TV chef Gennaro Contardo teaches cooking at Jamie’s Italian in St Albans

WITH its authentic produce and passionate style of service, it would seem impossible that Jamie’s Italian restaurant could get any more similar to the country that it takes inspiration from.

But that notion was knocked on the head last week when TV personality and mentor to the Naked Chef, Gennaro Contardo, turned up in the city to teach a St Albans mother all he knows about ‘la dolce vita’ and cooking.

Blanche Smith from St Albans won a competition to be tutored by the renowned chef, who is one half of the Two Greedy Italians, by filling in a card at Jamie’s Italian asking whereabouts Gennaro came from in Italy.

A genius in the kitchen and a natural born teacher, Gennaro revelled in sharing his love of food with Blanche. She was shown all the usual workings of an Italian kitchen including how to make fresh pasta and ravioli from scratch, and a flurry of activities filled up her cooking experience.

Parmesan was grated, prosciutto was chopped, and spinach and ricotta were mixed and seasoned to perfection. After all the preparation Gennaro cooked Blanche’s handmade ravioli and let her tuck into a well-deserved lunch, which was quickly hailed ‘bellissimo!’

Blanche, a self-confessed fan of cooking, thought the day was amazing and lots of fun. She said: “He’s quite captivating and engaging, and he helps you learn. He makes you want to do well!”

Her tenacity to learn and enthusiasm certainly struck a chord with the chef who appeared to enjoy their meeting as much as she did.

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Gennaro enthused: “She was the star. When she came in this morning she had a really smiley face, a really foodie face, with her eyes almost shaking. I teach classes a lot, I do a lot of competitions as well, but today I found there was something extra. I usually do them very quickly but this time I took my time.”

The duo’s kitchen for the day, Jamie’s Italian on Chequer Street, opened in St Albans on February 6, and was the first of its kind in Herts. Gennaro played a huge part in the development of the now 34-strong chain, and creates recipes as well as training chefs.

Speaking of his friend and business partner Jamie he explained: “When I met him, he was a very young boy. He was so young, that I have children myself and Jamie is now one of them.”

Gennaro was so impressed with Jamie’s ability during their time working together at Antonio Carluccio’s Neal Street restaurant that he decided to mentor him. He revealed: “I thought my god I’ve got so much experience but I can never find anyone to give it to. My children didn’t want to know, and I already loved him so much. There was something – you know it’s Jamie – you cannot help but love a person like that. So I called him and said from now on you are under my wing, everything I know I will show you.”

The pair developed a close relationship over the years, so going into business together seemed a natural next step. Their inspiration for the popular restaurant chain stems directly from the Italian way of life.

Gennaro said: “Everybody eating well – this is what it’s about at Jamie’s Italian, and I’m so pleased when we do these competitions and a young girl like Blanche comes along. It makes me proud. This is what it’s about. Love and passion.”

‘Love and passion’ is a phrase Gennaro favours, and a lesson from his own teacher when he was young that he is keen for Blanche and others he has ‘mentored’ to learn. He explained: “What that chef taught me and educated me about was honesty, love, and passion.”

Gennaro explained that one of the main reasons Jamie wanted to open the Italian chain was to give back, and to help and teach others: “He said, ‘big boy, think how many people we can employ. Think how many families we can feed, how many people we can teach how to cook, how many people we can educate about good food. Think of the work we will do. You need to give something back; you gave it to me, let’s give it to somebody else as well.”

“We’ve been working very hard together, and every single day I’m going to every single restaurant. Yesterday I was in Gatwick. I put my jacket on and cook with the chefs. Jamie is so busy sometimes he can’t visit so he asks me to send him a picture, I have to take a picture of wherever I’m going.”

With more books and TV shows on the horizon, and more trips to Jamie’s Italians up and down the country, Gennaro has no intentions of retiring any time soon, as he pointed out: “How can you give up something you like, how can you give up something you love, how can you give up something which is also good for everybody else – you can’t.”

The famous chef only had good things to say about the city he was visiting for the competition. Having been here many times before, he gushed: “I love St Albans, I always love St Albans. Do you know why I love St Albans? It reminds me there’s a little bit of Italy, because of the Romans. Here there is everything, and the people are very nice, the countryside is beautiful. St Albans is beautiful.”