Q&A: CARLO SCOTTO
The chef-patron of Xier and XR talks about global influences, the importance of experimentation, and why he might be a bad Italian
Interview: Viel Richardson
Your restaurant is split into two distinct sections—Xier and XR. What is the thinking behind that?
My vision with Xier and XR is to tell the complete story of the food we serve to the customers. The dishes should represent the suppliers, farmers, artisanal producers as well as me as a chef. Each one of us has been involved in every plate of food, and their hard work and skill needs to be represented on each plate. If a customer understands this story, then we have done our job.
The two floors will have the same concept, which is modern European with global influences, but there will be different presentations. Xier on the upper floor will only serve a tasting menu designed to be a culinary experience. Here, we will combine ingredients you would not usually find together. For example, I have a salmon and foie gras dish. It sounds unusual but I promise you it is insanely good. Downstairs at XR, things are more informal and relaxed, with an a la carte offering. The atmosphere will be casual, the food will have a more familiar feel, and you can combine the food as you wish. But we still wanted to tell the story of the ingredients.
What kind of atmosphere can diners expect?
I want it to feel accessible—a neighbourhood restaurant where people are happy to come from Monday to Sunday for lunch or for dinner. I don’t use a lot of heavy ingredients, the food does not have a lot of sugar, fat or too much gluten. We want a menu that people feel they can eat from two or three times a week. We want to become the kind of community restaurant that people visit for a casual lunch or a special occasion. The prices are inexpensive, and we do give generous portions. In XR, the idea is that you can have a meal and a glass of wine in an hour and leave feeling satisfied.
You have mentioned the global influence in your cooking. Where does that come from?
Travels through Asia, Japan and the US have been a big part of my culinary journey. Working in a high-quality restaurant kitchen gives you technique, but creativity comes from within and you find the place where that comes from. For me that means travelling. You need to see what the world has to offer.
Is travel about discovering new ingredients?
Actually, for me it isn’t the ingredients that make the cuisine, but the culture in which those ingredients are found. Once you begin to learn about a culture then you begin to understand how people cook, which determines how their dishes have evolved and how they approach their ingredient choices. I try to bring that knowledge back to my kitchen. I always say that the cultures of the world are the ingredients and the world itself is the kitchen. The more I know about different cultures and how they eat, the deeper my understanding of the ingredients and the more interesting the ways these influences appear on my menu.
So, more travel is important?
Absolutely, there will definitely be more exploration in the future. My wife is Scandinavian, and I really want to get a deep understanding of the culture and food of the whole Nordic region. Every time I go there it’s very inspirational—the way they eat there is so healthy and clean. I think my travels will be in Europe for the near future, but I would love to go back to Japan, for example, and other places.
Did you work in kitchens when you travelled?
I did some kitchen work, but mainly went as a traveller. Working in different kitchens is important for a chef, but so is going abroad to expand your horizons as a person. Talk to people, watch the sunsets, eat with new friends in their homes. These experiences stay with you for life, they allow you to grow as a person and a chef. Then they will come out in your cooking.
Are you still an ‘Italian’ chef?
Not at all. I think I am the only Italian chef in London who does not do Italian food. I also don’t eat pasta, though I love cooking it, and I don’t like football. Maybe I’m a bad Italian.
What do your Italian chef friends say?
They tell me all the time that I should stick with my roots and do Italian cuisine, but I don’t agree. There is nothing wrong with Italian cuisine, it is one of the best in the world. But it is not who I am or what I want to represent. If you look around the world, you see so many spices, herbs, ingredients. Why define yourself by only one tradition? That is not for me. Cooking is also about pushing the boundaries. The menu at XR will be less experimental then Xier, but it will still change every two weeks. That is a big challenge, but it is what we want to give to diners.
You come from Naples. What was the food you grew up on?
