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Laura Santtini's Umami Charm

This rising British chef has a new cookbook, an advice column and a best-selling food product.

Laura Santtini

Laura Santtini

Photo By Tim Jenkins

There’s no shortage of British cooks peddling a lifestyle: Nigella Lawson, with her cozy comfort food and outsized appetite; Jamie Oliver of the bish-bash-bosh school of 30-minute dinners with Italian flair, and Delia Smith — the grandmother of them all — with her utterly charmless, matter-of-fact approach to cooking for busy families.

Add newcomer Laura Santtini, whose approach is less about lifestyle and more about life.

“There is an inextricable link between flavor and feelings,” Santtini says over biscuits and tea beside a roaring fire at a London hotel. “We eat aspects of life that we don’t like. But it’s OK to spit something out. Life shifts, and sometimes things have to taste a certain way. It’s important to check in with yourself, and recognize what sort of ingredients you’ve been using.”

Santtini, a petite, exuberant mother-of-two who can speak with as much passion about a toasted cheese sandwich as she can about a sprinkling of sumac, pink peppercorns and rose petals on roasted root vegetables, published her first cookbook, “Easy Tasty Italian” (Sterling Publishing), in October. A few days before Christmas, she launched a culinary advice column for Mydaily.co.uk, the AOL-owned news and features site aimed at women.

“I can’t just write about beans; I see this as a ‘Food and the City’ column,” she says before offering up a sample of her snappy relationship advice: “If what you need is an avocado, don’t marry a banana!”

While Santtini may be a newcomer to cookbook country, she’s a veteran of the food and catering industry. She’s known among foodies for her attempt to capture umami — the so-called fifth taste characterized as intensely savory — in a tube. Her Taste No. 5 Umami Paste has been a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic since its launch last year, and Santtini has trademarked the name. She also offers a line of wet and dry food rubs, including truffle and porcini salts, and a mix of smoked tea, Sichuan peppercorns, and jasmine and orange flowers for white fish.

In addition, her family owns the Italian restaurant Santini in London’s Belgravia district — a former favorite of Frank Sinatra’s and a celebrity haunt over the years with guests including Princess Diana, Michael Caine, Tom Cruise, and Bill and Hillary Clinton. Santtini now oversees the restaurant, which specializes in cooking from Italy’s Veneto region.

Santtini spent much of her youth in the kitchen, bonding with her father, Gino Santin, over the mayonnaise bowl.

“The only place where we could connect was in the kitchen — I’d be the one pouring the oil for the mayonnaise,” she recalls. “I don’t really remember a weekend when we weren’t concocting something in the kitchen.”

Another big influence was her Italian grandmother, with whom her family lived when Santtini was a small child. She recalls in particular the “fluffy pillows of gnocchi bobbing to the surface” of Nonna Pasqua’s boiling pot, and the fried chicken skin her grandmother, who owned and ran hotels on Italy’s Adriatic Coast, used to serve up with a sprinkling of salt.

“She opened my soul to deliciousness — and what that could do to transform a mood or a moment,” says Santtini.

In the Nineties, Santtini temporarily left the culinary world to pursue a career in public relations and events. She worked for p.r. maven Lynne Franks, one of the inspirations behind the comedy series “Absolutely Fabulous,” and later organized events for MTV Europe. In 2000, Santtini returned to help run the family restaurant, and later began working as a food industry consultant, creating menus and products for retailers and food manufacturers. Her true culinary calling, she would argue, came from an assignment she got from a supermarket to get vegetarian protein into a pasta sauce.

“I was stuck, but I was desperate to get the check,” says Santtini. “And I didn’t want to use beans — I’d come up against a bean wall.”

She solved the problem by drawing up a recipe for a Sicilian-inspired sauce involving almonds, chili, raisins and anchovies. During her research at the British Library, she started to explore the medieval science of alchemy.

“Alchemy and cooking are the same thing,” she argues. “It’s all about creating something that’s more than the sum of its parts.”

Hence, her award-winning cookbook is filled with what she calls “flavor bombs.” The concoctions — which include pestos; sweet and salty butters; pastes and marinades; dry and wet rubs, and seven different recipes for bread crumbs — are meant to enhance basic dishes. Her drinks and desserts also get the flavor bomb treatment, with red chili peppers and gold flakes slipped into bottles of vodka or grappa, and a recipe for Parmesan ice cream with black pepper and balsamic strawberries.

Asked about entertaining guests, especially around the holidays, Santtini suggests taking a philosophical approach.

“In the past, I’ve spent so much time trying to make everything perfect — and then no one wants to sit down at the table with me because I’m so frazzled,” she says. “Don’t overdo it. Don’t turn into a crazy person. In the end, wouldn’t everyone just prefer a cheese sandwich and a laugh?”

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