Why celebrity chef Aldo Zilli is raising awareness of youth homelessness

23rd Apr 18 | Lifestyle

The Italian chef’s own experience of homelessness has inspired his latest project.

Aldo Zilli knows how to draw a crowd. The celebrity chef’s first London restaurant, Signor Zilli, opened 30 years ago and quickly became a celebrity hang-out, counting George Michael amongst its regulars.

Since then, the exuberant Italian has owned eateries across London, and appeared on everything from This Morning to Saturday Night Takeaway to MasterChef.

But Zilli’s life wasn’t always so glamorous, and it’s his experience of homelessness as a teenager that has inspired his newest venture.

Zilli congratulating Omero Gallucci, winner of Centrepoint's first Big Broth competition (Centrepoint/PA)
Zilli congratulating Omero Gallucci, winner of Centrepoint’s first Big Broth competition (Centrepoint/PA)

“I was homeless myself, and now I have some kind of status in the industry, I like to give back,” Zilli explains. He’s done that by joining the judging panel for The Big Broth, a contest run by charity Centrepoint, to find Britain’s best homemade soup recipe.

He was joined by fellow judges including Radio 2 presenter Sara Cox and food writer Tom Parker Bowles, and helped pick a red pepper and chorizo recipe as the contest’s first ever winner.

Zilli lived on the streets of Munich after leaving his small Italian village at the age of 17. “I didn’t do my homework properly so I obviously didn’t take enough money,” he says, having borrowed only a hundred thousand lira (around £65) from his mother. “Three or four days later it ran out. No food, no accommodation.”

Zilli on the judges' panel (Centrepoint/PA)
Zilli (second from right) on the judges’ panel (Centrepoint/PA)

He spent “about a month” sleeping rough at petrol stations and anywhere else he could get shelter. “[It] feels like a year when you’re out in the street,” he says. “There’s a lot of boredom, there’s a lot of freezing cold, it was snowing, it was horrible.”

It was while Zilli was asking for food outside a restaurant that he caught a lucky break. “One day I got talking to this guy and he said to me, ‘I’ll try and get you in,’ so he did. And I got myself started somehow.”

Zilli moved to London shortly afterwards, rising through the culinary ranks before opening his first solo venture in 1988 – but the issue of youth homelessness has stayed close to his heart.

“As soon as I got to Soho, that’s when I started experiencing that there’s a lot of people in the streets, for different reasons,” he says. “I’ve experienced it all my British life to be honest – and it’s not getting any better. That’s why I’m stunned – I’m appalled – [by] the fact we still manage to have so many young people on the streets.”

The Big Broth campaign featured celebrity judges including Sara Cox and food writers including Tom Parker Bowles and William Sitwell (Centrepoint/PA)
The Big Broth campaign featured celebrity judges including Sara Cox and food writers including Tom Parker Bowles and William Sitwell (Centrepoint/PA)

That sentiment has fuelled years of charity work on the issue, including Centrepoint’s soup cook-off campaign. And Zilli hopes that the project, and Gallucci’s winning soup, help bring about more recognition of the issue being tackled.

“We need more awareness,” he says. “I think everybody likes to brush [homelessness] under the carpet – nobody likes to face up to it.”

Omero Gallucci’s chorizo concoction will be sold in Waitrose from October and will raise 20p for each carton sold. Visit Centrepoint for more details.

© Press Association 2018

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