Journal

Back To The Garden: Carla Tomasi On Life After Restaurants

31st May 2018

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Sophie Davidson

It’s midway through our long weekend in Rome with Rachel Roddy – a jam-packed affair involving a 14-hour food tour of the city, followed by a similarly epic lunch at Rachel’s apartment in Testaccio – that we first hear about Carla Tomasi. A Roman who moved to London in late 70s, Carla ran a much-loved restaurant in Soho called Frith’s. She was a key figure on the Soho food scene (“Talk to Jeremy Lee about Carla and he’ll say she’s a total legend,” says Rachel) until 20 years ago when she moved back to Rome and retreated to a quiet house outside the city. There, she spent most of her time growing a garden from scratch and making excellent preserves. A few years ago she started teaching with Rachel at a studio in the city called Latteria, and now Rachel values her as a mentor.

“I’m annoyed with myself that I didn’t suggest interviewing Carla,” says Rachel towards the end of our second day. “I’ll call her now.” Rachel does this, and to our delight Carla invites us round for lunch the next day, before we fly back to London. The following morning Rachel’s partner Vincenzo drives us out of the city towards the coast and, after a few wrong turns, we locate Carla’s house on a grid of suburban streets, not far from the archaeological site of Ostia Antica.

Carla greets us warmly and invites us to sit at an outdoor table between the twin poles of her existence: her kitchen and her garden. As we talk, skipping back through her years in Soho and further, into her decidedly ungastronomic childhood, one of Carla’s many adopted cats winds about our legs mewing hoarsely for food, or attention, or both.

Our lunch, which we help Carla carry out from the kitchen, is simple but very fine: stuffed focaccia with Swiss chard, gorgonzola, soppressata (hot salami from Calabria), cooked ham, eggs, and pecorino. One the side: pickled courgettes, pickled aubergines and a Romanian pepper relish called zacuscă1, which took Carla several days to make. We feast on this, and talk some more, then follow Carla on a tour of her storeroom, which is well enough stocked to sustain her through a mini ice age.

Finally she takes us out to her garden, where we admire her fruit trees (peach, plum, apricot, fig), her artichoke run, the bonsai olive trees she rescued from a garden centre, and all the other veg growing in this edenic little spot which Carla has tirelessly nurtured over the past decade and a half. She even grows lemongrass. “This started life as a few sticks from Tesco in Cardiff,” she laughs, pointing at the plot where the lemongrass grows. It’s just one of several unexpected things flourishing out here in this dry, dusty part of the Roman hinterlands.

So you know Jeremy Lee?

Carla: Well Jeremy used to work for Alastair Little, on Frith Street, and my restaurant was almost opposite. So we used to pass each other either going to Soho Square or coming back from Camisa [the beloved Italian deli on Old Compton Street]. You could not miss Jeremy. “Hello Carla darling!” He picked you out from the crowd.

Tell me about the restaurant and what you were doing in London.

Carla: When I was about 30, I decided I wanted to live in London permanently and get a job in a restaurant. But I had no pedigree and I couldn’t survive in London peeling carrots and doing menial jobs, so I went to Prue Leith [cookery school]. I did a year there which was quite expensive – over £3,500, which was a lot in 1988. Plus you had to keep yourself for the whole year. I found a job at a really horrid pub in Kensington, where I used to reheat pies in microwaves. Then I went to work for Terence Conran at the Neal Street Restaurant in Covent Garden. It was a well-known restaurant at the time. And then Antonio Carluccio married Conran’s sister and they started to run the restaurant together. I lasted only two months.

Italian food was dire in the 80s. People were expecting it cheap and fast and reheated. Off Cambridge Circus there was this restaurant which was always mega-busy. You could pick your plate of pasta and they reheated it. That’s what people knew about Italian food

Why did you leave?

Carla: I didn’t get on very well with Antonio. He actually barred me from the restaurant for two years. But that was really lucky for me because soon afterwards I heard about a job at a restaurant on Frith Street and got a job. Unfortunately, whoever was running the restaurant died four years later. But he left me the restaurant.

What was it called?

Carla: The name was Frith’s, because in those days it was quite fashionable to name the restaurant after the street it was on. Then Alastair [Little] came a year later and brought a lot more business to the street. Anthony Worrall-Thompson moved in a few years later, so it was quite busy and full of character. Then Jeremy came along and Soho was volcanic. It was great. So much happened there.

Rachel: I was looking at Alastair Little’s book Keep it Simple recently. It was quite French, wasn’t it?