Neapolitan food is not only pizza, even though Neapolitan pizza is the best in the world. I came from just outside Naples, by the coast, so eating seafood was a daily thing. I grew up eating mussels, sea urchins, clams, fish, octopus. My dad used to take me with him to gather mussels and clams. So, you can say I was born in the sea.
You lived with your grandmother for a while. What do you remember about her cooking?
The dish that stands out most was her ragu with meat and tomato sauce. I used to wake up to the smell of coffee brewing and the ragu cooking. It was this very thick, bubbling tomato sauce. I remember sneaking into the kitchen and dipping bread in the sauce, which was lovely. But the real memories were not the food, but the company. One thing in Italian culture is that you never eat alone. Family and friends are always there. Our family dinners could turn into 20 people around the table. For me, that is the best thing about the Italian food tradition, the fact that the table was a very communal place.
You were washing up in a Michelin-starred kitchen aged 13. How did that happen?
The family suffered a tragic death when I was a child, which hit us all very hard. Home became a difficult place and I became withdrawn and rebellious. I wanted some money and heard that a restaurant needed help in the kitchen, so asked for a job washing up. The chef said he wasn’t interested in someone who just wanted a wage, he wanted someone who really wanted to be in the kitchen, but he gave me a chance. On my first day I saw people shouting, screaming, rushing around. There was this really intense energy as they tried to achieve something great. Other people can be intimidated by that intensity, but for some reason I wasn’t. The first time I put on that chef’s jacket, those monsters in my mind that were driving me to be rebellious seemed to melt away. The kitchen felt like a safe space from the beginning, and that has never changed. Apart from time with my family, the kitchen is the place in the world where I feel most at ease.
Can you remember the switch from washing up to working with the food?
Absolutely. I was on the pass next to the chef. I had to clean the plates with the dishes already plated up, just before they went out to the guest. It sounds simple but I was 14 years old and it was terrifying. One slip of a finger and you could knock an element out of place and ruin the dish. I didn’t realise, but it was the chef’s way of seeing if I really understood what we were trying to achieve. Of course, I made mistakes, but I gained his trust and was started on small food preparation tasks. Cooking is one thing, but cooking to achieve excellence is completely different. That is something I was taught from the very beginning.
What’s your approach to creating a dish?
When I am in the kitchen, I will think about how I can combine something like an Asian citrus with European ingredients, because my instinct says that something is there to be discovered. Usually calamansi, a Filipino citrus, and stracciatella, a soft fresh cheese from the heart of a burrata, wouldn’t go together, but often it is not the essence of the ingredients that is the problem, but the ratio. Combined in equal parts they do not work, but if you experiment with different ratios then things start to become interesting. New flavours and textures emerge. Use a small amount of calamansi to slightly raise the acidity in the creamy stracciatella and you taste something interesting. It is about understanding why ingredients are seen as not working together and using that knowledge to see if you can blend them in a harmonious way.
How do you find suppliers?
Over time you get introduced to many suppliers. The key is getting to know them and choosing the best ones. It is about understanding what they do and how they work. When you visit their farms or their workshops you realise how hard and skilfully they are working to get you the best produce. This is why I feel a responsibility to showcase their hard work. Without them we couldn’t do what we do.
You say Angela Hartnett was a real mentor. What did she see in you and what did you gain from her?
I have no idea what she saw in me. I simply asked if I could work in her kitchen and she said yes. After a few months she moved me to the meat and fish section, which is the hardest in the kitchen, it is incredibly demanding. I was the youngest and least experienced in the kitchen. I even asked if she was sure when she first told me.
In the beginning it was a real struggle and I was not really coping. One day when I was very behind on my preparation for the shift, she came over to help. After a while she asked me what was wrong. I told her I was finding it hard and wasn’t sure if I could do it. I will never forget her next words: “If I didn’t think you were good enough, I would never have put you in this section.” It was like something was set free inside me. That vote of confidence changed everything. From that shift onwards, the mistakes fell away. I will always be grateful to her—I really believe we create our own limitations, and chef Hartnett set me free from mine.