Locatelli unpacked: a meeting with Chef Giorgio in Dubai
IF YOU HAVE been a UAE resident for any amount of time, you'll most likely be aware of this chef's name above the door at his Atlantis The Palm restaurant, Ronda Locatelli. However, if you are a fine dining aficionado or even have a passing interest in major international cooking TV shows, you will feel on familiar terms with the Italian maestro. This was our experience as we greeted the 56-year-old at Ronda this week as he paid a visit to Dubai in order to run his expert eye on how the eatery was faring. Having watched Giorgio Locatelli's BBC exploits for almost two decades on shows including Italy Unpacked and more recently on Netflix's The Big Family Cooking Show, his off screen persona is thankfully as ebullient and enthusiastic as when the cameras are rolling. We approached our intimate meeting table where, upon peering up from his signature translucent-framed specs, the chef rose and outstretched a hand to shake ours with gusto. We sat and almost immediately had to launch into an IMDb page recital, ticking off his past television work we had enjoyed.
"You know they made me a Cavalieri (knight) in Sicily because of Sicily Unpacked," he said with a laugh once we had exhausted our super fan act. The 2012 series saw Locatelli and British art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon travel around the Mediterranean hotspot: Graham-Dixon unearthing the abundant architectural and artistic treasures and Locatelli sourcing bountiful fresh produce to prepare the duo meals. The presenter pairing made for compelling TV to such an extent Locatelli was awarded by the local Sicilian government for increasing British tourism numbers to the island.
"They (British) were always a little bit scared of Sicily. They just thought 'mafia'. But after Sicily Unpacked they had to double the number of flights from London.
"My dad must have been turning in his grave thinking 'what do you mean you're promoting Sicily? You're almost Swiss!'"
The Locatelli family hails from the northern Italian town of Corgeno. Giorgio's uncle ran a restaurant, exposing the inquisitive budding chef to a working kitchen environment from an early age. After becoming a jobbing cook and steadily rising the ranks in his native country, the professional moved to England in 1986 to work in London's legendary The Savoy hotel. After four years he relocated to Paris, but in 1995 returned to the UK capital to open Knightsbridge's Zafferano where he made his name - gaining a Michelin Star in 1999.
Mission: Middle East
Locatelli's Dubai restaurant journey, he told us, began almost 20 years ago. Around 2001, the chef arrived in a town on the cusp of becoming the metropolis it is today.
"Back then the Hyatt group wanted to do an Italian restaurant so we came down. You could see there was something happening but at that time there was just Sheikh Zayed Road and a few hotels, but I was fascinated. There was a great demand for the food because the food culture here hadn't been established. I liked that."
A few years passed and, through Locatelli's association with Southern Sun Resorts founder Sol Kerzner and his son Butch - key players in Atlantis' development - he found himself discussing the possibility of opening a marquee restaurant. Although, upon first inspection of Atlantis' proposed site at the top of The Palm before a single brick had been laid, Locatelli remained dubious.
"We got a helicopter here because there was no trunk. There was this strip of sand with four boats spitting out more sand onto it. We landed and Butch was explaining how everything was going to be. In my experience of the way London works, I thought we'd open in 40 years. I thought he was mad and told my wife it was never going to happen. Four years later we opened. It was incredible."
Now celebrating its 12th anniversary as one of Atlantis' landmark culinary attractions, Locatelli describes Ronda as a 'beast'.
"Sometimes people have to produce a large amount, but the quality suffers. Here we push out crazy numbers but the quality is always the best. It takes a lot. The drive is so amazing."
He says ambition runs throughout the hotel using Nobu Matsuhisa's eponymous venue and Gordon Ramsay's Bread Street Kitchen both sat a few paces away as examples of the property's aspirational qualities.
"It reflects what has happened in Dubai. You have the best chefs in the world represented in some way all together, which nobody would have thought possible a couple of decades ago."
Rivalry in the celebrity chef world, as opposed to perhaps the sporting or entertainment realms, appears to be far lower key than one would expect. Akin to the recent Fury-Wilder boxing bout, in an equally competitive field we often anticipate a few barbs to be cast out to fellow restaurateurs in order to gain an upper hand. However, Locatelli confirmed the atmosphere is on the whole harmonious and even friendly when the neighbours come to call.
"When you cross paths with Nobu it is fantastic. He comes over and he wants to make a pizza all the time. We have been working on this raw pizza, but I am always telling him you have to put it in the oven.
"I have been friends with Gordon for a long time. We worked together when we were very young and have a great relationship."
Locatelli's Dubai visits often coincide with the much-lauded white truffle season towards the end of the year. Ronda prides itself on offering the finest dishes in which you can experience the valuable Piedmont mushroom. It is a topic close to the chef's heart.
"Truffle is a great expression of the biodiversity of a territory," he explained. "Anything that is not natural will disturb the balance and will upset truffle growth.
"The reason they are so expensive is because the season is very short and unpredictable. It has become better with these mobile phones. If a picker finds one he can take a picture and send it and sell it there and then. They are always in contact."
Locatelli has two agents sourcing him the finest truffles one of which is a longtime family associate in Alba whose father used to conduct the same business with Locatelli's grandfather.
"What makes people want something? It's because they can't have it. Why do you want an Aston Martin? Because they don't make enough for everyone, you have to wait two years. You want it. That's the same with truffles. And then I think there is some primordial smell and flavour - there's something about the nature between the vegetable and animal which makes you want it."
And the best way to experience a white truffle?
"It must be served with the most simple thing. Anything with protein or starch. For me the best thing to have with truffle is a risotto. Rice holds the heat, so you have those volatile compounds which keep coming and get stronger and stronger as you eat it."
When demand for traditional Italian recipes is so high, how much room for innovation is there on one of your menus?
"What is an Italian meal? That is very difficult to say. For someone from Sicily it is one thing, for someone from Tuscany it is something completely different. It's based on historical values and availability of produce. Today in Palermo it is 26 degrees centigrade, but up north people are skiing. It's the same nation but it is so different, so the 'Italian meal' as one doesn't really exist.
"The world has an idea Italian food is pizza and pasta because immigrants in the early and mid 20th century took an idea of our food with them. When they arrived their meals took shape with what surrounded them. American Italian food is the way it is because you have a lot of meat in the US. Poor Italians when they arrived in New York in the 1900s went from eating meat once a year to once a day. That's how you get spaghetti with meatballs. Native Italians could never imagine that.
"When it comes to innovation, the world is changing. There is a need to focus on certain trends and ingredients. Italian food lends itself very well to vegetarianism, to veganism. Before immigration we had to make a lot out of carrots and beans for hundreds of years! We can go back to those recipes. But the question also has to be how much do we want to innovate? Can you better a lasagne? If one day I have this inspiration and can make it better I will try, but at the moment it can't be better."