I haven’t even sat down before Antonio Carluccio is showing me a long piece of wood he “whittled” over the weekend at beachside Lorne. It’s an extraordinary piece of work and I can’t help but look at those big artisan hands that did it, the hands that have made so many beautiful Italian dishes, the hands I have spent so many hours watching chop up stuff.
There’s something quite touching about a 75-year-old man on a busy book tour who finds time to whittle, but then Carluccio is one of the most down-to-earth food superstars you will ever meet.
But it didn’t take that to convince me to be a fan. I’ve loved watching this man since his late-’90s BBC series Antonio Carluccio’s Southern Italian Feast, a videotape for which I would lunge when, for the kids, it was either Carluccio or the Wiggles. God bless Carluccio, you saved me so many times.
I told him this story and he smiled. Carluccio is in Australia to talk about his revealing new memoir, which charts his early life in Italy, the tragic drowning of his 13-year-old brother, his volatile relationship with women, his stellar restaurant, TV and book career and his battle with depression.
But first the really happy news: a year ago Carluccio met a woman at a “solo” party, a gathering of eligible singles. “Apparently the woman who was destined to be paired to me, I didn’t like her,” Carluccio says. “I caught the eye of Sabine … We came to talk about funghi – mushrooms. We came to talk in German – she is German living in England for 20 years. She’s
20 years younger than me, an archaeologist. So all the components which are for me the very quality of life – to be able to discuss anything [are here]. I don’t like the one that prepares the shoes for the evening.
“So we understood each other immediately and we want the same thing, not to stick together all the time, a little bit of space and freedom. She has three children, grown up. We had a meal with the children. I said to them, ‘Don’t expect me to be your father. I am your friend, not your father’. And they were very happy about that. We didn’t say one bad word, it was very good.”
It has been an extraordinary life. In important ways the death of his beloved brother Enrico at age 13 turned out to be a defining moment. After Enrico’s body was brought back from the lake in which he had drowned, Antonio, 10 years older, sat with his brother all night “occasionally wiping his face when some slight discharge leaked from his nose”.
“The depression went for quite a while and I discovered the initial depression was for the death of my little brother,” Carluccio says. “We were a family of six. In a family like this the elder takes care of the younger. I said ‘If ever I have a brother, then I would play the father role for him’. And I did.
“My family didn’t want to talk about it. It was very, very deep.” Just not mentioned? “My mother and my sister, for the occasion, became Jehovah’s Witnesses, which was pretty bad because they believed they could see him again.” Antonio was never a believer in any church or this possibility.
Carluccio has lived in London for 50 years where, for 26, years he ran the Neal Street Restaurant, once owned by his former brother-in-law, Sir Terence Conran (of Habitat and The Conran Shop homewares). At that period of time Carluccio made many TV shows and wrote 13 books about Italian food.
In 1998 he opened the first of a chain of Carluccio’s restaurants across Britain. He has been a much-loved figure in English life and loved also in his native Italy, and, with the shows screening on the ABC, in Australia.
But his struggle with depression wiped away a lot of the happiness success might have brought. One day a few years ago, at the depths of his battle with the illness, Carluccio got a pair of scissors and, he writes, placed the sharpened end at his chest “where I judged my heart to be and, using my body weight, pushed the blade of the scissor in with as much force as I could muster until I felt the tissues give. I was thinking of nothing at the time except preventing the terrible thoughts I was having going round and round in my head.”
The scissors penetrated the pleural cavity close to his lung and Carluccio was rushed to hospital. In an attempt to hide the depression, a statement was issued that he’d had an accident in the kitchen. “That was at the pinnacle,” he says. “And then when I was reading [the newspaper about the incident] I said ‘You don’t need more aggravation than you already have’. I was in the Priory [a treatment centre]. Now everybody knows. And I’m glad that I have done this. It’s a clean sheet. That’s what happened.”
Of depression he says: “It’s a black animal. It’s just like a cloud that lets you think everything negative. It doesn’t matter what it is, positive or whatever. I was very successful, and I wasn’t pleased.”
He felt relief in writing about depression. “I feel completely liberated. This is also to show to other people they don’t need to be feeling something like this because help is at hand. [The book is] just the spirit of somebody that pours out everything, the truth, nothing but the truth, and I am not worried by that because I am strong enough to be OK. I’ve done it. Now is another page. I’m fine now.”
Carluccio wrote the book “to see what pattern my life had taken. Those patterns, they repeat. You don’t see the entire picture but if you put it down on paper then you will see it.”
A few years ago, he writes, he felt there was not much left to live for. “At the time, yes, because I was completely disenchanted by everything, even the successes that I had. I worked quite a lot, to build up [the food brand] Carluccio’s. Then all of a sudden I discovered that my person was the brand and, as such, you are used, even by my ex-wife [Priscilla].”
