Khalid Dahbi is known globally for KD Luxury, his catalogue of precious foods like caviar and edible gold.
“I wanted to become an actor and be on Italian TV, but I applied to Cinecittà and sadly, my application was refused.” It’s one of the many surprises that Khalid Dahbi reveals over the course of our interview, and one of the twists in a cinematic life that brought him to where he is today. “I always wanted to be an actor, and I used to love the charisma of Italian TV. But when I saw that it wasn’t going to happen, I made my way to the Lido di Jesolo in Venice and instead, 20 years later I’ve become a pretty successful chef.”
Successful is something of an understatement and chef doesn’t quite capture the many hats he wears. Throughout an incredible career and life, Khalid Dahbi has managed to remain unnervingly humble, and much of it is due, in his words, to the time he spent living in Italy. Although these days he’s known globally for KD Luxury, his catalogue of precious foods like caviar and edible gold, he doesn’t see much difference at all between those high ticket items and the mozzarella he used to pick up every Sunday in his adopted hometown. Elegance lies in simplicity, and in the humble respect for a well-made product and the person who created it. It’s a theme we’ll return to throughout the conversation and the thread that ties his journey together.
But for all the laughter, luxury, and caviar he’s experienced (and it’s been a lot), Khalid Dahbi is driven by a desire to give back, and to create a community of people who can spread the kind of kindness that sustained him along his winding road. His latest initiative is Together Thank You, a global campaign to support mental health during the pandemic and to provide resources and funding to organizations who are sustaining communities hit hard by lockdowns. He reflects on this throughout our conversation and as with everything else, it is simple and elegant. “Nobody can pivot their way out of the pandemic by themselves and we’re all going to need some help at some point. We’ve got to be there for each other.”
Act I: The Bicycle Thief
But like all great journeys, the beginning is far from auspicious. Growing up on the other side of the Mediterranean in Rabat, Morocco, he landed in Rome with the aspiration of being the next Raoul Bova; the reality was much different. “I had a girlfriend in Rome, but she happened to give me the wrong address. So I said sod it, if I’m not going to find her, I’m going to see my friend in Naples.”
“I landed in Naples in 1997 and as soon as I came out at Piazza Garibaldi, I swear to God it was like, murder. I was shocked. Carabinieri, Guardia di Finanza, ambulances. I was a young boy and I was frightened. I had long hair like a hippie, a little bandana, a bag and a leather jacket. I happened to walk over to a guy selling some bits and bobs outside the station, you know, some cigarettes or whatever and I guess the Guardia di Finanza thought I was somebody selling contraband. So I go over to the guy selling cigarettes and ask him something, and he tells me to go ask another person. I go to ask this other person and as I do that, the police car comes and the four doors open and, as Italians do, they come out with guns cocked, yelling at me, “Fermati! Alzate le mani! And I was just like my god. This is my first day in Naples. It was horrifying.”
The scene prompted him to get back on a train to Aversa, just north of Naples. When he arrived there, however, things didn’t get much better. “I want to see another friend and we were drinking in a bar, and he created a little scandal. So the Carabinieri came in, and this is still on my first day but now in Aversa, four doors open, guns out and screaming, until they realized who I was with and sent us home because they knew he was a bit of a troublemaker. But for me, twice in one day, from day one, guns on my head. I was like a victim of being innocent.”
Despite his rather perilous beginnings, Dahbi got his sea legs and quickly fell in love with those elusive qualities that make Naples so utterly singular. “There’s a lot of people who abuse word passion, but Naples is one of those places in the world where you can really feel the essence of what passion is all about because it’s in the form of daily life. It’s in the form of food, the coffee, the swagger, the way people carry themselves. Naples is the hub of passion.”
Taking various odd jobs as he waited to hear back about his Cinecittà application, he also developed the family ties that would make Italy feel like a home rather than a stop along the way. While working as a lifeguard at a private beach near Naples, he met the Famiglia Verde, who took him in and became an anchor in the country. “There are my second family. I call signora Verde Mama, and I call signor Verde Papa, because when I didn’t have anything they’d take me to their house every Sunday. We’d spend the whole afternoon watching Buona Domenica on Canale 5, from about 11 am while cooking and eating until about 7 in the evening. My favorite dish that she made, and what I remember to this day, is pasta e piselli. The signora used to give me old jackets from the kids, a bag full of passata di pomodoro, a little bit of everything. We developed such a formidable bond and I really became one of their children.”
