Victor and Carina Contini run three restaurants in Edinburgh. They opened their buzzy Italian restaurant Centotre on George Street in 2004. Its little sister, Zanzero, set up home in Stockbridge in 2007. The latest addition to the family is the Scottish Cafe and Restaurant at the National Galleries of Scotland on The Mound which opened in October.
While Centotre and Zanzero concentrate on fresh, simple Italian dishes, the Scottish Cafe does what it says in the tin and flies the flag for Scottish produce with over 90% of their ingredients coming from small, Scottish suppliers.
‘We are in the National Gallery,’ explains Carina Contini. ‘It’s one of our national treasures and we feel that what we are doing here is acting as ambassadors for Scottish food producers. We are not cooking Italian food; we are pulling together our Italian heritage and Scottish ingredients.’
Before branching out on their own, Victor and Carina worked at Valvona and Crolla.
What is your favourite ingredient to work with?
Carina Contini: Lobster. When I was growing up in Cockenzie, people would leave lobsters at our front door. In the Seventies, there was nobody for the fishermen to sell it to. There weren’t all the restaurants in Edinburgh that there are now so there was no market for lobster. The fishermen knew that my parents liked lobster and would leave them on the door step for us. That was just normal food for us. There was nothing special about it.
On the other hand, I also love gnocchi. Potatoes and flour, they are possibly the cheapest ingredients you can get but if you can make good gnocchi then they are delicious.
What do you like to eat on a night off?
A: Victor and I try to have one night off together each week but we have three children aged seven, five and three. One result is that we tend not go out but prefer to spend time with our family. If we do have a night out then the kids usually come and we’ll go to Angelo’s Osteria in North Berwick, Dakota or Loon Fung. My children have very acquired tastes.
Which chef has inspired you?
A: My Mum and Dad had an ice cream shop, outside catering business and cafe so my Mum cooked for hundreds of people. The menu that we have now at the Scottish Cafe reflects the sort of food I grew up with: simple, enjoyable food. Mum’s an inspiration to me. On Victor’s side, there is all the Valvona and Crolla heritage.
Is there anything you don’t like cooking with?
A: I’m not very good with game; that’s not my speciality. I’m much more comfortable with fish. We might have pigeon or duck on our menus though.
I remember visiting relatives in Italy as a child. Someone had been out hunting and shot three crows. They have a culture of eating everything there. That probably didn’t help when it comes to me and game.
What has been the most exotic thing you have eaten?
A: I don’t eat strange things like alligator. The most exotic thing I’ve eaten would be a variety of cocoa bean or the Venezuela Black chocolate that we buy from Willie Harcourt-Cooze. We are really inspired by what he did.
What gadget/utensil can’t you work without?
A: I’m one of these cooks that doesn’t use gadgets. I’m not into posh equipment but the one thing I couldn’t live without is my blender. It’s great for blitzing tomatoes, making soups and milkshakes for the kids. My mother has every gadget imaginable but they never get used. I like doing things by hand.
Ketchup or Maldon sea salt?
A: Ketchup. No, I’m joking. Sea salt.
You can get anyone in the world to cook you a meal. Who will it be?
A: Victor. That would be a treat. He is a very good cook. There are lots of restaurants in Italy that I like but in Britain I love the River Cafe. It’s a good environment for the children but we can have an adult meal there. I love their style of cooking. Or Marco Pierre White. I think he’s fantastic. His book, White Heat, is just brilliant.
What is the best thing about working in a restaurant?
A: Looking after people. Seeing people look happy after a good meal.
And the worst?
A: Occasionally, I go down and do a service with the boys but I think I’m too old to do it. I’ve not got the stamina. One of the good things that the TV reality shows have done is to show the pressure that the chefs are under during a busy service. It’s incredibly physical. We cook every dish from scratch.
What’s been your worst kitchen disaster?
A: I’ve burnt more pots in my life than I care to remember. When we get it wrong for a customer then that can be devastating. Not meeting their expectations is terrible. You can feed three hundred people and they have a lovely time but it’s the one you get wrong that sticks in the mind.
Who cooks at home?
A: We both do. Last night was Mexican. That is my son Orlando’s favourite. He loves Japanese, Thai, Indian. Trying to get him to eat a plate of pasta is impossible.
Chefs are well known for drinking in moderation but what would you cook for a colleague who was suffering from a hangover?
A: They know me too well to come in with a hangover. Or maybe they are just very good at hiding it from me. They are very loyal and very good so it doesn’t arise. I can’t handle any more than a glass without being tipsy.
You have a hot date planned. What’s cooking?
A: We had a romantic evening on Sunday night with a roast chicken dinner, salad, a bottle of Verddichio and a tub of Graham’s ice-cream. Their ice cream is awesome.
What has been your most memorable meal?
A: Probably at a place called Antica Romana in Rome. We had the most amazing five or six course meal there with all sorts of fish. Afterwards, they take you downstairs and show you this ancient butcher’s shop that has been excavated. That was a very special night.
Tell us your daftest customer complaint?
A: We got a letter the other day saying that our teaspoons were not befitting our restaurant. The person might have a point but we go through around a thousand teaspoons a month. Staff accidentally put them in the bin and people steal them. Everything gets stolen from forks, to salt and pepper shakers, pot plants, Christmas decorations. We have even had someone unscrew the tap handles in the toilets.
What is your best piece of printable kitchen slang?
A: ‘Pronto!’ is probably the most commonly used word in the kitchens. We also call certain customers 007s. They are people from other restaurants who have come in to check out what we are up to. We have lots of other restaurateurs who come to enjoy the food but there are others who do their annual recce and they are the 007s.