Jack sits down with Chris O’Niell, a man with a wealth of experience in the food business, a passion for locally sourced produce and for ‘old style’ Italian seafood. Here’s a man who really wants you to appreciate your dinner – an advocate for the slower, more sensuous way of living and tasting (something he thinks we could learn from the Italians…)
Chris’ career has progressed through various restaurants, private yachts, food retail and corporate hospitality companies. He’s delivered great food in environments as diverse as Hampton Court Palace, Stonehenge, Murrayfield and the Science Museum. He’s currently Executive Chef for the Pescatori restaurants. which is when we caught up with him…
As ever there are some sensible and not sensible questions…
Name: Chris O’Niell
Role: Group Executive Chef
Birthplace: ‘The Heart of Kent’
Current Affiliation: Pescatori
Fun Fact: “I’d rather not say!” (Ed: Pffffft)
J: People equate Italian food with pizza, pasta and pesto. Could you tell us a little about how the Italians enjoy seafood, and how Pescatori does it?
C: Seafood plays an important part in Italian life and wellbeing, besides the fact that the natural coastline embraces the rich warm waters of the Mediterranean, Ionian & Adriatic seas, the culture of eating fish was further reinforced by the Catholic church. Italians are spoilt with a rich harvest of diverse species from molluscs & ‘blue fish’ (Anchovies, Sardines etc.) through to the game fish such as swordfish and tuna.
Italian cooking is genius in its simplicity and cooking fish is no different. I’ve just read another report confirming Italian food as the worlds favourite cuisine of choice its been the same result for about 25 yrs, I believe it is because Italian food is so approachable its not overly technical its from the heart! Whilst we have a team of technically gifted Chefs at Pescatori we still approach each of our recipes with a very simplistic approach, freshest of ingredients, cooked simply and with love.
A little bird told me that you’re eager to give us an outspoken perspective on seafood today. I don’t know exactly what this entails, but it sounds exciting, so please feel free…
I care deeply about the sourcing of our seafood, In the same way we would never consider putting Strawberries on our menu when they are not in season we follow mother nature for the fish. We work with buyers in areas like Newlyn on the south coast, we buy day boat and rod and line fish the quality and freshness of the fish is incomparable. its a different class from the trawled fish that’s been lying on a boat for weeks before getting to some of the markets. That’s our integrity, that’s our point of difference. It’s all about the raw ingredient and the beauty of an unsullied harvest.
How did you get started as a chef, when did you know that this was the career for you? How did you end up at Pescatori in the end?
Incredible really but I knew when I was 6! I wish I could tell you something happy and euphoric, that I saw a chef and thought I wanna be them… That’s not what happened, life happened, my Mum passed away when I was 5, being the youngest with Dad out working I was first home from school, cooking was initially born out of necessity…
I had to get the evening meal on ready for the rest to come home and eat, I lapped it up trial and error making mistakes but then gradually my brothers and my Dad started getting great evening meals, cakes and biscuits followed.. By the age of 14 I could cook for large numbers and put on a show. I fell in love with it really and I feel cooking loves me.
What’s a ‘day in your life’ like? Could you give us an insight into life as a head chef, and life at Pescatori?
I’m lucky enough to be the executive chef for Pescatori and have the pleasure of working with 2 incredibly gifted and dedicated head chefs. My role is really about ensuring that those guys have everything they need to succeed and that they are motivated to deliver excellence.
I work a lot with suppliers and artisans to source the best seasonal product and happily I cook regularly and enjoy working with the teams. There is nothing better than helping a young chef to grow in ability and confidence. It’s a magical thing really to be able to share in the successes and of course inevitable failures of a young chef.
What’s your culinary philosophy, summed up in a sentence?
Cook from the heart and never think you know everything.
What does the great British public need to know about Italian seafood? What one thing would you tell them, if you had a megaphone and the entire country’s ear?
The Italians ‘live to eat’ they do not ‘eat to live’ seafood isn’t food to an Italian its way, way more than that! With our busy lives and drudgery we can all learn a lot from that and gain deeper happiness.
What advice would you give to aspiring chefs who’d want the kind of results that you’ve had?
Bit of a cliché but don’t be afraid to make mistakes, learn from them. I also believe you need a certain swagger to be a good chef, it’s OK to be cocky as long as its respectful, I love seeing confident young chefs who are ready to take on the world, they can’t wait to eat up all the knowledge and experiences that come their way. It’s awesome to see it.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing instead?
Lead singer in the coolest band of course!
Personally, what’ are your most beloved and most hated foods?
Most beloved is Spanking fresh fish! Most hated; anything with hydrogenated fat, it’s obscene. Bread, for instance, shouldn’t be able to stay fresh for 3 weeks. It’s not natural!
What’s one food that most British people haven’t tried, but you think they should?
It’s Italian, naturally. I would suggest they try fresh squid ink pasta, its a typical bit of genius from the Italian kitchen. It’s addictive and adds such a subtle flavour to seafood pasta recipes and when it’s fresh it gives your sauce a unctuousness that just rocks.
And we always ask two customary ridiculous questions…
If you got a job as head chef on the Death Star, and had to prepare a meal for Lord Vader, what would you cook him?
Tiramisu… it’s bitter sweet… perfect for Lord Vader
Same again, but now you’re head chef in Mordor and they want you to make a dish for the Dark Lord Sauron…
An extra spicy seafood arrabiata dish!