While his time in Naples would be filled with the kinds of memories and experiences that cement a place in that part of our brains where nostalgia lives, it was not an easy life, and a combination of circumstances would soon send Khalid Dahbi to parts unknown. But not before he’d acquired a little bit of his own swagger, both figurative and literal. As he recounts his departure from the south, with the wood panelled walls and crystal sconces of his office at Quintessentially behind him on the video screen, it’s hard to keep a straight face and even harder to believe that his own life isn’t the basis for a film. “I was working in a car wash and there was this beautiful old lady right who lived right next to it, and she had a kind of mini farm. One day she came in just before I left work. She says, come here, I’ve got a dead goat, could you kindly put in a barrel and throw it out? And I said sure, no problem, so I put the goat in a wheelbarrow and threw it out.
“She had a small collection of different animals and I fancied a goose, so I said ‘can I buy this from you, Signora?’ She sold me the goose and I rode back to my house on my bike with this goose on my lap. When I put it in the pot I realized that it was so old, I couldn’t even cook it. Anyway, I went back to work the next morning only to be confronted by the boss who told me that the Camorra was looking for me and that I had to get out. And I said, why? And he said, someone came in and stole the old lady’s animals last night!”
He laughs with the kind of abandon that can only come from someone who has been told that the Camorra is looking for them, and it is infectious even across computer screens thousands of miles apart. Over our laughter and the laughter of his assistants, he continues. “Her son thought that it was me since I’d just been there, and he calls the Camorra and tells them this Moroccan is stealing from my mother. For two weeks they were looking for me, and all I’d done was buy an old goose from a lady. Obviously I had to change jobs, so I went to work in a small candle factory nearby. One day we were loading cargo to go to Naples, and all of a sudden we hear ‘bap-bap-bap-bap!’ These Camorristi found me, and they shot me in the leg. My god, they almost killed me!”
With all of us roaring from laughter, he stands up and proceeds to show us the scars from those bullets, a battle wound that most of his well-heeled clients and friends would probably not be able to match. But that is simply part of his charisma, and it makes him insanely likeable and irredemably human. “So I was hobbling for about two to three weeks and I mean, I’m not a fearful guy. I was pretty respected because everybody knew who I was and I used to wash everybody’s car. So I said, I’m gonna go and confront this mafia boss. I walked into the bar, a crutch under my arm and I said Mario, let me just tell you what’s happened. I didn’t do anything. If you’re gonna kill me, kill me now, but I didn’t steal from that lady. You guys were looking for the wrong people. It’s not me. I’m just washing cars. I buried a goat. I bought a goose and had to ride my bicycle for an hour with this damn goose on my leg, and I couldn’t even cook it because it was so old.
“I told him my story and he simply sympathized with it all and thanked me and we had a drink. My Cinecittà application had been rejected, so this was just another reason to move on. So then I went to Lido di Jesolo. That’s my story.”
Act II: The Golden Compass
Of course, that’s not quite his story. From those humble beginnings, Khalid Dahbi entered the culinary world and started to understand that luxury could also be simple, and that it was just as attainable as that incredible mozzarella that he lived on. After working in the Lido di Jesolo in Venice for some years, he began making connections with and learning from the people that would eventually propel him to the rarefied air of fine dining, first as an Executive Chef in Switzerland and later in London as the chef for Quintessentially, the luxury lifestyle and concierge group. The move allowed him to expand his knowledge not only of food but of business, and to incorporate all of the people he’d met along the way and their products into KD Luxury. Quintessentially was “a formidable experience and [founder and chairman] Aaron Simpson has been a great figure for me. He’s a friend and he’s a mentor. He’s been in the business for many years and certainly made me the businessman I am today and I’ve got a lot of respect for what he does.”
