanted to be a manager. It took him only 3 months to speak German well enough to get the promotion he was looking for and he was appointed manager of one of the restaurants.
Next stop was Princess Cruises and with the money he made from this work he had enough to open his own restaurant back in Sicily – in Palermo. He was 23. A friend lent him the extra money he needed and the restaurant became an immediate success. After a year and a half, he sold the restaurant at a profit and was looking for bigger things. But, ever looking to the bigger and long-term future, he put his money in a bank and went in search of more and different experience. He found that at Disney World in Florida where he became manager of the Epcot Centre with 150 staff working under him.
His ex-wife was English and they eventually agreed to return to UK where Enzo got a job at the Hilton Park Lane. Here he cooked for the famous – including Princess Diana, and he told me how special that was. But he wanted to open his own restaurant and found a perfect place – a jewel – in Cefalu back in Sicily. Enzo’s love for this place shone through as he described its perfect location by the sea. (He told me that years later when he made a TV programme in Sicily with Gordon Ramsay, Ramsay asked why on earth he’d ever sold it.) Enzo described with pride but not the least arrogance how he changed the way the village – and then the whole of Sicily – looked at food and ate. All restaurants until then had offered pretty much the same food. Not only did he add variety and innovative ways of cooking but he changed the way people ate. He introduced the idea of eating outside, on the beach, having parties on the beach, concerts during meals. ‘People were eating out of the box,’ he said. He talked about how there’s a lot of psychology involved in making a restaurant successful. You have to understand what people want but also important is understanding where trends are going and be there before everyone else.
After nearly 5 years of success, his English wife was restless to return home and leave the small town. Enzo was reluctant but someone came and offered to buy the restaurant. Enzo resisted and finally, pressurised to consider an offer, named a ridiculously high price. The keen buyer got out their cheque book and wrote the cheque. Enzo, a man of honour, felt he had to accept. Now he’d have to return to London.
Back in London he wanted to open his own restaurant again, but not with his name attached to it. ‘It’s like being in jail,’ he told me, because then people expect that you will always be there. Also, he wanted time to look at what was happening now on the London restaurant scene. He also took time to learn about equipment. He told me that when things go wrong and equipment doesn’t work it can cost a fortune for someone to come and do a small job to get it working again; and it can hold up service. So now Enzo became a restaurant handyman too!
He was ready to make his next move and opened a restaurant in Bromley – SE London. The lease was expensive but he was confident. The restaurant – La Pasta – he hoped would be the first of a chain. He felt the British only knew about spaghetti and lasagna but there are so many other pastas. People could come to his restaurant and choose all kinds of different pastas. Soon the queue for La Pasta was so long he had to rent an upstairs room to accommodate people waiting for a table. The success led him to look for a second restaurant and when a huge one became available just down the road from La Pasta he knew he couldn’t open another Italian one so close, so he opened a Spanish one instead. Spain was the top holiday destination so a popular cuisine. Next stop was Brighton where he opened another Spanish restaurant. Four years later after more success, Zizzi bought him out.
The recession came in 2008. By now he was doing a lot of work as The Sicilian Chef in London. He had to look at what kind of place would survive and work well in a recession. And he was still ambitious to open a chain of restaurants. He was then approached by Fratelli La Bufala. This provided Enzo with the structure of a chain and he is now one of 2 partners in the UK. The restaurants (and I’ll write about them in more detail another time) offer the kind of flexibility we look for now: you can go in at any time for a snack, a full meal, an aperitivo; whatever suits you best at any time of day. But Enzo’s ambition and enthusiasm haven’t faltered: he’s always looking for new challenges. He works as The Sicilian Chef for the Italian government; opened a cookery school in Bromley; has appeared on TV and at many food events. He’s cooked for the famous: apart from Princess Diana he’s cooked for John Travolta, Madonna and even the Archbishop of Canterbury. He appeared with Gordon Ramsay in a series about weird food and they cooked octopus; he’s made a series with Aldo Zilli for the Italian tourist board and there’s another 10-part series coming up. He teaches at West London college and is official chef for the Italian cycle team so will travel with them to the World Cup next year. He’s also official chef for Alitalia – the Italian airline.
Enzo talked of his love of teaching, of sharing and inspiring others – particularly children – to cook. He’s made a programme with Michael Roux Jr for Channel 4 – to be shown at the end of this month – about cooking for the disabled because he wants to encourage the disabled to work in kitchens. Despite all this – and a new restaurant opening in Sevenoaks on 30 September (Osteria Chatwell – ‘my baby’) – Enzo doesn’t neglect his restaurants. Though rarely cooking – other than at events, for famous or special people, or lucky friends at home – he’s always checking up on them. He’ll go into a branch and order something. He told me how he recognised recently that the chef had used the wrong kind of peperocino! He’s also in the kitchens when there are new dishes to work on, getting their preparation right. He’s well aware of the importance of not losing your connection with the base of your industry and company. You need to always know what’s happening; check standards don’t slip.
I was rather bowled over by Enzo. Wow! What enthusiasm; what ambition; what achievement. But the man himself is modest, very likeable, easy to be with – and was generous and kind to this blogger with his time. I just love this kind of passion for one’s work; what you do in life. It was good to see that for Enzo this is a ongoing process – there is always something new, better, exciting; something to strive for. Yet I could see – as he talked about his sons – that his family are important to him too.
So now, the only thing left for me to do is quickly go back to Fratelli La Bufala for a meal!!!