Antonio Carluccio remembered by Giorgio Locatelli

19 April 1937 – 8 November 2017
The chef and broadcaster on the life, work and compendious knowledge of the much-loved Italian culinary pioneer

• Tara Palmer-Tomkinson remembered by Duncan James

I met Antonio through [the chef and restaurateur] Fergus Henderson, when I was a young man working at the Savoy. I had come from Italy in 1985, and Antonio was already running the Neal Street Restaurant. He was like an encyclopedia: I remember thinking: “Wow, this guy really knows a lot about Italian food!” I thought I knew a lot, but he knew much more than me.

After that we became friends, and sometimes we worked together. For me he was a great inspiration: this was someone who changed the way Italian food is perceived in this country. Before Carluccio people thought of Italian food as one thing: he was one of the first to highlight its regionality, which is very important. And his books are an amazing legacy – the last one, about vegetables, was unbelievable.

Over the years, whenever I felt trapped in a corner or didn’t know what to do with the restaurant, he was practically the only person I could call. Because he’s been through it all: he got it all, he lost it all, he won it all. He’s been through all these emotions. So for me he was a very important person: he would just put me back in my place and say, “Come on, get on with that, that’s what you have to do.”

A few years ago, when he was going through divorce and things like that, even if he was down himself he was always ready to give you good advice. There was never any self-interest: he wanted all of us to do well. He understood the importance of Italian food – there was no such thing as competition. He wanted everyone to know what he knew, he wanted to teach everyone.

The thing he taught me about food was simplicity and truthfulness. He said: “You have to look at a dish and say, ‘Would my grandmother be proud of me if I cooked this?’” And that’s exactly the thing you should do all the time as a chef. It was his down-to-earth approach that made him so accessible and popular. What he did with the restaurants and the delis – the guy was 20 years ahead of everyone else.

The best food he ever cooked for me was spaghetti with tomato sauce – it was the most delicious spaghetti. He never tried to strike you with the genius of the chef, it was always about the quality of the ingredients and telling a story: where the dish came from, why it was made like that. People remember dishes that come with stories, and he was very good at them. This is a guy who went mushroom-picking with Gorbachev – he did a lot of things in life. Some people tell you things to show off, but for him it meant he was not going to die with only him knowing it.

Giorgio Locatelli and Antonio Carluccio, photographed for the Observer Food Monthly magazine in 2004
Giorgio Locatelli and Antonio Carluccio, photographed for the Observer Food Monthly magazine in 2004: ‘He was super grumpy about it.’ Photograph: John Reardon/The Observer

At one point the Italian government gave me a prize, like a knighthood, and I was so nervous about going to the embassy. He called me up and said “That night I’ll be there next to you.” My father had passed away, but it felt like my dad was there. I think he saw a bit of himself a little through me: we had a 30-year age difference – a generation. He was roughly my dad’s age.

We also did charity work together – every year we’d go to these “Olympic games” organised by an Italian youth group, to give them medals. He was so sweet about it, with all these kids around. We also did a project called The Clink, a charity run by a friend of mine where young offenders set up a restaurant at High Down prison outside London. Once, when we had worked really hard on lunch there, he gave me a lift back. In the car he started to tell stories, so for over two hours I just sat there listening. It was like an audiobook: like you were travelling through someone’s life. It was such a moment of intimacy – I felt very close to him.

I love the picture we did with the fish and the violin [for Observer Food Monthly]. For the shoot he was really super grumpy: he arrived at the hotel and didn’t want to change. I was all dressed up with a hat and everything, and he was wearing jeans and a shirt. I said, “No, come on, Antonio, it will look fantastic” and in the end he changed. But every time he came to my house he would see it and go, “Argh, look at that”.

For every slice of truffle I’ll cut for the rest of my life, or every mushroom I sauté, I’ll always think of Antonio. He’s going to be there for ever.

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