Xier: Carlo Scotto’s eccentric masterpiece

Xier: Carlo Scotto’s eccentric masterpiece

by Pete Dreyer 18 November 2019

After his childhood was rocked by a family tragedy, Carlo Scotto found a home in the kitchen and never looked back. This year he launched Xier in Marylebone, and his unique perspective has given birth to one of London’s most exciting new restaurants. Photography: Lateef Photography

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs and trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London. Although there’s very little he won’t eat, his real passion is health and nutrition, and showing people that healthy food can be delicious too. When he’s not writing or cooking, you’ll probably find him engrossed in a bowl of pho.

As someone who loves food and lives in a t-shirt and trainers (lots of different ones, mind), the rapid rise of casual fine dining has treated me very well indeed. I’m fortunate, perhaps, that I wasn’t born a couple of decades earlier, when I would have had to shine a pair of shoes and don a suit just to get a decent meal. Starchy, old-fashioned fine dining has never really suited me, and as I walk into Xier with my plus one I feel a slight back-of-the-neck prickle; the staff are smartly-dressed in suits, there’s gentle piano music in the background, the tablecloths are immaculate. It’s all of my dining fears rolled into a single package.

Before long though, any misgivings I have have disappeared; Xier is very smart but there’s no stuffiness about it. Our waiter for the evening is utterly charming, and possesses an uncanny ability of being present at all the right moments. The menu is daring and ambitious, but everything works seamlessly. A dish of raw Orkney scallop, trout roe and elderflower miso dashi is a masterful balance of flavours. Rose-cured salmon with foie gras could be a car crash, but unusual elements come together in harmony, married by sweet figs and roasted hazelnuts. The desserts are stupendous – a faultless trio of picture-perfect patisserie creations that deserve to be exhibited as sculptures.

We’re not the only people who have had a revelatory food experience at Xier. When Guardian food critic Grace Dent visited the restaurant last May, she compared it to The Ledbury – Brett Graham’s magnum opus in Notting Hill. ‘It’s not just one star,’ she said of the cooking. ‘It’s more like two.’ This sort of consensus made Xier somewhat of a favourite to win a Michelin star on debut, but when the Michelin awards arrived Xier was a conspicuous absentee. ‘When we’re down in the kitchen, our goal is to try and blow everyone away,’ explains head chef Carlo Scotto. ‘We’re doing everything correctly by our standards, but it’s still hard to know how people are receiving it. When Grace Dent gave us ten out of ten and said we were at a two-Michelin star level, I was like, ‘wow, are we really that good?’’

You'll find Xier on Marylebone High Street in central London, just around the corner from The Wallace Collection
The beautiful interior is made up of serene blues and greys

Although disappointed to not receive a star, Carlo and his team are bolstered by public opinion and are confident that they’re on the right track. Carlo himself knows a thing or two about Michelin star-level cooking – he had lengthy spells with Angela Hartnett at Murano and as sous chef at Galvin La Chapelle with Jeff Galvin before opening Xier. Both became important mentors to the young chef: ‘Chris and Jeff (Galvin) are both incredible,’ he says. ‘I worked mostly with Jeff. He had an amazing work ethic – he would be in the kitchen at 8am prepping with us, no matter what. I’m very proud and honoured to have cooked with him.’ Angela, he says, was the first chef who really helped him unlock his creativity. ‘I don’t think Angela really knows what she did for me,’ he continues. ‘I think before I got to Murano I was holding a lot back – she taught me to release the person I really was.’

The Carlo I met is engaging and affable with a mischievous sense of humour, but things have not always come so easily to him. As a young boy growing up in Naples he suffered a terrible tragedy – Carlo lost his brother at a very young age, and the effect was profound. ‘It was a very dark time,’ he says. ‘I was only six or seven years old – to see my mum going through that was very difficult. My family was grieving and they couldn’t look after me, so I became a very troubled kid.’

Carlo felt he had to fend for himself and fight for his own happiness, so at just thirteen years old, he found a job in the kitchen of Don Salvatore – a popular Michelin-starred restaurant near the coast at Mergellina, just outside Naples. Head chef Salvatore wasn’t interested at first, but Carlo convinced him to take him on, fuelled by a desire to prove himself and to belong. ‘I asked for a job and he told me he wasn’t interested,’ says Carlo. ‘I took that as a challenge. Everything I did, I had to do it at my best, even if it was just brushing the floor.’

Soon, Salvatore’s young charge was beating him into the kitchen every morning. ‘Chef was always the first in the kitchen,’ he continues, ‘so I had to be in before him.’ Carlo’s resolute determination eventually won his chef over – Salvatore took him under his wing and the kitchen at Don Salvatore became his home: ‘The shouting, the bleeding, the tears that I saw, it was nothing for me,’ Carlo explains. ‘Putting my chef jacket on was easy because life at home was difficult – the kitchen became my safe place.’

Orkney scallop crudo, trout roe, elderflower miso dashi
Rose-cured salmon, foie gras, fig, hazelnut and apple

It was the beginning of Carlo’s reformation in earnest – the start of the self-belief that brought him to Xier. He travelled the world – Europe, America, Japan – and eventually arrived in the UK, where he has settled happily with his wife, son and daughter. His extensive travelling feeds into his inventive, sometimes off-the-wall dish ideas – there are clear Japanese, Nordic and European influences in his food, from the pine water that comes as a palate cleanser to dishes like beurre noisette gnocchi in warm kombu tea and Orkney scallop crudo with trout roe and elderflower miso dashi.

Some of the most unusual items on the menu have been born out of pure chance, but Carlo creates an environment that fosters these sorts of happy accidents. ‘We were trying to create a sorbet inside a grape using dry ice,’ says Carlo of one such experiment. ‘I completely forgot about it in the fridge. I opened the box the next day and a huge cloud of CO2 came up, and the grapes were fizzy inside!’ These fizzy grapes have become one of Xier’s calling cards, accompanying the cheese course.

Xier may not have won that Michelin star this year, but the future looks incredibly bright for Carlo and his restaurant. His fresh approach straddles the worlds of casual and formal fine dining in a way that I wouldn’t have thought possible once. Carlo’s hardships have become his strengths – his work ethic, creativity and passion are born from an inner strength that was forged in that tragedy. That unrelenting fire to prove himself is still burning. It has made him an outlier, but an exciting one from a food standpoint. ‘I still remember the experiences I had when I was young,’ he says. ‘I still don’t sleep very well. But we all have our own stories. I had a bad start, it doesn’t mean that the rest of it has to be bad. Seeing the suffering around you gives you a very different perspective of life, you see things from a different point of view.’ In Xier, Carlo’s perspective is on full display and it’s something special to behold.