Carla: Yes. My food too. When I started to cook at Frith’s in the early 80s, you couldn’t really do Italian food. There were lots of trattorias dotted around Shaftesbury Avenue and Soho, but the food was dire and people were expecting Italian food cheap and fast and reheated – in which order, I don’t know [laughs]. I remember off Cambridge Circus there was this restaurant which was always mega-busy. They had plated pasta: you could pick your plate and they reheated it. That’s what people knew about Italian food.

Soho was still a red-light area. We used to say to customers, “If you don’t want to see funny things, don’t come by Cambridge Circus, go the back route from Tottenham Court Road and cut through Soho Square.”

What were you cooking?

Carla: It wasn’t very Italian. Growing up, my mother was a terrible cook so I didn’t learn much at home. When I trained at Leith’s, it was basically French – that’s what you had to learn if you wanted to get a job then. The food at the Neal Street was pretty much French food cooked by a Spanish chef with Italian waiters: a very odd combination. Lots of restaurants in those days had no identity whatsoever. The revolution of food was just starting.

Was it an exciting time to be in London?

Carla: Very exciting. The other thing that really made a mark was when Sally Clarke opened in Kensington in 1984. She brought the Italian-California style to London, and she wasn’t offering any choice. Everybody was eating the same food, which sometimes felt a bit like a canteen. But it was a great way to make money and there was no waste. It was a clever way to do it.

What was Soho like back then?

Carla: In those days, nobody had moved out. All the film representatives, the big movie houses were still in Soho. And Soho was still a red-light area. We use to get people calling in saying, “Is it safe to bring my child to the restaurant?”

Really?

Carla: Yes! We used to say, “If you don’t want to see funny things, don’t come by Cambridge Circus, go the back route from Tottenham Court Road and cut through Soho Square.” There were lots of dives in those days. And other professions: you had the clock maker, you had people who repaired shoes. It was a normal place. Not normal, but you didn’t just go there to have fun. People lived there.

What would your menu have looked like on a typical day?

Carla: It was very small and it changed every few days. Four starters, four main courses and 10 puddings, because we love puddings.

Rachel: What would your starters be?

Carla: Pasta – always. Soup obviously. A lot of vegetarian food because I like vegetarian food. It was quite difficult to get it in London back then.

Food was a necessity at home. I grew up thinking that hard-boiled eggs were green, because my mother used to cook them for so long

You said your mother wasn’t a great cook. Did you learn to cook before you moved to London?

Carla: I did. It was connected to the fact that I wanted to learn English from a very early age. I convinced my parents to get me a subscription to an English magazine, and the one I picked out was House & Gardens. As luck would have it, House & Gardens had a food insert called A La Carte. This wonderful world of different food opened to me. I come from a household where my mother didn’t like pasta or carbs, where I grew up not tasting parsley, or onions, or garlic.

What would you eat at home?

Carla: Very bland food and mostly burnt. My mother was a bad cook. My father was a good cook but very extravagant. He used to go fishing or hunting, but you can’t just live on wild boar or salmon. My mother was a business women. Food was a necessity. I grew up thinking that hard-boiled eggs were green, because my mother used to cook them for so long. My father used to come home with lots of fish on weekends and my mother used to get a big casserole dish, put water in it – no flavouring, no bay leaf, no lemon, no peppercorn, nothing – put it on fall blast, chuck the fish in, keep it boiling for maybe half an hour. When you took the lid off it was just a mess of bones. It used to drive my father nuts. Anyway, after a while I took over the cooking.

At what age?

Carla: I was about 10. One day I said to my mother “Shall I do the shopping?” My mother was like, “Oh my god, a child of mine that wants to cook.” She gave me some money and off I went. I loved it. I had the little two-step stool in the kitchen. I started to use the oven, I fried and never burned myself. I just loved cooking.

Do you know where you got it up from?

Carla: I think from my father and from my maternal grandmother, who lived in the Marche. I remember being fascinated watching my grandmother making pasta. She made it with a big rolling pin and rolled the pasta about the size of a large tablecloth. I still have this vivid picture of her making minestrone. She worked like a three-star Michelin chef. All vegetables were diced the same size and she only had a piddly little knife. She had such care for what she did. She never rushed anything. Okay she didn’t work, but that doesn’t really matter, you can be a housewife and be really shoddy with whatever you do. She just took great care in whatever she did and I was fascinated to see her little mounds of celery, potatoes, carrots. It was just beautiful.

I think the most extraordinary thing that I taught myself how to do was a tomato mousse with a boiled egg in the middle. It was see-through, so you could see the egg inside

Rachel: That’s something I’ve learned from you. People whose food is most delicious take a lot of care. You, Jeremy Lee, Simon Hopkinson: such care and attention, without fussiness. You can taste that care in the food. Do you remember always being careful about the way you cook?

