The Italian cuisine in London has its rising stars and one of them is by all means Davide De Simone who has just become the new ambassador of Pastificio Lucio Garofalo. On a warm Monday evening in late September, we sat down at Cacciari’s restaurant in South Kensington, one of the three restaurants where the 34 years old Davide De Simone is the executive chef. The interior is an intimate space, scarlet red tones, antique photos of Bologna in wooden frames, all of which remind of being in an honest trattoria in the heart of Emilia Romagna.
Before we started the interview, Davide offered us something to eat, outside of the menu and of his creation. Tagliatelle with tuna tartar, lemon zest, garlic, chilli, anchovies and lumpfish roe. An astonishing combination. The dish really set the tone for the rest of the interview, about his style and the way he sees and treats food and cuisine.
His philosophy is clear and to the point, the idea of looking ahead without destroying past traditions, finding the balance between innovation whilst using the familiarity of the past as a driving force. “My idea – he explains – goes against the grain. I’m Italian, my mother is Italian, and we can talk endlessly about pasta with tomato sauce or parmigiana. Yes, they are all grandi piatti but we need to do more. I come from a land of the good and plenty, where fantastic ingredients grow in abundance and this allows us to create almost anything. We don’t have to compete with anyone. We just need to push ourselves further.”
Sicily has laid the foundations for Davide like a mother who nurtures for her child. It gave him the opportunity to experiment with the two important dichotomies that he symbolically marries in his food: the idea to both use and experiment with tradition. Born in Palermo, a city which he describes as a playground for creativity in terms of food, also belongs to a deep rooted and complicated history and finally, after being under the thumb of violent political agendas, Palermo is emerging as one of the truly great cities of Europe and the world. As a land that has seen the conquests of the Arabs, Spanish and Normans, the food as a result, is spicier and sweeter than most parts of Italy. Particularly in Sicily, the use of Saffron, rice and couscous are fundamental staples in the cuisine, which have all come from past invasions.
But it’s not just the country’s history that makes the food fascinating. “Italians are artists when it comes to manipulating ingredients that are usually considered staples for the poor,” the chef says. So many of the nation’s most loved dishes both nationally and internationally come from the concept of la cucina povera, the food of the poor. “The poor couldn’t afford to throw anything away, so they invented and developed methods of conservation.” That’s what is so fascinating, he explains, that you can find innovation with everyday tools.
Travelling around Italy gave him important insight into the world of cooking. When he landed working in the kitchen at Rosewood Castiglione del Bosco in Montalcino, he witnessed first-hand the extraordinary level of discipline and creativity using staple Italian ingredients. “The level and respect for the ingredients was crazy.” At the age of 26 he decided to move to London, knowing that if it wasn’t a success he would always return. Eight years later, he has no desire to move. Living in London and being exposed to all the new ingredients, cuisines and methods of constructing a plate was completely foreign to his senses, but an important light bulb moment he explains. “If it wasn’t for London, I wouldn’t have this desire to push forward. My background is always there. You can see it in the plate I just made for you that all the familiar ingredients are there; garlic, chilli, lemon but the tuna tartar gives it that unexpected thrill. Italians are a little bit stuck in the past with this.”
“If you get criticism it means you are doing very well.” It’s inevitably what motivates Davide to continue to go down the avenue of exploration and creativity. “I am my own worst critic. This is important. Write this down.”
As the evening draws to a close and more wine glasses are being consumed, we get on the subject of Davide’s other strand of business which is being a private chef.
“The guests – he pinpoints – always want as simple as you can. It’s simplicity that is coming back in vogue over molecular cuisine which I was never a fan of. They want to let the ingredients do all the talking. If I have a beautiful cut of steak that has been aged appropriately why bother tearing it apart. If I have a steak, let me eat the fucking steak.” This instantly sparks a conversation about Fulvio Pierangelini, one of the first great innovative chefs who headed the restaurant Gambero Rosso. When food critics travelled to see him and taste his food, he would purposefully make them a plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce. No nuances and no added extras. The journalists were understandably frustrated and disappointed, but the point is that there’s innovation in simplicity which made him even more avant-garde. He caught the attention of so many critics that Heston Blumenthal, an institution in his own right when it came to innovation, travelled to see him.
Now, like most conservations these days are thoughts draw to the concept of social media, a tool which has helped Davide enormously and ultimately the reason why we are here this evening. “I was never a huge lover of social media, but Instagram opened a door for me. I watched the stories of Francesco Mazzei who I admire, and I thought well why can’t I do something like that? I am fortunate in the fact that I am not shy in front of the camera. There are times when my girlfriend Giuliana would ask, what are we filming today? I would say I don’t know let’s just turn on the button and we’ll see what happens.” He credits Giuliana as being a big support of his growing success on Instagram, the one who is behind the lens of those beautiful pictures.
Out of all the people he has cooked for he got the most satisfaction when he had the opportunity to cook for Sir Brian May: “He’s a pure vegan and I cooked for him Spaghetti with mushroom, truffle and edamame. Pasta with truffle as you know is a classic dish but for me it lacked colour and texture which is why the edamame works brilliantly. He absolutely loved it and that was really satisfying.”
Ad his favourite dish to cook? “It’s a dish that I created five or six years ago, similar to the one you had tonight. It’s tagliolini with lemon, tuna tartar and bottarga.”
That pretty much sums up the spirit of Davide de Simone, who is the executive chef at the three Cacciari’s restaurants in South Kensington, Earl’s Court and Portobello Road.