Gennaro Contaldo is universally loved, by his customers, chefs, fans and his protege Jamie Oliver himself, who calls the 68-year-old, his 'London dad'.

The feeling, however is clearly mutual. "Oh my God, does Jamie do more than me? He goes round and round and round. He's always in touch. At the end of the day, we are cooks, more than anything else. We love cooking."

And yet Gennaro, who is appearing at Big Feastival this weekend, will be there for the first time without Jamie, who has pulled out of his joint festival tenancy with Alex James.


The pair have known each other since Gennaro worked at his good friend Antonio Carluccio's Neal Street Restaurant, meeting and mentoring Jamie Oliver, before branching out on his own and opening Passione.

He then left the restaurant three years before it closed in 2009, a victim of the recession, to collaborate with Jamie on the Jamie's Italian chain.

"He is [like a son], he's got exactly the same - even more - love, and cares and respects food and people, which is so important.

"I look up to him. My God, he can do it. And we film quite a lot, me and Jamie, we film a new programme which will come out next year. We go round Italy, meet all these beautiful Nonnas [grandmothers] and try to discover these beautiful, almost lost recipes."

Gennaro also has five of his own children, two with his current partner, and three from his previous marriage, and he's not about to hang up his apron anytime soon.

"This is what's keeping me alive," he says earnestly. "I have days when I think I'm too tired, but the minute I walk inside the kitchen, I feel 25. I believe another person like me is Jamie, he's running around... to give lots of love to the world.

"And for me to come in the restaurant, and have a picture together with a young boy who's been waiting months to see you, you give them such love and joy and you show them how to do something, you transfer a little tiny gene to him and he will find the same love and passion."

It's this passion for cooking and good food that Gennaro extols in his cookbook Passione ("kind of my biography"), named after the restaurant he ran in London in the early-Noughties. First published in 2003 - "that book put me on the map" - it's now been lovingly updated with stories and photos from Gennaro's childhood growing up on Italy's Amalfi Coast.

"I realised how beautiful it was when I left it. After two, maybe three years, I went back and when I reached my village [Minori], everything was ever so small and it was strange," says the chef, who first left home to find his fortune in England as a young man of 20.

"I didn't realise it was me that had grown up by being surrounded by London. You live in a place where the mountains are your back garden, the sea is your swimming pool, the village is your playground, then you come to London and everything is- wow! Massive.

"I missed so much the sea, the smell of the herb. Sometimes, I used to have a day off and go back to the sea, maybe Southend. I always wanted to put my hands inside, I knew the sea would touch the shore of my hometown."

In the books, he calls it a "free-range" childhood. The family had no fridge, so everything had to be fresh and they ate with the seasons. His father, a linen merchant, brought meat home that he'd been given as payment by local farmers and did most of the cooking, while his mother, who he affectionately calls 'a white witch', sent him out to collect herbs from the mountains, which sparked a lifelong love of foraging (he boasts he can find wild rocket in central London).

"Imagine, come 12 o'clock, you go home through the small alleyways and all the balconies are open and you can hear the crockery and you can smell everything and you can pinpoint... fresh pasta with beans, grilled fish, cooked meat... Nothing came from far away, everything in season."

Gennaro Contaldo is appearing at The Big Feastival at 4pm on Friday at the NEFF Big Kitchen.

Gennaro's Passione: The Classic Italian Cookery Book by Gennaro Contaldo is published in hardback by Pavilion, priced £20. Available now