Why Pasta Should Be Sexy, Not Carby
Chef Tim Siadatan of London Italian restaurant Padella doesn’t think pasta should be a food coma-inducing carb fest.
"I went on a tour of Italy in search of the perfect pasta. I realised at the end of that trip that it doesn't exist."
I'm sitting in Padella, a pasta bar on the outskirts of Borough Market in London. It opened at the end of March and I'm talking with chef and co-owner Tim Siadatan.
The place specialises in fresh, handmade pastas and the easiest way to spot it among the pavement traffic of Southwark Street is either by a queue of people winding out the door, or tourists gathered round the front windows, gawking at the staff purposely positioned at Padella's floor-to-ceiling windows, rolling dough and cranking out golden pasta sheets.
Siadatan continues: "Just do it your own way because there's no one set rule and everyone thinks their way is best. But that's what I love about the Italians."
It was Jamie Oliver who first sparked Siadatan's interest in Italian food. And no, not through an existential experience at his local Jamie's Italian.
"I was in the first set of graduates from Jamie's Fifteen programme in 2002 [the chef apprenticeship scheme] and at that time he was known as "The Naked Chef," and our training was very much about Italian food," Siadatan says. "We'd go on trips to Italy and I started to fall in love properly when we were in Tuscany visiting at harvest time for wine or olive oil."
After stints at the North African and Spanish-inspired restaurant Moro and British nose-to-tail pioneers St. John, Siadatan, along with co-founder Jordan Frieda, opened his first Italian restaurant, Trullo, in 2010.
"The River Café also played a huge part in why we set up an Italian place," explains Siadatan. "We all ate there and Jordan worked there for a while. And although after I graduated from Fifteen, I didn't work in Italian restaurants, Moro and St. John both share the same philosophy and culture as Italians."
"Get your hands on the best produce, eat seasonal, don't play around with the ingredients too much, and love what you do," says Siadatan.
As the Padella kitchen team continue their pasta prep for lunchtime service, another tray of freshly cut tagliarini is plonked down ready for rolling. Siadatan clears some space to show me his pasta philosophy in action.
Tearing my eyes away from the delicious-looking piles of fresh pasta on the counter (I've decided this place is my spiritual home), I watch as Siadatan starts to pass the dough through the pasta machine, flattening it for ravioli which will be stuffed with ricotta.
"With Padella, we wanted to focus on doing one or two techniques really well and having a short menu. Partly we did it because you can keep control of it and partly it's the market," says Siadatan. "Whether it's through the pizza or burger revolution, people enjoy these single-item menus. That gave us the confidence to do this."
As he starts to dollop (Siadatan confirms that's the technical term) the ricotta onto the pasta sheet, I ask whether London is now in for a pasta revolution. Effortlessly tucking the ricotta blobs (my word now, not his) into their pasta parcels and cutting them out with panache, Siadatan laughs.
"I don't think this is the pasta revolution," he says. "There was an anti-carb fad going on for a while but the truth of it was that there were, and are now, a lot of people eating carbs."
But Siadatan admits that does disagree with the way Brits eat pasta: "I don't understand why you'd eat a huge bowl of pasta a couple of hours before going to bed—I think it's an Anglicised and American thing. But it just puts you in a carb coma and you don't sleep well."
He continues: "We get feedback that our portions are small but I think that's just a cultural thing. The thing I love about pasta is that you can eat quite regally and the dish can be elegant and sexy. It doesn't need to be a huge carb fest."
"Elegant" and "sexy" may not be the first words that spring to mind for the next dish Siadatan prepares. The pici—a type of long, noodle-like pasta—looks a bit like a plate of worms when it's prepared. It was on Padella's opening menu as cacio e pepe (literally translating as "cheese and pepper") but currently takes its form with marjoram and golden garlic.
"The pici is the most frugal of them all because it's just made from flour and water," explains Siadatan. "The pici dish was talked about a lot when we opened."
I manage to stop myself from making a pici fangirl comment about the dish.
"I think it was because no one had heard about it before," continues Siadatan. "It looks a bit weird and it's kind of beautifully unattractive."
So, why did he decide to put a dish that barely even seen within the regions of its origin, Tuscany and Umbria?
"Because it's fucking awesome. That's it."
It was the pici cacio e pepe that sent Siadatan on the aforementioned pasta pilgrimage.
"I spoke to about 12 different places that did it the cacio e pepe," he explains. "From high end restaurants to a nonna's kitchen, they were all adamant that their way was the right way, even though the tweaks between each one were so minor."
Rolling out the dough into long strands ("It's just a bit like rolling plasticine"), Siadatan tells me that rather than try to strive for authenticity, the approach at both Padella and Trullo is to adapt.
"The way that we cook is inspired by Italian cooking but obviously we're doing it in the UK," he says. "I've done what Italians have always done and come back from Italy into my area, and use the surrounding produce as much as we can and my conditioning from Moro and St. John to get creative with it."
But Siadatan admits that it doesn't always work.
"For a while, I started experimenting a bit too much and tried to do a crossover with the food inspired by Moro," he remembers. "This strange Middle Eastern/North African/Italian mix. That was probably a bit too off-piste."
The cacio e pepe, however, is one dish that he's fully confident in.
"In Tuscany, they use Pecorino and we're using Parmesan. My Tuscan friends are like, 'That's not right' and I say, 'I know but I'm doing it because I think it tastes better.'"
Sounds to me like Siadatan did find his perfect pici. And some of the pride from the Italian nonnas rubbed off too.
All photos by Liz Seabrook.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in August 2016.