Our new Italian chef Donato Dondiego has relocated his family down from Surrey to enjoy the mix of fabulous food and family-friendly lifestyle that Cornwall offers.
It’s a brand new challenge following a spell in London and a period in South Africa where he ran his own restaurant, Due Leoni — and cooked for the Italian national football team during the 2010 World Cup — but had to leave because of the high levels of crime and the threat to his family.
We caught up with Donato to find out more about his story, his family and his love of cooking.
Where did you begin your cooking career?
I worked for eleven years in a hotel restaurant in Frascati – a village on the hill of Rome. It was 4-star when I started and I helped to make it 5-star by improving the service and quality of what we offered. I learnt a lot about expectation there. People want consistency. And consistency is so important to build the name. You have to get the foundation right to build something.
So what made you leave Italy?
I met my wife! Lara asked me to go to South Africa and I followed my heart. We got marred in Italy and left in 2006 and the first six months were very hard because I understood what people were saying in English but found it very hard to respond. I found that very restrictive to my personality – it is so frustrating not to be able to communicate. So I would work, finish at 4pm and then go to the English school from 5 until 9pm every weekday. If you hammer it you are going to get it. And I did.
And you went on to run your own restaurant there?
Yes. My father-in-law retired but he is not the sort to stay at home and he had always wanted to own a restaurant but didn’t have a chef. So we bought a restaurant in a suburb of Johannesburg and it needed a lot of work. We changed the structure, provided staff training. I have this philosophy – don’t work hard work smart. And don’t stress.
We won awards from the Italian Embassy and the reviewer Victor Strugo gave us a great write-up and I looked after the Italian Football Team when they came to stay during the World Cup so that was all about providing the right nutrition to them as top athletes and was hard work but an honour to do.
It was. But the crime was bad. We lived in a gated community but they came into restaurant with guns an in the house while Lara was pregnant. Then one day Lara had a bad feeling and came to the restaurant with me and thank goodness she did. She was pregnant with our first child and while we were away they turned our house upside down –even though we lived in a place with security. So it was an inside job. That was enough for me. Life is too short. So we went back to Italy for a year and I worked as a consultant and head chef.
Then you came to the UK?
Yes. In 2012 e made the move to Walton-on-Thames and lived with family at first. I worked for a Mozzarella Bar that opened sites across London. Every region in Italy had a few items displayed on the bar and I was travelling to Naples and Milan to source the cheese. Simple ingredients. Fresh. Done well. I enjoyed that because it’s absolutely where I am coming from as a chef. But then I had to move on because of changes in the management. I spent a while as head chef at a fine dining restaurant called Como which was eventually sold to Raymond Blanc and then I worked as Head Chef at Royal Holloway University for 2 and a half years.
We decided to change the situation for our family and reduce our outgoings and move somewhere we liked. So I was looking and had my CV out and Sam called. I came for the interview and it went well. Then Omar (our Amélies sous chef) showed me the kitchen and where everything was and I was asked to cook anything. I prepared a simple dish of linguini with butterfly prawns in a light sauce – no cream – just an emulsion made from the olive oil and starch from the pasta water. And Sam loved it because it was absolutely in line with the Amélies principles of simple, fresh, delicious ingredients prepared simply and tasting great.
Tell us why you love to cook?
My background is in fine dining but the inspiration for me always comes from finding and cooking the very best fresh produce. And what you can do with what you buy from the market or the things you are brought in the morning. Simple things like what can I do with a punnet of cherry tomatoes. I can make a sauce, I can use it as a compliment for sea bass – you can do anything with the most simple ingredients in the world. Life is about challenges. The challenge to create something — to get the most out of the people who work for you. To make a team. I am there for them and they are there for me. It’s important that I am doing the same thing they are and I lead by example.
What makes Amélies so special?
For me it is all about the philosophy of food – what you are eating and how you prepare it. Everything is prepared from scratch, to order for the individual. Presented beautifully. Even the sauces are made there and then. Everybody wants fresh food not something pre-packaged, frozen or microwaved – you can do that at home. We create fabulous food that tastes and looks great and you can eat it in a fantastic, relaxed setting with friends and family. What makes it stand out is simplicity, quality, the best seasonal and local produce and the amazing flavours of the wood-fired oven.
Who is your inspiration?
I couldn’t do any of it without my wife – she is dedicated and driven and I have so much respect and love for her. She single-handedly moved the two kids and us down here and she is training to be a higher-level teaching assistant as well. I don’t know how she does it. She’s a wonderful woman.
Come and see us soon to sample Donato’s food and soak up the Amélies vibe.