'Vito' by Aldo Zilli

17th January 2014 at 00:00
The Italian superchef recalls a life of extremes under a mentor who was a genius with food - when he wasn't hurling it in his student's face

School? I don't remember school. Do you know how old I am? I have socks older than you. I remember catering college, in Pescara, east Italy, and a really tough teacher there. An incredibly tough chef. His first name was Vito but I'm sorry to say I have forgotten his surname. He was old then so, wow, he must be long gone by now. I was 17, so it was 40 years ago. Oh my God, 40 years.

The thing with Vito was, if you couldn't do what he wanted you to do, you got thrown out. There was no mollycoddling, no method. He expelled people in the blink of an eye. I was expelled twice, the first time for cooling stock down the wrong way. I put it under cold running water rather than leaving it in a cool area. Out I went.

The second time, that was the most important. Vito booted me out because I couldn't make pancakes the way he liked them. Not pancakes as you know them but really thin pancakes, the kind that replace pasta in some lasagnas where I'm from. If you want to know how much of an impact this man had on me, all you have to do is look at Guinness World Records. I made so many pancakes in an attempt to impress Vito that I became fast. Really fast. I hold the world record for the number of pancake flips in a minute: 117. But I owe him more than just that record.

I grew up with tough teaching, from him and my father, but I have gone the opposite way. I didn't think that kind of teaching was very pleasant so I am far more compassionate.

I remember my dad didn't want me to be a chef. All the cooks in those days were women and he thought it was a woman's job - he wanted me working in a factory. But I just wanted to get back into class and convince Vito I was worth it. Get back to learning from this guy. And I managed it, I got back in.

Later, Vito was asked to be an executive chef in a restaurant in Germany and guess which poor fool he convinced to go with him? Me. That's where my career began.

Now, perhaps you'd think he would soften towards me after choosing me to go with him. No. It got worse. He threw everything at me: pans, eggs, the guy even threw a whole chicken at my head. I had chicken all over my face. He was so temperamental.

I will never forget the fights he would have with front of house. There's always an issue between front of house and back of house but in those days it was even worse. We don't like front of house because they earn more than us, you see? It's one of those things that you can't help, because they get tips. That's why chefs resent front of house: they work less and they make more.

Anyway, where was I? Vito. Most of my cooking is an evolution from or influenced by this man. My food is his food. Sicilian seafood, with influences from the South of France. That was Vito. Tough, but a true genius.

Aldo Zilli is chef consiliere for the San Carlo group of restaurants in the UK. He was talking to Tom Cullen


Aldo Zilli

Born: 26 January 1956, Alba Adriatica, Italy

Education: Local primary and secondary schools in Italy, followed by catering college

Career: After an apprenticeship in the kitchens of Continental Europe, Zilli moved to the UK in 1976, later establishing his own chain of restaurants in London.

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