Chef Aldo Zilli is getting used to being mobbed – it comes with the celebrity territory. One of his next big dates is at the Taste of Birmingham festival which runs from July 10-13. SelectLiving talks to the Italian who has added some pizzazz to the pasta.
En route to gym before a day in the kitchens at one of his London restaurants, Aldo Zilli admits that he thrives on keeping busy.
Just 24 hours earlier Aldo was being ‘mobbed’, as he calls it, by fans all keen to meet the chef who has given Italian cuisine a refreshing lease of life.
His guest appearance at the Taste of London festival has given him a flavour about what to expect in Birmingham – literally.
“It’s very hard work and a very busy schedule but I like meeting the people,” reveals Aldo, who found a wider fan base after losing two stone on ITV’s Celebrity Fit Club.
He has maintained the weight loss and admits: “That programme changed my life. I was not in a good place before I started that programme. My business was not doing well, I had some family problems and personal problems and it took me away from all of this and gave me a new lease of life.
“It means I could have a better love affair with food and alcohol.”
Drinking alcohol was simply a part of growing up in Italy but Aldo admits: “I didn’t realise that three or four glasses was not the best thing to do because I was brought up with it.”
Millions tuned in each week to watch Aldo and other celebrities battle with their weight and the chef’s transformation ensures he is still quizzed about his change of lifestyle.
“It was about changing not your body but your mind,” says Aldo.
He found the inspiration to once again focus on his restaurants in London and since then has grown the Zilli empire – the latest challenge is the opening of a new restaurant in Brighton.
Aldo still takes major prides his success.
“The newest restaurant in Brighton is different yet again. We are not a chain and each one has something different to offer. I want people to come for their breakfast, lunch and dinner and they are doing that in Brighton.”
The hands-on approach means that Aldo still finds time to wander the markets looking for fresh inspiration.
Fish is a speciality of the Zilli eating places and diners can expect dishes like black cod and Japanese sashimi.
Birmingham is a favourite destination for Aldo who is impressed with the development of the city’s culinary opportunities.
Italian influenced restaurants like San Carlo have made an impression on Aldo but on his last visit he took time out to eat at Opus.
“It was very good. I like to the ways chefs use different ingredients,” says Aldo, who adds: “I don’t eat Italian because I can cook better myself.”
Instead he looks at ways different culinary styles can be used in his restaurants.
“We always get ideas off each other. The best in the industry never feel they have really learned everything and when they do there is always something else to learn.”
Aldo has had a lot to learn since, fresh out of catering college, he arrived in this country at the age of 19.
The teenager had grown up in an Italian fishing village and still draws on the knowledge he gained from watching his mother cook to create new dishes.
“I came to visit, it was meant to be a holiday – I was on my way to somewhere else but I got here and then I found a job and for some reason I stayed.”
When pushed, the Italian admits that Sweden would have been his chosen destination – “I was going to look for tall blondes but didn’t get there”.
Sweden’s loss was this country’s culinary gain – he still met the blondes but spotted an opportunity to introduce Italian cuisine to a fresh audience.
In the 1980s the doors opened at Aldo’s first restaurant Signor Zilli, with others coming in the 90s to critical acclaim. Television appearances have given Aldo fresh opportunities to show viewers a new way of creating Italian style dishes and his flagship Zilli Fish restaurant in Soho has earned respect for its stylish approach.
The health-conscious Aldo has adapted dishes to give diners all the taste with less of the calories but the biggest pull is the way each menu switches and changes according to the seasons.
“People are still very, very interested in what I eat and how I can maintain my weight,” admits Aldo, who adds: “It is a constant battle on a daily basis but that’s the way it is.”
And in spite of the challenges it is clear that Aldo is enjoying his life.
“I never know what job I have got do that day and always enjoy try something new – it is just great. I can never see myself in five years time sitting in a country house doing nothing.
“I don’t want to die. I don’t think I can stop. I love my children and I love spending my time with my children but to be healthy I need to have a healthy mind and you have got to keep going and doing what you love to do.
“I would describe myself as a good restaurant owner. I would describe myself as a very creative chef.”
Good news for anyone who appreciates good Italian cuisine – a man who has found a real zest for life.
* For details about the festival see the website at www.channel4.com/taste
* To book tickets call 0871 230 5581. For more information about Aldo including recipes and restaurants see the website at www.zillialdo.com or for the Brighton restaurant, www.hotels.com