There are upsides and downsides to growing up in a family who all work in the restaurant industry. You’ll be much more likely to get a decent, home-cooked meal every night, but you’ll also probably be expected to help out at the weekends from a very young age. This was certainly the case for Ernesto Iaccarino, whose mother and father ran a trattoria on the Amalfi coast.
Watching his parents working in the kitchen and front of house (and, by his own admission, making quite a mess when trying to lend a helping hand) meant he started cooking from an early age along with his brother Mario. Every weekend they would serve water and wine to customers, making socialising quite hard when they became teenagers – any late nights would have to be kept secret and if Ernesto wasn’t working at his best the next day he’d risk a clip around the ear from his father.
While this might sound a bit severe, there were plenty of advantages to working from such a young age. Ernesto’s parents would take him to the best restaurants in Europe and around the world to help develop his palate. ‘Receiving that kind of education whilst growing up helped me later in life,’ he says. ‘If you get used to being treated strictly when you’re small, you learn to cope better with adversity.’
Ernesto excelled at school during his youth, particularly in chemistry, and eventually went on to study economics at the University of Naples. While he always had a passion for food, he decided to further his education so he could enter the world of professional cooking with a degree. Soon after graduating, however, he found himself unfulfilled. ‘One day I looked in the mirror and realised I knew no more than what I did before,’ explains Ernesto. ‘I didn’t know how to work, because no one had taught me – all I had done was pass exams, and they were only theory.’ He then took a job in Milan at an auditing company and, once he had learnt how to turn his studies into work, he decided to return to his real love – food. While he had been away studying and working, his parents’ trattoria had become a highly regarded restaurant called Don Alfonso, finally rewarding them for all their hard work and sacrifice over the years. In 1999, Ernesto called his father and said he was coming home.
After asking for a job in the kitchen, Ernesto began to work as hard as he could at Don Alfonso. One morning, he woke up before everyone else and prepared two dishes of his own making, calling in his mother and father to taste them. The dishes ended up on the menu and just one month later became the most popular. ‘I had waited for that moment for so long, the emotion almost suffocated me,’ says Ernesto. ‘My father stopped considering me a nuisance and began to trust me.’
Seventeen years later and Ernesto is now head chef at Don Alfonso. His father is now retired but continues to look after the family gardens, where all the vegetables are grown for the restaurant. The menu reflects Ernesto’s own life, particularly childhood memories, like the time he went to drink some milk from the fridge which had been sitting next to some of his father’s truffles, infusing it with their aroma. The dishes follow his inner journey, highlighting the family’s own produce from the garden and celebrating the flavours of the Amalfi coast. These days, the only thing Ernesto lacks is time: ‘I am never satisfied. I wish I had more time to experiment in the kitchen.’
Three things you should know
Ernesto is incredibly passionate about using fresh produce and makes the most of the local olive oils, lemons and seafood throughout his cuisine.
In 1990 and again in 2013, Ernesto went to Japan to discover the country’s food and drink. It was here that he gained a newfound respect for ingredients, and he started to include at international influences in his cooking.
One of Ernesto’s favourite dishes is a simple combination of good pasta, salt, garlic, good quality extra virgin olive oil and Vesuvius tomatoes.