Theo Randall: talking Italian
Life at the River Cafe, going solo and where to find the best steak in south west London. Theo Randall talks to Chantal Borciani
Theo Randall believes ingredients are everything. “I’m not a fan of over complicated food. Simple as that. I like the ingredient to taste of the ingredient and menu descriptions not to sound like planning permission,” the former head chef of the iconic River Cafe explains.
It was under Theo’s direction that the River Cafe won its first Michelin Star in 1997 and today Theo Randall at The InterContinental on Park Lane is still consistently voted one of the UK’s best Italian restaurants.
His passion for Italian cuisine began early, he says, at home in Hampton Court where his mother opened his eyes to the joy of cooking. “I grew up in a family where food was very important. I would always be involved in cooking – it was just part of life. My mum was always baking and cooking and she had a love for Italian food. So I was the kid that went to school with homemade bread and the gorgonzola sandwich while everyone else was eating Mother’s Pride ham and cheese sarnies,” Theo laughs.
“We would go on holidays to Italy. I remember thinking the first time I ate spaghetti a la vongole, this is the most amazing thing ever.”
A river runs through it
His parents encouraged him to become a chef and despite originally training in classic French cuisine at Chez Max in Surbiton – a “brilliant apprenticeship” – it was Italian food that still had Theo’s heart.
Theo joined Ruth Rogers and Rose Grey at the then up-and-coming River Cafe in 1989. “It was really a case of being in the right place at the right time. The restaurant was just beginning to evolve and the food was very much influenced by Rose and Ruthie’s travels. We used to go out to Italy, to these amazing unheard of little restaurants serving very different dishes to the Italian cuisine London was used to,” he says.
In 1991 he left the Hammersmith riverbank to work with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in California for a year. “I experienced this amazing San Francisco dining scene that was all about organic produce and what was coming in from small growers in Napa. That’s really stuck with me ever since, you know, writing a menu around what produce you have.”
“I remember thinking the first time I ate spaghetti a la vongole, this is the most amazing thing ever.”
When he returned, Theo was made head chef of the River Cafe and the good times flowed.
“We just went from straight to strength, we won a Michelin star and amazing people came through the kitchens,” he adds.
“I remember going to markets in the middle of the night to get the veg from some of these guys that were growing vegetables out in Suffolk and Sussex. And they were bringing in all this organic produce – at a time when Covent Garden market thought organic was all a bit weird!”
After some 17 years by the river, Theo felt the pull to open his own restaurant. In 2006 he opened Theo at The InterContinental, which won best Italian restaurant of the year within its first 12 months. “It’s the food I love to cook. It’s obviously inspired by Italy and the River Cafe but it’s always about the ingredients. We buy everything on a daily
basis and the menu changes depending on what’s in season.”
Having spent the vast majority of his career in London, Theo has a who’s who of favourite places to eat in the capital. “My daughter goes to school in South Kensington and I’m very familiar with south west London. The Aux Merveilleux de Fred bakery makes the best croissant and French brioche in London. I pretty much have breakfast there four or five times a week. My daughter and I always try and leave a little bit early on the school run so we have time to get a croissant and a coffee there.
“Macellaio RC in south Kensington is the best place to get steak in London,” he continues. “The meat is just so good. My friend Roberto Costa owns it and he’s such a great restaurateur – when you go there it’s like going to a little part of Tuscany. He has a fantastic array of wines in his cellar and in my opinion there’s no better place to have a bistecca alla Fiorentina.”
Macellaio RC has also opened on Clapham’s Northcote Road, which like its Kensington sibling also boasts an on site butcher and fantastic steak.
“The other place I love going is Bottega Del Pane [on Kingston Road in Wimbledon]. It’s just so Italian. It’s a great café and they make proper altamura bread, which makes the most incredible bruschetta. They supply loads of top places including the River Cafe and they make the best panettone I’ve ever tasted.”
On summer evenings, Theo says there are fewer better places to escape to than Chelsea’s Physic Garden. “The Tangerine Dream Café does a lovely pop up dinner offering on Tuesdays and Wednesdays during the summer and it is incredible value for money. Chelsea’s Physic Garden is like an oasis in London and the café is lovely during the day as well. It does great cakes.”
Echoing his own childhood, Theo’s summer holidays are still spent in Italy. “We go to Puglia. I love it there. I just find Italian cuisine so inspiring because it’s food you can eat every day it’s actually very healthy. I love the passion and the confidence in what they cook. I love the simplicity of it,” he enthuses.
Theo is the first one up, getting to the local burrata shop by 9am or 10am because otherwise the shop sells out of the oozy goodness. Then it’s off to the bread stall and fish shop in Ostuni. “It’s called Nautilus and it has the most incredible fresh fish. I’m always stopping by the roadside to pick the wild fennel. Then it’s usually a nice long lunch outside, a snooze and a book.” He says friends are always coming over, but hosting makes him happy. “It’s the perfect holiday for me. I love it. Cooking for family and friends is the nicest thing because it’s just so relaxing.”