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Bravissimo! Italian chef on fame and fine food

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Italian-Australian chef Romeo Rigo is no stranger to fame. His career began in the 1960s when he left Venice to work as the personal chef of Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt. Today, he hosts cooking segments on Weekly TV and ABC Radio in Australia and is currently a penning a cook book.

This week, Rigo will spend four days at the Sofitel turning out special dishes and leading a cooking workshop. Proud and flamboyant, Romeo spoke with 7Days about his life as a celebrity chef.

When did you choose to become a chef?
I was studying to be a dental technologist. In my last year of university, when the exam came and I had to do an autopsy, I fell down like a bag of potatoes because I just couldn’t handle it. Then I had a problem with my father. He was a doctor, and because of the old Italian mentality, he wouldn’t talk to me because I didn’t want to continue my career in medicine like him. So I decided to become a chef, and I got an apprenticeship at the Cipriani Hotel (in Venice). That was about 50 years ago.

Why do you still cook after all these years?
I can’t stay away from cooking. Its love, its like a drug. For a lot of people, cooking is just money. I never look at it that way, I look it at for the enjoyment and creativity of creating good dishes. It’s a wonderful thing.

Your first chef job was working for Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt. What was he like?
He was absolutely a fantastic person. The day he disappeared, I was at his house in Portsea preparing breakfast. It happened early in the morning, and we did not find out until about 10:30am that he had disappeared. He dived into the ocean, and never came back to the surface. The water was moving out to sea at about nine knots, and by the time they began the search he was gone. They never found his body. Whenever I think about it, I feel upset. He was a beautiful, wonderful man, and I think the best prime minister we have had. And he loved his food.

Any other famous people you’ve served?
I’ve served Johnny Cocker, the Rolling Stones, Tony Bennett. You name it. I’ve got all the big followers. I’ve got them coming after me after 10 years, or more. Once, I was in the kitchen, and my dining room manager came in and said that there was a gentleman who wanted to see me. I knew him from somewhere but couldn’t recognize him. He got up, big as he was, and said, “Don’t you remember me?” And I remembered, oh my God! It’s Barry White!

People call you a celebrity chef. Do you enjoy being in the spotlight?
I don’t mind, it’s fun. But for me, I prefer to be in the kitchen teaching the young generation.

Does it take a special kind of person to be a chef?
We’re another breed of people. We can talk for two hours about what we’re going to cook and how we’re going to cook it, and not much else. A lot of people call us workaholics, but it is love for what you do.

What culinary trends can you not stand the most?
Changing the name of a dish to make it sound Italian when it is not Italian. I hate that.

What food do you despise?
Fast food, I hate it. First of all, the people don’t really know what they’re eating because they can put anything it. Secondly, all the cheap cuts of meat they cover up with spices. It’s frozen when they cook it, it’s dry, not juicy, it’s terrible. I can’t describe it any other way. Mind you, I’ve tried them all. The only one I could stand a little bit was Kentucky Fried Chicken, but I had to peel off the skin and only eat the meat.

Have you discovered any great Khmer dishes since you arrived?
My manager recently took me to Sugar Palm. To be honest with you, I was very surprised. It was a nice little restaurant. The guy cooked me a dish which was called, I think, Amok with seafood. It was served and cooked in a coconut shell, and me being a chef, I thought that the flavour was nice and clean and fresh.

What do you like most about Phnom Penh?
The people are so polite, so beautiful.

 I don’t think they have bad bones in their body. Everyone wants to help and they smile at you all the time. They’re happy people, they’re not like people in Europe or the States.

In some places in the world, they make you feel inferior. Here, they make you feel like they’ve known you for a thousand years.

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