It is impossible to mistake Massimo Principe for anything other than an Italian. He is funny, charming and larger than life. In every sense.
One of nine children – four brothers and four sisters – raised in Salerno by his mother and father, a local fisherman, he learned to cook literally at his mother’s knee and understood the value of fresh produce because he ate it everyday.
As Massimo says, “We always had enough food. Never enough beds. But always enough good food.”
As Head Chef at The Gate, Richmond Harbour Hotel’s stylish restaurant, Massimo, finds he is working easily to a brief of serving dishes made with the best ingredients simply because it is what he grew up understanding and enjoying.
He is everything Italian convention requires – friendly and warm – but is now comfortably settled in the UK having worked mostly in Richmond for most of the past two decades. Yet, this giant of a man is also a person of surprises.
Despite looking like he could be useful on a rugby pitch, Massimo began his career as a pastry chef turning out tiny profiteroles, croissants and cakes which were delivered along the Amalfi coast. Hard to imagine since – even as a teenager his hands must have been huge. Massimo started work in his local bakery aged just 13, not unusual for those entering the hospitality sector, but it must have been tough.
After four years he was drafted into the Italian Army, where he moved to the other end of the food spectrum and spent a year serving lasagne, spaghetti Bolognese and melanaze to the troops from industrial-sized serving dishes.
“The Italian Army eats a lot of pasta,” he says with some understatement. “We cooked everything in 25 kilo pans. It was fun but let’s say that at the end of that year I was keen to move back to something on a smaller scale.”
After meeting a young English woman, he moved to the UK and quickly found work at Bar Estilo, a well-known Tapas Restaurant, and then eventually Bacco, still a big favourite on the Richmond restaurant scene. He moved out to Virginia Water where he took up a post at Wentworth Golf Club and then spent four years as Head Chef at nearby Piccolino before heading back our way.
One of the UK’s top executive chef once said that the hallmark of a good restaurant was its ability to produce great stocks, sauces and bread. Massimo produces some of the best bread in town. It would be easy to overdose on his focaccia but diners need to save themselves for his desserts – his Chocolate Delice is fast becoming a local legend. The restaurant sold 210 in the week before RiverTribe went to press. He is working on a warm Chocolate Fondant served with a Bailey’s shot on the side. A festive treat for us all.
Chef Director, at Harbour Hotels, John Pollard, says, “We aim to be a top neighbourhood restaurant serving comfort food – uncomplicated dishes that you want to eat several times a week. Massimo excels at this.”
The Cote de Boeuf is a case in point. Outstanding meat served with chips and Béarnaise sauce – perhaps a salad on the side. Simple but outstandingly only if made with the best ingredients. The Gate orders its meat from Surrey Farms and this is key.
“I am very happy here. We work long hours but the staff are all great people and we are all working towards the same end – providing freshly made food in a setting that people enjoy.”