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A change of pace during Covid-19 lockdown

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Famed for his Italian cuisine, British chef Theo Randall tells Richard Cree about life in lockdown as he contemplates reopening his restaurants

How does a top international chef, used to the fast-paced, high-flying life that accompanies that role, cope with lockdown? How can someone usually so busy and active just simply stop for three months? For Theo Randall, inspirational British chef patron of London’s Theo’s Simple Italian and the headline name behind a host of international Italian restaurants, including Theo Randall at London’s Intercontinental Hotel, Park Lane, it was easy.

We’re speaking over the now-ubiquitous Zoom, as part of an Audi-sponsored Virtual Dinner. “I have had two kids at home and they expect a la carte menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he jokes. “Basically, I have been kept busy just cooking for them all day.”

On a less personal, more professional, front he adds that having signed a publishing deal for a new book just before lockdown started, he has been able to use the three months writing an entirely new cookbook. “I’ve written the whole book, complete with all the photography,” he says. It’s something that he would normally fit in around other work, and the relief at being able to get it done in such a focused way is palpable.

An immersion in Italian food

As we head into a fairly intense virtual cookery class (we make a Negroni, zucchini fritti and gnudi with burrata and sage butter) the talk is focused more on the details of the action, but it’s clear at each turn that Randall’s immersion in Italian food, which has included a Michelin-star adorned spell as head chef at London’s River Café, runs deep.

A box of wonderful ingredients had been delivered a day before the virtual dinner, and Randall explores many of these in detail, stopping to extol the virtues of everything from a good parmesan (the two-year-old one we use is soft and silky) to the specialist vermouth in the Negroni (the deliciously rich Antica Formula).

Covid-safe kitchen

So, with lockdown restrictions easing in the UK, what has he done and is he doing to prepare? How will a socially distanced kitchen work? “Sadly, the restaurant at the Intercontinental will remain closed for the time being,” he says. “The whole of Mayfair is just deserted still.” Without enough customers (or hotel guests, one imagines) even to make the socially distanced reduced number of covers work, there’s no point opening.

There is better news for his smaller, neighbourhood Italian in Kensington. When we speak that is about to open and he is confident that the changes they have implemented will make it safe, without creating chaos in the kitchen or losing atmosphere out front. “We’ve done all sorts of things in the kitchens, like implementing a one-way system to help people keep apart. And as with everywhere else we’ve had to reduce the number of tables.”

What’s clear is that lockdown hasn’t diminished Randall’s desire to get back into the kitchen and to start serving up food to paying customers. It sounds like the only ones who may really regret the end of lockdown will be his children.

Richard Cree