Carla: Yes because my mother was so messy and I used to hate it. I still remember opening cupboards at home and seeing fruit flies or bags of flours left there for months. You open the cupboard and “boom”, you get a zoo flying at you. I was like, okay this has to stop. Cooking is not something you can do if you don’t like it. There has to be something inside you that makes you want to be around food.

You were talking about the subscription to House & Gardens? What did you learn from it?

Carla: Things I probably shouldn’t have learned. The most extraordinary thing that I taught myself to do was a tomato mousse with a boiled egg in the middle. We don’t have a tradition in Italy to make jellied food. Maybe in Piedmont or Lombardy where they have a lot of French influence, but certainly not in southern Italy. I didn’t read the instructions well, so this tomato mousse was rock solid. But it was an achievement. It was see-through, so you could see the egg inside. Can you imagine a little girl from Rome seeing all this glitzy food in these pages? It was amazing.

What age were you?

Carla: 12 or 13. I first moved to London when I’d just turned 18.

What was the attraction of London?

Carla: I’d always wanted to live there. The first stretch I stayed for three years. I came back because I had to convince my mother to pay for Prue Leith. I could never afford it by myself. But we bargained, because I didn’t go to university and I said, “You’ll never see me again if you don’t pay for it – pay for it!” She did actually. Probably because she wanted to get rid of me [laughs].

When you started cooking at Frith’s, had you any real experience of Italian food?

Carla: Not really, because I didn’t come from a foodie household. Also, as a teenager in Rome in the 70s, you only knew the food of your own region. Although I was lucky because half my family is from Sardinia and half is from the Marche. So when we went to Sardinia there was a lot of crayfish, lobsters, all the seafood there is fantastic, and Sardinian vegetables are very different. Then we went to La Marche and that was another food scene. But that was it. You had no food programmes, so the food that you ate and you knew about was the food that your parents cooked at home. It was very regional. Then Anna Del Conte published The Gastronomy of Italy, which for me opened the food of all the rest of Italy. It was an amazing compendium.

Something like that didn’t exist before?

Carla: Well no, you had other books like The Silver Spoon, which has totally been Americanised now.

Rachel: There were a few books like Le Ricette Regionali Italiane.

Carla: They were compendiums and very scantily written. No temperatures. Each recipe was about five lines. People just cooked whatever they had around. They might have heard that in the north they use butter, or in the south it’s capers and anchovies. I remember bringing back from London a bottle of balsamic vinegar for my mother because she couldn’t buy it here in the 80s. It was big in London, but nobody had heard of it in Rome. Food was very restricted to your own environment. But when Anna wrote The Gastronomy of Italy, I read it from top to bottom, bottom to top. It was incredible.

What happened with Frith’s? Did it run its course? Or was there another reason it closed?

Carla: The restaurant was closed down because, in the winter of 1990 – Margaret Thatcher was in power at the time – they decided to give this massive increase to council tax. Overnight my rates increased from £12,000 to £24,000, which was nuts. Then obviously my landlady decided, “Okay the council wants double, I’ll double the rent.” It was a joke. I basically would have had to remortgage my flat to be able to pay the first instalment of the council tax. It was too much financial pressure.

Gregg Wallace was my head supplier… He used to come with his sports car, hood down, “What you need, darling?” It was amazing

Rachel: You hear about this. There’s a really nice film made by the woman in Food For Thought in Covent Garden, before they closed last year. She talks about the changing face of Covent Garden, which was a little bit like Soho. There was this first wave under Thatcher of things doubling, and some people survived. Then more recently everything doubled overnight. She said it was the death blow. They just killed all small businesses. Unless you were Body Shop or Gap around there, you’d go. It’s happening in Rome too. In Testaccio, places are closing. It’s like London 30 years ago.

Do you look back at those years in London with nostalgia?

Carla: Nostalgia, no. When people ask me, “Do you miss London?”, no I don’t. If I missed it so much I would never have left. But I loved it at the time. I had some wonderful chefs work at Friths. I can probably say that I was the first one in London to give Peter Gordon a job. Also our suppliers had great pedigree. Gregg Wallace was my head supplier.

Rachel: That blows my mind. Gregg from MasterChef.

Carla: Gregg and Charlie Hicks were the two guys who started doing really fantastic fruit and vegetables in London, I mean really, really fresh stuff. I took Gregg with me wherever I went. He’s a fantastic guy. And a real character. Gregg used to come with his sports car, hood down, “What you need, darling?” It was amazing.