While KD Luxury may seem a far cry from the candle factory, much of his most celebrated products come from collaborations with Italian companies. Chief among his wares is caviar. “I love caviar and I’ve always loved caviar and I celebrate the fact that Italy is one of the first countries in the world that started rearing sturgeon. Not a lot of people know that sturgeon out of the north of Italy is one of the best. In particular, there’s a species called transmontanus which is just as good as Beluga in my opinion and I import some of it straight from Venice.”
On social media, Dahbi can often be found sampling caviar from around the world with his signature ingredient, edible gold. As it happens, the roots of this rather choice condiment also come from Italy through a partnership with Ivana Ciabatti, a gold maker from Arezzo. “She’s an incredible lady who mines gold from all around the world and started producing some magnificent products with edible gold. It’s also worth noting that my surname means ‘golden’. So the story was just perfectly matched and we fell in love when we met. Together we’ve created some wonderful products out of Arezzo that are sold all over the world.”
His personal relationships continue to guide the direction of KD Luxury, and the road always seems to lead back to Italy. Indeed one of his collaborators is Professor Stefano Zanasi, whose office is located on Harley Street, just next to the London offices of Quintessentially. Last year, they journeyed back to Emilia Romagna to film Zanasi’s family, one of the oldest in the region who still produce balsamic vinegar. “So I fell in love again. It’s such a pleasure to celebrate Italian ingredients. There is so much history behind the products and it pains me to see people not respecting it. A lot of chefs tend to put their egos before the ingredients and that’s really not fair. Simplicity is elegance, and we just need to put the producers at the forefront, to celebrate the work and the product they’re producing. I feel duty-bound to do what I can to celebrate these ingredients and give them the appropriate respect they deserve.”
Khalid Dahbi stops for no one, and hasn’t let a little thing like a global pandemic or Brexit (remember that?) get in his way, especially as it pertains to his partnerships with Italian producers and the love he holds for them. “A lot of people would think that it might be difficult to import ingredients from Italy, but that’s not the case because we’re still going to be doing business and borders will still be open for business. So I am importing the finest truffles from Alba. I am importing the finest mozzarella from Caserta, near Naples and through KD luxury, we are looking to have a few sections of the finest ingredients out of Italy to really put the producers in particular on the map.”
Act III: Amarcord
It’s the little things that sometimes remind us of how severely disruptive this year has been. Khalid and I originally planned to do this interview in person during one of his many trips from London to Italy, and it would have stretched over hours and bottles of wine and who knows how many types of caviar and how much mozzarella. I know this because our first meeting in London some years ago was meant to be a light lunch meeting that turned into an 11 hour feast at his former restaurant, Beso. Khalid is one of those people for whom proximity was invented, who knows you through feeding you, and who will look you directly in the eye and make you feel like you’ve known each other forever. Skype simply doesn’t do him justice.
As the winter unfolded and he saw what was happening in Italy and then quickly after in the UK, he decided that he couldn’t sit and do nothing. So he summoned the spirit of Signora Verde, his inner nonna, and did what he does best. “Some years back I started the KD Foundation here in the UK, and we’ve done a tremendous amount of work all throughout the world and we’ve got incredible projects hopefully for the foreseeable future. But in particular for me, it was really personal when I knew that the frontline forces, nurses, and doctors couldn’t even get access to a decent meal. That really touched me.
“Key workers are not really the best paid people and it’s absurd. You’ve got a footballer who earns x amount of money a week yet you’ve got somebody saving lives who can’t even get access to a decent meal. I am on a quest to change that. I gathered my team around me, all of whom were happy to join the cause. So we started to cook for frontline workers all over London, and initially we intended to do it for a week. That became two weeks, and now we’ve been going for six months and we’re still continuing to cook some beautiful food that I think would put a smile on anybody’s face. It’s a simple mission, but you wouldn’t believe how a beautifully packaged meal with some wonderful colors and some freshly made ingredients, made with love, can make such a tremendous difference. Especially if you are in the battle and saving lives. And we’ve had a lot of support from the community and a lot of help.”
