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A to Z(illi)

Chef Aldo Zilli, who introduced the British to authentic Italian food, on life in and out of the kitchen and his plans for India

It was the evening before Christmas Eve and not a mouse was stirring. At least in Zerruco by Zilli at The Ashok, New Delhi. What was stirring was some wild mushroom risotto, in a saucepan, in the hands of Aldo Zilli. Despite hosting a brunch to launch his debut venture in the country the previous day, which seemingly catered to a large crowd (and here brunch is a bit of a misnomer, given that the meal stretched on well into the night, exhausting the stewards, chefs and nearly all the ingredients in the kitchen), the man continues to cook. Zerruco by Zilli is his first eatery in the country and 19th around the world, the majority of which are centred around London’s Soho area, Zilli’s first home in the UK.

“My first intimation to cooking was through my mother. I was the youngest of nine siblings and so helped out with the cooking a lot. Then, at 16, I spent a year at a catering college, before knocking around Europe, learning and cooking in a bunch of places before I ended up in the UK when I was around 20,” he says, in an accent flavoured with both the Adriatic dialect of native Italy and the cockney of adopted London. “France was both the best and the hardest place. The French laid the foundation of modern cuisine, but their chefs are the hardest taskmasters,” he says.

In ’70s England, Zilli found a thorough lack of authentic Italian cuisine and decided to do something about it. “There wasn’t any real Italian in the Italian food there. I was one of the first chefs there to bring in Italian ingredients like balsamic vinegar, Parmigiano Reggiano and use stuff like rocket leaves,” he says. Zilli’s take on Italian food found him many new friends in London, including a galaxy of stars. Celebrities flocked to Zilli’s restaurants, which began to mushroom all over London. He was also the first Italian chef to cook on a British channel. “I think India is where London was in the ’80s, in terms of Italian food. Everyone was going gaga over it. This is my first visit to the country and it’s amazing to see how knowledgeable people are about the cuisine and how excited they get about food in general,” he says.

Though on his maiden Indian voyage, Zilli is no stranger to Indian food. “We eat Indian food both at home and restaurants. In fact, this expansion to India is the result of a conversation I had with a friend of a friend. He said ‘India is mad about Italian food, you have to come out here’, and well, here I am,” he says. His friend? Atul Kochhar, the Michelin-starred Indian chef, who runs Benares, the celebrated eatery in Mayfair, London.

Zerruco by Zilli, the first of “three restaurants in three years”, plans to serve rustic Italian fare, including antipasti, wood fired pizza, pasta and desserts, apart from a large wine selection. “We flew in a team of Italian chefs to train the staff here, and I will be coming back every three months to supervise the changing of the menu because I like to keep my food as seasonal as possible,” he says.

Indeed, besides a chain of restaurants and several TV shows, Zilli is known for his commitment to seasonal, fresh produce and has written a number of cookbooks based on that philosophy. Born to a farming family living in the small seaside town of Alba Adriatica in the central Italian region of Abruzzo, he has a passion for local and sustainable ingredients. “Whatever Delhi has to offer, we will cook,” he says, explaining that except for some key ingredients, he would use local produce to stock his larders and fridges. “Anyway, I’m a chef. You give me anything and I can cook it,” he adds. Despite his determination to use as much Indian produce as possible, Zilli won’t compromise on flavour. “We are going to keep our palate as close to authentic Italian as possible. The whole point of going to a nice Italian, or whatever cuisine, restaurant is to eat that particular food in its truest form. So no, unless the guest specifically asks for it, we are not going to tweak the dishes or up their spice level,” he says. “However, we have made a spicy sauce, using local ingredients, so that diners can season their dishes as they like,” he adds.

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