When you moved back to Italy, did you come straight to this house?

Carla: No, I use to live in town. I only moved here when my sister died. My mother was on her own and I came to live here a few years, but then she died too.

Do you like being here?

Carla: I do. I love it. It’s hard work growing my own vegetables, as I’ve found out. This garden was almost bare when I took over. It was just that big olive tree and some yucca plants. And an English lawn which is completely foolish because in this weather you can’t keep a lawn in good nick.

What’s a normal day for you at home? Do you get up early and go into the garden?

Carla: There is lull in my life when the weather is too hot and you don’t plant – mid-August to the beginning of September. But otherwise, today for instance, I had to water my brassica. So I get up at six before the sun comes up. I’ll try to get rid of some weeds, feed the cats. Then I’ll make a list, because I live by lists.

Are you cooking every day?

Carla: Yeah every day. I’m on my own at the moment, my partner is away, so I cook for myself. When I’m really pushed for time, my fast food can be a tin of borlotti or cannellini beans, just heated up with some chutney on top – I’m constantly making preserves. With couscous or pasta, you just stir them in.

At the moment, because the weather is cooler, I love boiled rice and jam for breakfast

Do you water your plants first thing, before breakfast?

Carla: Yeah, yeah.

Rachel: The plants before you, that’s selfless. I always think of myself first thing in the morning.

Carla: The vegetables, especially brassica, do not like to be splattered with water if there is a sun about. So you have to water before the sun hits. It’s just these simple things. Then once the watering is done…

Then you sit down and have a long, indulgent breakfast?

Carla: No [laughs]. At the moment, because the weather is cooler, I love boiled rice and jam on it. In London, I was very fond of those pyramid-shaped rice things you can buy in Chinatown wrapped in banana leaf, with pork in the middle. Basically, I love congee, I love sticky rice, so I tried to make my own in the morning. You use pudding rice, you cook it to death and then slap jam on it.

What’s the most important meal of your day? Which do you spend the most time over?

Carla: My partner works, is out, so lunchtime for me is something from the freezer. I’m a great believer in batch-cooking for myself. There’s so much to do here, it’s like a little factory, so there’s no time to cook, unless it’s Sunday lunch.

What might you have for Sunday lunch?

Carla: Pasta al forno – it has to be baked pasta. I love making my own pasta, so it might be tortelloni or ravioli. And then a meat or fish, which could be porchetta.

Pudding as well?

Carla: No I don’t really do puddings in Italy. I might have ice cream. Homemade obviously.

Rachel: You’ve made pudding for me. Zucotto. Describe it again.

Carla: It’s like a pudding base, you line it with very thin slices of sponge, which are soaked in sugared coffee. Then you do a layer of whipped cream with nuts and chocolate chopped into it. Then you do a core in the middle which is cream, nuts and chocolate and also melted chocolate, so when you cut it you have a white layer and a dark layer. And you turn it upside down obviously.

Rachel: One day I’ll write a piece about amazing puddings. That’s one. The other is the Sicilian trionfo di gola, the triumph of greed. It’s like a cassata, but with layers of chocolate and apricot jelly. It wobbles. It’s insane.

Carla: I bet.

We follow Carla into her pantry at the back of the house.

What are these?

Carla: This is tomato sauce from my own tomatoes. This is bread and butter pickle. This is an Indonesian pickle with peanuts, garlic, ginger and cauliflower. Apricot jam. Aubergines. That’s all the chutneys here, courgette and basil. Onion and fig marmalade. Tomato chutney. This is plum and pomegranate chutney. Preserved artichokes. Pickled courgettes, which you had. This is the couscous stuff, some with peppers and some without.

This is a lot of stuff.

Carla: My partner says, “You must know something nobody else knows, because you’re stocking up so much food. Tell us what’s happening!” I have a huge freezer in the laundry room and another in the kitchen. I’m just a hoarder of things – only when it comes to food though, anything else I just chuck it away, but food is important. If I want to make a cake, I like to have everything ready.

Follow Carla: Instagram | Twitter

Carla is a regular cookery teacher at Latteria Studio in Rome

  1. “It is amazing, but it takes about three days to make it,” says Carla. “Basically you grill peppers, you grill aubergines, then you make a confit with onions. Then to have a proper texture you need to grind the onions from raw, which takes quite a while, but I have a Kenwood grinder. Then you have to grind the peppers and the grilled aubergines and then you add bay leaf, olive oil and then you cook it for hours until you get this. But I’ll tell you, I feel I’ve discovered the wheel. It really is good.”

Posted 31st May 2018

In Journal

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Sophie Davidson

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