Theo Randall's Puglia

A fascination for Italy was fed in London’s River Café, where Theo was head chef. Today, with restaurants in Hong Kong, Bangkok and London, he still spreads the love for the country, especially his favourite region

Theo Randall's Puglia Photo

When it came to childhood holidays for the Randall family, it was always art that dominated the itinerary. With dad Peter an architect, mum Rosemary an artist and two older sisters [Justine and Claudia] who would both end up in the art business, a young Theo would have little say in the bulk of the agenda. ‘Our holidays were always based on art and going to amazing museums and galleries, which is a nice thing to have done, looking back now,’ he says, ‘but at the time it felt intensely boring, so my thing was always to pick a restaurant.’

That choice was often Italian. ‘My mother used to cook from Elizabeth David’s Italian Food cookbook. She would bake bread three times a week and I’d go to school with these kind of homemade bread and Gorgonzola sandwiches – everyone else had plastic bread sandwiches with ham and cheese in them, so I was the odd one out. I had to pop to the corner shop and buy a pack of crisps to make myself look a bit more normal.’

When he turned 18 and decided to train as a chef, Theo’s eventual gastronomic direction was mapped out for him. He’d already been picking up kitchen experience in a French bistro and began his professional career at Chez Max, under Max Magarian, before hearing about a new opening – an Italian.

‘I went to the River Café and met Rose [Gray] and Ruth [Rogers], and we just hit it off. I loved the style of food; it was just so simple and so nice. There were lots of big chargrill things, roasted grouse and lots of lovely whole fish like grilled red mullet, but all these things were quite unusual back then.’

As head chef and partner, Theo spent a total of 15 years at the River Café, helping it to a Michelin star and iconic status in the pantheon of restaurants.

The team would regularly visit Italy to discover new produce, wines and flavours. ‘We’d go on these wine trips and get taken to restaurants that were off the beaten track,’ recalls Theo. ‘They’d have wonderful wood- fired ovens and there’d be no menu – it would just be the nonna who’d come out, and say, “Well, we’ve got this, this or this...”

‘Back then, we’d be trying these incredible wines from young wine producers that are really famous now, with wines for hundreds of pounds per bottle. But they weren’t known then and it was sort of amazing to be part of that from the beginning.’

Although Theo had shares in the restaurant, the time came to move on and he found a new home at the InterContinental, where he could have his own wood-fired oven, and continue his love affair with Italy, specifically the Puglian region in the country’s south. ‘We go there every year,’ he says, ‘two or three times.

‘I remember the first time, and having a plate of ricci di mari (sea urchins); it was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. It was the ricci di mari season, so on every corner you’d find a bucket of them for sale.

‘That’s the thing about Italy,’ he continues. ‘It’s so much about what’s in season. If you went during the spring, say, you’d find peas, artichokes, broads beans and asparagus being sold everywhere – and that’s all they’d be selling, nothing else.

‘What I love about Puglia is the fact that it’s so simple,’ he explains. ‘You’ve got the best of both worlds: you’re right by the sea, so you’ve got the amazing restaurants and fish from the coast; then you drive 10 miles inland and all you’ll see is meat and vegetables – they won’t even cook fish, it’s that particular.’ The landscape, he says, takes you from the ocean, via miles of olive trees, to a very green interior of tiny medieval hilltop villages and towns, all painted white to deflect the sun. And, of course, the region’s famous trulli houses (‘like little smurf houses with these curved roofs’).

‘Each town has its own market day and they grow everything – a lot of the Italian produce we get over here is grown in Puglia,’ he says. ‘The vegetables you see in the market are incredible.

‘The famous dish in Puglia is fave e cicoria, which is broad beans smashed into a paste with olive oil, ’he explains. ‘Then you take the cicoria, which is really cultivated dandelion (a bunch costs you one euro and it’s enough to feed about 20 people), and fry it with garlic and chillies in olive oil – everything uses tonnes of olive oil. You fry greens in this flavoured oil and put them on top of the purée, then it’s eaten with little bits of toasted bread. This is the kind of staple food they have.

‘The farmers’ breakfast would be these rock-hard bread rolls,’ he continues. ‘They put one in their pocket with a tomato or whatever and, when they’re hungry, they pour water on the bread roll to make it expand, then put tomato, a bit of salt, some dried herbs and olive oil on top: simple and delicious.’ When you get to the coast, the cuisine shifts again, he explains. ‘You go to places like Gallipoli and the fish you get there is unlike any you get in other parts of Italy. The water is so clean and they have these prawns that are purple in colour. They blanch them in water for a second, and then put them in a bucket of ice so they don’t carry on cooking, and you just eat them like that, – no lemon, no olive oil, just the prawn as it is.’

‘You can order a couple of spiedini and veal chops, then sit down with a flask of wine and some antipasti while they cook it up'

Several dishes, including orecchiette – the region’s famous ear-shaped pasta – have made the journey from their Puglian roots to Theo’s menu, but one thing that can’t make the trip is the places and the people. ‘ You’ve got Lecce, with its beautiful architecture, which they call the Florence of the south; then Ostuni, with some of my top restaurants; but perhaps my favourite little hidden secret of a place is Cisternino. It gets packed with locals in the evenings – young people, kids running around, whatever the time, and just so much atmosphere,’ he says.

‘It’s got lots of little nooks and crannies and side roads and you can get quite lost, but it actually doesn’t matter as it’s full of restaurants, bars and little shops that are still open at 11 o’clock in the evening.

‘There’s this one bar called Mozzarella Bar on a hill that overlooks a valley and you get the most incredible sunsets there, which you can take in with your Aperol spritz and green Cerignola olives.’

Best of all, though, is the food. ‘There are places that are butchers by day and then at night, they take the off-cuts and all the trimmings and make these huge spiedini (skewers) of meat,’ explains Theo. ‘You can order a couple of spiedini and maybe some veal chops and then sit down with a flask of wine and some antipasti while they cook it up. Then they plonk it on your table when it’s ready and you just gorge. ‘This is what I love about Italian food: there’s no class system – everyone is happy to spend money on good food.’

Even though he returns often, Puglia still surprises. ‘There’s always something new. It might be an ingredient, going to the market and seeing some particular variety of artichoke, or you might see some fish you’ve never cooked before. That’s kind of what I love about it,’ he concludes. ‘There’s always inspiration.’

Theo's Hot Spots

Wine shop and restaurant in Cisternino. Order the sepia if they have it – succulent little cuttlefish skewers with a light crust. Brothers Giorgio and Giuseppe offer one of the best wine lists in the area.

Wonderful traditional food in unassuming surrounds near Piazza Vittorio Emanuele in Cisternino. The antipasti alone – based on what’s fresh that day – will suffice for most; the fava bean purée is glorious and they have Pugliese treasures on the wine list.

A relocated Cisternino favourite in a restored masseria (country house) with food that’s as good as it gets. The stinco (shin of pork) is meltingly delicious.

We always rent a house from Bettina Marksteiner – they’re just lovely.

Among Torre Canne’s myriad lidos, seaside restaurants and bars, this old fisherman’s house, set up like a beachside tavern, warrants a visit. I love their fritto misto.

Words by Alex Mead.

This interview was taken from the July 2021 issue of Food and Travel magazine. To subscribe today, click here.

Theo Randall's Puglia Photo

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