Top chef lifts the lid off the Upper Room charity kitchen in St Saviour’s Church, Wendell Park.
What does your name mean?
Calvo is Italian for bald, which I’ll never be. And Coressi derives from the Greek island of Chios in the Aegean – below Lesbos, near the Turkish coast.
What got you into cooking?
As a child I always liked ambitious food like seafood and mussels, which I remember eating with my uncle on a family holiday in Brittany. It’s my Mediterranean side.
Were you born abroad?
I was born in Kent. I’m as English as they come though feel Mediterranean. Father was a stockbroker, but his family were wealthy cloth merchants in Greece and India, the Ralli Brothers, all from the island of Chios. My mother’s brother was Ludovic Kennedy.
Did your parents approve of you becoming a chef?
I’m sure they did.
Where did you train?
On the job. I started as a pot washer in a restaurant called Oliver’s on Holland Road. Then I went travelling to America and ended up in Vail in Colorado, where I worked for Luc Myer, a brilliant restaurateur, in The Left Bank, President Ford’s favourite restaurant. I became Luc Myer’s Assistant Chef and he was my mentor, but sadly I didn’t have a work permit so I had to leave.
Where did you go?
I came back to England, which was pretty miserable in 1974. I’d just left the holiday environment of Vail for England, which was bang in the middle of The Three-Day Week. I worked as a commis chef at the original Quaglino’s off Jermyn Street and then I moved to France where I got a job in a restaurant in Nantes, a classic family-run French bistro with check tablecloths and copper pots. It was where I first killed a lobster. Then I went to Paris and worked in the Latin Quarter at Dodin-Bouffant. That was a proper restaurant –with superb ingredients. Then I came back here and worked for Justin de Blank, yet again using superb ingredients – that’s the key to good cooking. Then I worked on the Fulham Road in Fingals, Richard Johnston’s fashionable place.
I cooked for the Queen.
Which celebrities have you cooked for?
I’ve cooked for the Queen. Virginia, who worked with me at Fingals, became Princess Anne’s cook and she asked me to come over to Gatcombe Park when the Queen came to stay. Princess Anne was a lovely woman. The first night was quite tense, I can tell you. I nearly burnt the béchamel!
Did you ever consider opening your own restaurant?
I did – from ‘83 to ‘86. It was called Calvo’s, on the New King’s Road. It was great fun. After that I worked in various establishments till 2000 when I went freelance, cooking dinner parties and for families on holiday in French chateaux and English manor houses.
How did you end up working for the Upper Room?
In 2012 I saw an ad in Leith’s online. Since then I’ve cooked 59,000 meals. We serve a three-course meal at 5.30pm every day, Monday to Friday, 47 weeks a year. We feed maybe 90 clients – we call them clients – and they’re good people. Not all of them are homeless. Some just come for the company.
How do you feel when people refer to it as a soup kitchen?
It’s not a soup kitchen. It’s a super kitchen. Yes, today I’m serving soup as a starter but it’s homemade tomato, three kilos of fresh tomatoes plus red pepper. I’ll follow that with boeuf bourguignon with pearl barley: proper food. Simple food, but proper food: fuel for the soul. I’m good at what I do and I’m proud of it.
Is the work depressing, seeing so many unfortunate people every day?
I find it uplifting. We’re all human beings. And my colleagues and all the volunteers are fantastic people. We make each other laugh.
Where do you get your ingredients?
Everything’s donated. Charlie Bigham’s over at Park Royal, they’re very generous. We get a lot from the supermarkets. Waitrose and Whole Foods give us a lot. I’m passionate about food wastage. They need to clarify all the labeling. Everyone’s confused about use by or best before. They should keep it simple. Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall is quite right on wastage.
Would you ever go on Professional Masterchef?
Too scary. I’m very camera-friendly but, no, that would be too stressful.
You're quite the showman. Have you ever acted?
I used to be in the Kensington Drama Company. We did Cyrano de Bergerac. It was a hoot.
What would be your dream part?
I don’t know but it would have to be comedy. I’m a comedian. I make people laugh. Ask anyone here.
Who makes you laugh?
Peter Sellers, Peter Cook, Billy Connolly, Norman Wisdom, Frazier... This is my stage. I like acting but I’d prefer to have my own TV show.
Which TV chefs inspire you?
My favourite is Keith Floyd without a doubt. And James Martin’s a good bloke. He’s a good cook too. I like the way he just gets on with it.
Do you do what you do out of middle-class guilt?
No, I do it because I really like looking after people and the best way to look after people is to feed them good food. I do it because I can. I believe life is a series of crossroads and one road led me here. I’m trying to be a kind, sharing, bloke. In fact, I’m writing a book about it all. I’ve had an interesting life in food and I want to share it.
Thank you, Andrew. It’s been a real pleasure to meet you.
Interviewed by Jo Reynolds Feb 2016to top | home