Gino D’Acampo on his his wild childhood, family cooking and a sensible work-life balance

Ella Walker, PA

According to Gino D’Acampo, what’s on the dinner table is actually far less crucial than what’s going on around it.

The Italian chef, 45 – known for his tan, family-friendly recipes and a certain level of moodiness – says at dinnertime the ‘talking is more important than the food, to be honest with you, because there’s no point having a great meal and everybody don’t talk to each other. Or everybody is distracted watching television – that is not the way’.

The D’Acampo household – the presenter and cookbook author shares three children, Luciano, 19, Rocco, 16, Mia, 8, with wife Jessica – eat together at 8pm every night. “We don’t have mobile phones or television on or radio or anything like that. My family knows that when we eat, there is no distraction,” he explains. “We enjoy the meal, and we talk.”

His kids never really had any choice when it came to appreciating food. “My wife is a great cook, I cook, so all our conversation, all our arguments, all our everything, always happens in the kitchen,” he says intensely. The only rebellions he gets are when it’s time to wash up – but, “I have organised myself for that,” he says with a laugh. “I got two dishwashers in the kitchen, so nobody has any excuses.”

Family life is at the core of D’Acampo’s new cookbook and ITV series, Gino’s Italian Family Adventure. But for a chef with three kids, a restaurant empire, cookbooks to write, Family Fortunes to present, and many a trip booked with Gordon Ramsay and Fred Sirieix for their buddy series, Gordon, Gino And Fred: Road Trip, how does he balance work with family life?

“Very easily; I don’t work a lot. No, I holiday with my family about six months of the year and I work the other six months, so my balance is at the moment, perfect,” he explains. “I only work if I can take the same amount of holidays. OK? So if you ask me to work seven months of the year, I won’t do that, because that is not a good balance to me.

It’s a very fortunate position to be in.

“I was not born to work like a donkey,” he continues. “Otherwise, I would have been born a donkey. You know? I have the luck to be born a human. And I want to enjoy my life.”

D’Acampo dedicates the book to his late parents, Ciro and Alba: ‘hard-working people’ who were out from around 7am in the morning to 7-8pm at night, meaning D’Acampo would cook for himself and his sister. Whether it was making fried eggs on toast, sandwiches or a chicken breast with a little lemon sauce, ‘it was a wonderful time,’ he remembers fondly, and anyway ‘my parents, they weren’t great cooks’, he adds – just as fondly. “My father was absolutely useless in the kitchen, my mum a little better.”

His dad would eat anything, ‘as long as you don’t put the tomato skin in his dish.’ D’Acampo has often spoken of his grandfather – a chef – having a big influence on him. “My grandfather never saw me open restaurants. My grandfather never saw me on television. My grandfather never saw one of my cookbooks – and I wrote 17 of them, that is the only kind of regret I have,” says D’Acampo. When considering what his grandfather would say of his latest recipe collection, he adds: “He would ever be super-duper proud.”

D’Acampo is well aware of his roots and how different the lives of his children are in comparison to his. Growing up in southern Italy, he barely had enough money to get to the end of the month – but this wasn’t the only difference. “I was always out when I was a kid. When is the last time you saw a child playing with a football outside in the middle of the street?” he asks, mildly furious. “When I was a boy, we were eternally on the road, playing football, on the bikes, doing some weird and wonderful things.”

He remembers coming home absolutely starving for dinner, but now snacking is the norm. “Nowadays you can open a cupboard, you can have a chocolate bar, you can have this, you can have that. You know what I mean? When I used to be a kid, good luck if you get a bloody sweet.’

His kids, he says – matter-of-factly rather than harshly – ‘have no bloody idea what it means, struggling with money, struggling with life”.

“I don’t blame them, it’s not their fault,” he continues, “but it’s very difficult for me to inject that kind of mentality when nowadays, they got everything.”

D’Acampo is well aware not all families do have everything, and he finds the rise in the reliance on food banks both desperate and maddening. “I think about people in 2021 struggling with food; that makes me really sad, really angry with the world,” he says. “On one side you look at the wastage we have in food and you think what the f***, what are we doing here? We throw food in the bin; supermarkets throw food in the bin left, right and centre, yet there are people in 2021 who struggle to eat.” Change is possible, but he argues we all have to make it happen together: “Like climate change, it needs a global effort.”

The new cookbook might not solve climate change, but it has certainly been a group effort. D’Acampo is at pains to point out how many people have tried the recipes in it. The book’s been ‘tested to death’ and features dishes written by his wife and kids. It’s a cookbook designed ‘not just from a chef point of view’, he says, but also from a ‘housewife point of view; from a teenager point of view; from a child’s point of view.’

Perhaps strangely for a chef and cookbook author, D’Acampo says he doesn’t want to ’force anybody to cook.’

“If you approach the kitchen with negativity, look, just go and get a takeaway, get a ready meal,” he says blithely. “It’s about creating a balance. Right? So, if throughout the week, one day you’re getting a takeaway and one day you get a ready meal and the rest of it you cook yourself, fantastic.” And on those nights you do cook, he and his family are happy to provide the recipes.

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