I’ve been branded as a fish expert but with my new restaurant — Zilli Green — they will have to add vegetarian food.
My ultimate aim is to open a vegetarian restaurant in my home town in Italy, to see my brothers pass out. When I arrived in Soho it was very Italian and was like a village. It reminded me of where I came from.
When I started business life at the age of 26, it was simpler. Everything was cash-based. That meant no VAT or tax, no tills and no computers. Whatever you took you put in your pocket. Once you’d paid suppliers the rest was yours. I bought myself a Porsche within six months.
I still cook in Brewer Street nearly every day. I want to see what’s going on and what’s coming in. It’s all very well doing PR, but you’ve got to put food on the table.
I have a very personal approach my restaurants. My customers have favourite tables and I name dishes after customers. People love it. They feel they belong somewhere. It’s about creating that community.
Last year was bad. People thought I was gone, because I wasn’t around much. I took time off. At those times you think, who needs restaurants? My wife says, “don’t stress yourself. Get rid of them, we don’t need them.” She says we could live away from London. But I am the boy from Soho. You can take me out of it, but you can’t take it out of me.
Chefs are competitive people at the best of times. Can you imagine what it’s like on TV? Chefs have become luvvies and rock stars. It’s all about who has the best hairdresser. But a lot of celebrity TV chefs don’t open restaurants because they know how hard it is.
My challenge here is to get non-vegetarians to eat vegetarian. If I can do that I’ve got a winning formula. I’m not hoping that people are going to turn vegetarian. But I want people to understand that they can come here and enjoy it. The reaction to this has been better than any restaurant I’ve opened.
Zilli Green is not just a vegetarian restaurant. Everything’s green. The tables and everything are recycled. Harden’s Guide asked if this was a turning point. Are other chefs going to follow me and wake up to this? In 10 years’ time 25 per cent of the population will be vegetarian. I have a voice in the food industry as a chef and I think there will be a few more people who come with me. Especially when people start to see that it is also a feasible business.
Previously I expanded too quickly. In one year I opened three restaurants and invested £2.5m in the business. Then 9/11 happened, Americans stopped travelling. The Covent Garden restaurant, which had a lot of theatre business, suffered. It was too big to be allowed to suffer. I sold it for peanuts to pay back the banks.
Doing commercials on TV is fine, but putting your money down and working for yourself is tough. You have to be ambitious to think a restaurant will work in this climate. But I would advise young chefs to work towards it. For a chef, nothing is more rewarding than having your own restaurant.
Aldo Zilli’s latest book, Zilli Light: Healthy Italian Eating, is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £20.