Italian dishes are popular all over the world – but some of the best in Bangkok are cooked by a British chef! Theo Randall is the IHG Culinary Ambassador overseeing Italian Cuisine, and with over 25 years’ experience along with his own restaurant at the InterContinental London Park Lane, there could be few better choices for the role. Diners in Thailand will therefore be delighted to learn that Theo’s first restaurant outside the UK is now open – Theo Mio at the InterContinental Hotel, Phloen Chit, Bangkok. Hotelintel.co recently had the opportunity to talk with Chef Theo, and this is what he had to say.
One is definitely olive oil, the most important ingredient for Italian cooking; second is garlic, because that’s the key for increasing the flavor. Another ingredient I love is tomatoes – I always have to have a jar of Italian passata to bring out the flavor in pasta sauces and it’s the most wonderful thing for soups.
Funnily enough, spaghetti with tomatoes. It’s one of those things I’ve always loved cooking. As a child I used to cook with my mother – she was a very good baker – but to cook as a child is the most exciting thing because you’re learning as you go along. I think it’s really important to teach your children how to cook. I’ve taught my children to cook…they’re OK. Everyone should learn how to cook a simple dish. To this day my favorite dish to cook is still spaghetti with tomato sauce.
I think it’s very much about seasonality and simplicity. I don’t overwork dishes or over elaborate. I keep them simple. That doesn’t mean they’re easy but it means they still have the true flavors of the ingredients. If you have great quality ingredients you shouldn’t muck around with them too much. My philosophy is less is more – you can cook great dishes by not overworking them.
Adapting involves making the seasoning a little bit more obvious and giving stronger flavor profiles. We bring out the key flavors that people can understand. Everyone loves pasta, especially the fine pasta, or risotto, but people like a little more punch in there, so with lobster, for example, we roast the shells to bring out the flavor. On the whole, people are becoming more educated about Italian food, it’s not just pizza, pasta, cream and cheese.
I’m not a fan of fusion – I find fusion is confusion and I don’t like mixing things. When you mix too many ingredients and too many seasonings I don’t think it works. For me, I love all types of cuisine, Chinese, Italian, Indian, but I always try to separate them. And I’d never cook spaghetti in a wok.
Great Italian meals are made from having a nice combination of ingredients. The classic meal has the antipasti; could be artichokes, vegetables, salami, olives, cheese – delicious but simple, and with a lovely bread, focaccia for instance. Always have a primi, pasta or risotto, but not huge portions. And for the main course, the secondi, you’d always have the protein, maybe it’s a whole fish baked in sea salt, or a grilled piece of meat. A good Italian meal is a sharing meal where everyone sits together, with some nice wine. It’s a social event, it’s a lengthy thing, and it should be over a minimum of three courses.
The Mediterranean diet is proven to be the healthiest diet there is. Everything is good for you in moderation, and you need carbohydrates in small quantities. Having a nice balance is good, and that’s why Italian food is one of the best. Think about the three-course meal, the antipasti have a lot of vegetables, followed by the pasta for carbohydrates, and then the protein, so that balance is good for you. A lot of people associate Italian food with being very heavy and rich with lots of cream, but that’s not Italian food. Italian food has olive oil and a lot of vegetables. There’s a huge interest in vegan food now. In London I do a vegan tasting menu. We don’t do it here as the market here doesn’t ask for that yet, although we do a lot of vegetarian dishes.
All the ingredients here are local, the vegetables come from Chiang Mai, all the cheeses that we use come from Bangkok. Cheese must be fresh so unless it’s a mature cheese you can’t import it from Italy. All the fish is local fish and all the meat is local except for the beef – we tend to buy Australian – so we keep the food miles down. Wastage is zero. A good Italian kitchen is a frugal kitchen. We use everything we can, we use all the trimmings, the side bits for things like the pasta, and that’s how it should be.
Lead by example, and maintain a calm manner. If you do too much screaming and shouting it doesn’t work. And have a 50-50 balance of boys and girls in the kitchen. If you have too many boys there’s too much testosterone and there’s a bit of aggression, so you need the girls for healthy competition and to keep the boys calm.
Always trust your instinct, if you don’t use it then you can’t move on. Being a chef is hard work, and it’s not as glamorous as everyone thinks it is, but if you do the hard work, and you listen and you learn from people who know more than you, and you accept that they know more than you, then you’ll go a long way. But you need dedication. And never give up.