He realised too late that in the selling of the Carluccio-branded restaurants and delis in 2005 he had also sold the rights to his name. “I left all of the administration to her [Priscilla], she did the contracts, I trusted her. It’s not that I put the fault on her for what happened, but selling the name which I can’t use – I find it like selling yourself for money.”
The many television programs he made for the BBC were early examples of the success relying on the appeal of the presenter. “For me television was a medium to reach other people, not for me to become God,” he says. “Many chefs today believe that without that they are nothing. They put the accent on TV, TV, TV …”
After 26 years running Neal Street, the landlord declined to extend the lease. “I needed another couple of years of the lease and we were talking to the landlord and we were three hours together and they were talking, talking and at the end I lost patience. I said ‘Would you like to give me those two years, yes or no?’,” Carluccio remembers. “[They said] ‘No’. I said the F word, first time in my life. I slammed the door. The people upstairs in the restaurant didn’t know what happened.”
He loved running the businesses. “There was inside the company a philosophy which was very near to me, one of being very friendly to the personnel, to give trust to [them], to give chances, in order for them to stay. And they stayed. So it was not exactly family, but almost.”
The break-up of Carluccio and Priscilla, his wife of 27 years and the sister of Terence Conran, was not happy. “Through the splitting Priscilla thinks she was very hard done by. She still thinks [that].”
Does he get on with Sir Terence? “Never was, really,” he says of that relationship. “Now the daughter of Priscilla who has two children is the only one that gives me the feeling to have grandpa and all of that. But the rest? Wall. Complete wall.”
His relationship with women has been explosive and caused two suicide attempts. “It wasn’t women alone, it was again the entire thing, but mostly [women].”
His first love was a young woman named Inge, “a splendid girl” who was from Vienna, where Carluccio first travelled outside Italy. “After 50 years we are still corresponding and seeing each other,” he says. “It was love, with a big L. But we were too young. So in order to replace that, that sort of intense love, I went from one disaster after the other, looking for a woman who could be similar but in another form.”
He never met that woman, he says [until now]. With his second marriage to Francesca he suspected as early as their wedding night that he’d made a monumental mistake. The marriage lasted seven months.
Did he ever question his judgment about women? “Completely,” he says. “This book is to track which is my fault and the fault of others. Usually it is half and half. My expectation, and all of that. I was really frank, I wanted to be frank because it was for me. I could see the many mistakes that came from wanting something that apparently didn’t exist.”
Which is what? “Love and affection, all in one person. This is possible now because I have Sabine.”
He didn’t have children. “Inge couldn’t have children. Second marriage lasted only 24 hours. And the third one was 27 years but Priscilla already had children.”
Carluccio is 75. “I’m 26 here [points to head], 36 here [points to chest] and then we don’t go further.”
He is still making television, with Two Greedy Italians now screening on SBS. “I think it’s very positive for the very fact that the BBC still want me at my age, preferring me to younger people, it means something I can do.”
I mention Sir David Attenborough still working at 86 and Carluccio at the top of his game. What does that say about our attitude to age? “It says that forget to be a pensioner, because this would be psychologically a letdown. Everybody says ‘Oooh [I get to] retire’. And it’s very stupid because you die. Slowly, but you die.”
So people look forward to retirement, but why? “Exactly. I fortunately can do what I like. On top of that I whittle and keep myself busy with so many things. And this is the joy of life. My soul department is fine. I don’t need to be pre-occupied with that. I don’t need to be worried about that. It’s just fantastic to have a lovely relationship based on truth and not expecting – on both sides – any sort of movement.
“The age? The only thing that worries me is the day I couldn’t move. That would be very bad.”
What’s his energy level? “It’s very good. If you go to one or two of those events where you have to sign hundreds of books and you are eaten by the people, bite by bite, that’s difficult.”
As a little boy, could he have imagined he would have become a very rich man? “Never. I am not very rich, I am fine, but the thing that most brings me joy is the recognition by the Italian government of what I do, even from the British government with the OBE.”
He loves visiting Australia, where he makes sure he catches up with friends Stephanie Alexander, Peter Clemenger (“He’s a lovely man”) and Ronnie di Stasio. “For me Di Stasio food is the real, genuine Italian food, without doubt.”
Has it been a happy life? “In balance I would say yes. The negative things have made me solid. If you see there’s a pattern and you try not to repeat it, it makes you stronger. And the most important thing is to recognise you have something yourself which could need balancing. Altogether I am very fine.”
A Recipe For Life
by Antonio Carluccio
» $39.95 (Hardie Grant)