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Italian lessons

10 March 2004 by
Italian lessons

Never having visited Italy, Mark Broadbent, 36, could have been called foolhardy for setting out to radically Italianise the menu when he joined Isola in London's Knightsbridge last summer - particularly as he wanted to combine it with a liberal dose of specialist British ingredients. Such handicaps, however, rarely daunt chefs.

The restaurant, which is owned by Oliver Peyton, opened in 1999 with Bruno Loubet as head chef. The Good Food Guide described its food as a mix of "straight Italian dishes (buffalo mozzarella with roast peppers and pesto) with more contemporary European ideas such as terrine of foie gras with salmon and aubergine confit".

As Broadbent says: "Loubet's a great chef, but his menus couldn't help but have a very strong French influence - he even made cavolo nero pesto! I mean, how French is cabbage pesto?"

Broadbent wanted to place a much greater emphasis on Italian cooking. Peyton agreed. They even created an antipasti bar by the kitchen where customers now sit and pick and mix starters as the mood takes them. Within weeks of joining Isola in June 2003 Broadbent was on his way to Italy.

"Obviously, I've always cooked an array of Italian dishes, such as risotto or home-made ravioli," states Broadbent, "but I've been more interested in developing my own style of cooking, which until now has been mainly inspired by the superb food we can produce here and my travels to Spain."

Chefs such as Simon Hopkinson and Alastair Little have all influenced his approach to Italian food, as have certain books such as the River Caf‚ Cook Book Green and Alastair Little's Italian Kitchen (both Ebury Press). "I've been eating at the River Caf‚ since the late 1980s, so I was fascinated to discover that they had had an impact in Florence. Everyone asked if I knew them," laughs Broadbent. "They've taken some flack from Italy, but they've still allowed their own version of Tuscan food to shine through." Something, I suspect, he admires.

Broadbent's Italian trip didn't follow the normal gastro-tourist routes. Instead, he started in the tiny resort of San Vincenzo on the Tuscan coast, as he'd arranged to cook a meal for the Peyton family at a holiday villa. Surprisingly, the town contained a superb small restaurant called Ristorante Gambero Rosso. "You knew it was going to be good just by reading the menu," says Broadbent.

Broadbent then headed for Florence to experience what he calls "the Peyton family gastro-tour", which included dining at expensive ultra-Florentine institutions such as Cibreo and da Delfina, and browsing in bustling markets alongside busloads of hot July tourists.

"The restaurants served really simple food," he says. "Cibreo, for example, had a dish of creamy polenta accompanied only by some freshly grated Parmesan on its menu. It was absolutely delicious, but I'm not sure whether customers here would be prepared to pay seven or eight quid for such a plain dish."

Finally, he hired a car and headed off to Orvieto in Umbria to try a more homely style of cooking.

So what impression had home-grown Italian food made on Broadbent? He immediately pulls out a scrumpled hand-written menu and kisses it, before pressing out the creases on the table. "L'Asino d'Oro in Orvieto," he announces, before adding, "which means Golden Donkey. It was a dead simple, real middle-class restaurant - but cleverly done. White brick tiles, paper tablecloths printed with the restaurant's logo, and tables outside on the cobbled street."

Clearly a million miles away from Knightsbridge and the funky leather, wood and chrome interior of Peyton's Isola. He points to the first item on the menu, which is guanciale al baffo di salvia e aceto, and says, by way of explanation: "It's pig's cheek bacon, which is a very sexy piece of bacon - lightly cured with herbs and spices. I could smell it cooking as we walked to the restaurant, so it was the first thing I ordered. I was given three slices of crisp, succulent bacon on a small plate, drizzled with the deglaze of a posh red wine vinegar and some sage leaves. I mean, how confident is that?"

The next item was aringa con crema di ceci, namely smoked herrings with creamed chickpeas. "They were the dog's bollocks," enthuses Broadbent, "warm, succulent fish with a tepid pur‚e of chickpeas, flavoured with prosciutto and mixed with whole chickpeas." He ate his way through the menu, marvelling at its stark simplicity and pondering how far he could embrace it at Isola.

It is the old dilemma that all chefs face: will customers and critics take your cooking - and prices - seriously if you serve drop-dead gorgeous plain food? All too often it is dismissed as being something they could do at home, when the reality is that most customers can't, or don't. It takes skill to produce a superlative polenta and source a sublime Parmesan. Sadly, culinary ability is often measured primarily by the complexity of a dish rather than how good it actually tastes.

It seems that Italy showed Broadbent how far he could, in theory at least, pare down his food. "I used to put a lot of things on a plate, but now I'm keen to deconstruct everything," he says. Thus, pre-Italy dishes such as his chicken with borlotti beans and mushroom stuffed with diced sun-blush tomatoes, Gorgonzola, shallots, lemon zest and breadcrumbs are deemed too complicated for Broadbent's new style. They have been replaced by simpler combinations, for example, a confit of British lop-eared pork with soft polenta and a chunky apple and pear mostarda di Cremona.

Inspired by what he had eaten, Broadbent began to work on new dishes as soon as he was safely back in his own kitchen. The antipasti menu has proved a good forum to develop his new ideas, which include spiced, marinated sardines (raw but lightly salted) with chilli, and grilled aubergines with salmoriglio (recipe, page 31). The pig's cheek bacon will appear as soon as he is satisfied he has sourced the best-possible bacon.

The main menu is changing, too, despite keeping its dependence on British ingredients. Sea bass is roasted with confit artichoke, extra virgin oil and chilli confetti, while shorthorn veal chop is roasted and served with potato gnocchi, lemon and sage. Crucially, he is developing his network of suppliers to ensure that he can get the best-quality ingredients, regardless of whether they are San Marzano tomatoes or fresh borlotti beans from Italy or Shropshire lamb or Glenarm salmon from the UK. He is already planning his next trip to Italy, but not, I suspect, as a holiday.

Broadbent on paper1985-88 Hotel Britannia Continental, Grosvenor Square, London. He joined the hotel aged 18 and was inspired by David Nicholls's approach to cooking. 1988 Â Moved to the Dorchester hotel, London, only to find that the hotel was to be refurbished. Worked as chef de partie for the Terrace restaurant. 1989-90 University Arms hotel, Cambridge - sous chef. 1991-92 192 Notting Hill, London. A pivotal career change from hotel kitchen to small restaurant. It was here, as sous and then acting head chef, that he began to develop his interest in a more eclectic style of modern British food. 1992-93 Royal Court hotel, London - head chef. 1994-97 A period of restaurant consultancies and setting up new ventures. 1997-99 The Chiswick, London - head chef. His robust style of cooking began to be fully displayed. 1999-2001 Mortons - head chef. 2001-03 The Oak, London - head chef. Spotted by Oliver Peyton as being perfect for Isola.

Recipe for ‘Grilled aubergines and salmoriglio'

Recipe for ‘Grilled Cornish squid, ink sauce, cannelimi beans, lemon and parsley'

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