Indeed help came from all corners, including the luxury sector. Together with Quintessentially Chairman Aaron Simpson, Dahbi created Kindred, an e-commerce platform where every single sale includes a donation of at least one percent to a global charity. His roots in Morocco led him to start the Together Morocco campaign, which went viral in the country as a way to bring people together during the pandemic. For him, the transition from luxury to charity was seamless, and based on the same principles of simplicity and respect. “I think that charity is in my DNA. I grew up in such a formidable family and I learned that there is pleasure in giving. We’ve always accommodated guests and had a lot of people around. It’s such a pleasure to put a smile on someone’s face and change lives and to be positive in someone else’s life. If I have, then I should give you the chance to have, because tomorrow the tables might be turned.”
The success of these efforts only encouraged him to do more, and to bring that same resolve that allowed him to approach a Camorrista in the bar and eventually led to a truce (and a drink). To that end he has launched Together Thank You, a global campaign to raise awareness of the crushing toll that the pandemic has taken on mental health for people both personally and professionally, and to raise money for charities supporting mental health around the world. Like everything else he does, the project is both incredibly ambitious and beautifully simple. “We want to show gratitude again to frontline workers but most importantly, the pandemic has had some major effects on the mental health and well-being of a lot of people all around the world. We want to say together we thank you for your solidarity for putting up with the current pandemic. We’re here, we’re here to assist, we’re here to help. We want to bring some joy and let everybody know that tomorrow will be better and the future is brighter.
“I mean, I can’t feed the whole world, although I’m going to try my hardest. But as long as I’m fit and healthy, I will do my best to put a smile on people’s face, whether that’s through food or gastronomy, through culture or through music. So Together Thank You is a way to provide a positive outlook on what tomorrow is going to look like, and to show that we can work really hard together. We’re going to get every single nation to stand up and get geared up for tomorrow because tomorrow is our new future.”
Dahbi believes that Together Thank You can be the push that people need to stay positive in the face of a daunting year, and he holds a particular hope that it can take off in Italy. Indeed he’s been involved in charitable causes since the 2012 earthquake in Emilia Romagna, when he teamed up with mayor Sauro Borghi to provide meals to the people of San Prospero, and he’s maintained a close friendship with the workers there ever since. That experience showed him not only the enormity of the loss that people experienced, but the gravity of what could be lost to Italian food and culture if it wasn’t preserved.
Of course, this year has been quite a different one, and he’s acutely aware of the pain that people are experiencing, particularly in the food and hospitality sectors. “Let’s just be honest. It’s a tough time for everybody. We’re in difficult times, in the middle of the second wave of this pandemic and sadly a lot of incredible places have gone out of business. I mean when people aren’t going out to eat, it’s just tough. It’s tough.” But his mind goes back to those first days, when he was full of naivete and dreams of Cinecittà, and the man he became as a result. “Italy has always been resilient. It’s renowned for coming through hard times and hardship and I have no qualm in saying that Italy will come out better. This pandemic has taught us a tremendous amount about how we can look after each other, look after the environment, be vigilant, be supportive, and all the wonderful elements that make us human beings. There’s no country better equipped than Italy in my opinion. The last few months seeing the pandemic unravel in Italy was really painful and I feel tremendous sorrow for people who lost their loved ones. But I’m being very honest when I say that I’m not worried about the Italian people because of what they’ve shown me throughout my life.”
I ask him if he regrets not becoming a Cinecittà star, after all is said and done, and his laughter cuts the space between us and helps us both forget for a moment that we’re not sitting together on a terrace with a fresh mozzarella. For Khalid Dahbi, the long and winding road that brought him from Morocco to the world was the best possible path, and much of the most important stops along the way happened in the country that adopted him, and that he adopted right back. That warmth, that unshakable resolve, continues to guide him. “We’re in this world for a short space of time. Because of what’s going on, not only with the pandemic, but climate change, global poverty, mental health issues, there are a lot of things to do and I just feel responsible to be involved to do what I can, what’s in my power. If I can make a dent and a small change then that’s what I want to be recognized for. I might be Mr. Gold who sells caviar, but I want to be recognized for the importance I placed on better tomorrow.” His assistants have long since taken leave and the last light peeks in from the corner of his computer screen, the only indication of how much time has passed since we first started talking. We could go on forever, but Khalid Dahbi has too much to do, and miles to go before he sleeps.
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