Chef profile: Taha Rahman from the Piccolo bistro in Hull

If you’re looking for an inspiring story of adversity conquered by dedication, it’s hard to beat the tale of Taha Rahman.
Taha Rahman from Piccolo's in Hull on Chanterlands Avenue.Taha Rahman from Piccolo's in Hull on Chanterlands Avenue.
Taha Rahman from Piccolo's in Hull on Chanterlands Avenue.

A Kurdish refugee, seeking sanctuary from war, he left home in 2002 and – after some time in Kent – arrived in East Yorkshire in 2005. Taking any available job, Taha found stability as a pot-washer at Italian restaurant La Scala in Beverley. Here, he fell under the wing of celebrated Gambian chef Mo Faty, who taught him first the basics, and then the greater complexities of being a chef.

After vertiginous progress was made, Taha moved to London and learned further craft at various restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Social Eating House in Mayfair. He returned to Hull in 2017 with £15,000 saved from living cheaply and working hard and opened Piccolo on the relatively unfavoured Chanterlands Avenue. It wasn’t an immediate hit and within a short while, Taha was down to his last £400. Then, he says, “the universe came to save me” when a last-minute 18th birthday party booked and “I finally finished the week with more money than I started it with”.

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Piccolo serves predominantly Italian dishes like those at La Scala but with a constantly updated menu also featuring English and Mediterranean dishes learned or invented as Taha continues to develop as a chef. He is only now teaching himself how to make Kurdish dishes, which he tries out on his staff after service.

Ravioli di maiale, one of the dishes served up by Taha Rahman.Ravioli di maiale, one of the dishes served up by Taha Rahman.
Ravioli di maiale, one of the dishes served up by Taha Rahman.

Can you remember the first dish you ever cooked – and was it a success? I used to live with my cousins in Greece and we’d take it in turns to cook. Every night someone else had to feed everyone. When it was my first turn, I had to admit that I’d never cooked. I’d never even turned on an oven. I was 16 at the time and this was my first time away from home. One of my cousins said: “Just put that beef, those beans, those tomatoes and some salt and pepper in a pan and leave it to simmer, but don’t let it boil.” So I did. When my cousins came home from work, the sauce had thickened and I had luckily created a kind of thick stew. Amazingly, everyone loved it.

Who is your inspiration in the kitchen and why? Mo Faty, who taught me how to cook at La Scala. I owe him so much. He trained under several celebrated chefs, including Gordon Ramsay, and he showed me how to cook while I worked as a pot-washer. That’s why I ended up trained in Italian cooking. Not by choice, but by accident. A happy accident because that’s what my mentor cooked. Mo always said any piece of meat or fish he gave me, I cooked perfectly and it was thanks to his praise, and the expertise he passed onto me, that I had the confidence to go to London. He made my career.

What was the first recipe book you ever owned? I don’t know if this is a bad thing to confess but I’ve never had a recipe book. Everything I’ve learned is stored in my mind. I’ve been taught recipes in kitchens, not by looking in books. There’s nothing wrong with using recipe books, it’s just not what happened to me. It means there are still gaps in my knowledge, I’m only just getting to grips with pastry, for instance. But my puddings are improving and it gives me something to work at.

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If you organised a dinner party, which three people would you invite and why? Quite honestly, there is no-one I would rather dine with than my family and staff. We sit down together at the end of an evening’s service and eat. I sit down to eat with my friends and who better than that to dine with?

What is your favourite ingredient and why? Spices. I have lots of spices that I try to sneak into the Italian dishes and the occasional English dish. Proper Italian chefs would probably be mortified but I didn’t choose Italian cookery, it chose me. So that means I don’t have to strictly stick to Italian rules. If I had to choose one spice, it’s five spice. I discovered fairly recently that it works so well with lots of the purees I make. It lends flavour and fragrance and it goes great with citrus zest, which I always like to use.

What did you get up to during the first lockdown? I worked on the menu and simplified it a little. I paired it down to make it work more effectively in the kitchen. Apart from that, I just relaxed. It was the first proper break I’d had in 15 years.

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