The Preca sisters (Ramona and Roberta) both worked at their family restaurant Tal-Familja in Marsascala. They were both in their mid-twenties and at such a young age one would easily be tempted to think that it was there that they cut their gastronomic teeth. In truth, it transpires that they were already veterans by this time after having spent much of their childhood fiddling in their father’s kitchen at the mythical King’s Own Band Club in Valletta. It was there that the girls learnt their ropes under the keen, imposing watchful eye of their father Charles, helping out in the chopping of parsley, capers, olives and any other ingredients which would adorn the club’s mouthwatering appetizers.
This band club was to play a significant role in Ramona’s career in this wonderful industry as even after her father moved out of King’s Own and into his own in Marsascala, chance had it that she would find herself back there for a couple of years by mere coincidence. And this is where the early touch of yeast started fermenting her desire which would eventually leaven into her having her very own eatery to run in her own way.
She harboured this dream for over four years, until one fine Sunday morning she decided it was time to take her yearning more seriously and embark on a search for her new haunt. After considering a number of different venues, Ramona now returns to her first love, Valletta. A 16th century Palazzo in Strait Street caught her eye and got her creative juices bubbling with excitement and that is where she plies her trade today. Palazzo Preca is her dream.
The Life of a Hero: a Tribute to Charles Preca
It is amazing how every child irrespective of whether poor or rich, black or white, male or female look up to some hero they fondly long to follow on its footsteps. For many, their hero is no Superman, Captain Marvel or Spiderman but rather their very own father with whom they share every single day. After all what is a hero? It is the person who smiles at you on an off day. It is the war veteran fighting for freedom and equality for all. As well, it’s your friend, parent, or mentor sacrificing for your happiness. The everyday hero is within every single human being on this planet, and is expressed by simple, ordinary actions. Heroes do simple acts; of kindness, courage and love.
It is by no coincidence that the death of Charles Preca left many who knew him well or just a little bit, speechless and incredulous. I will certainly not judge a person’s life from the number of persons attending a funeral. It would certainly be a superficial way to measure one’s respect. Nevertheless, I am still impressed with every single face of all those who flocked to the St. Francis of Assisi Church in Valletta to pay a last tribute to Charles. I also fondly remember every word they said about him. Not a single negative comment but words of praise for his kind heart and his unconditional love for his family. Indeed, his wife, his five daughters and his parents were at the centre of his colourful life. They were his inspiration, his happiness and above all the purpose for which he dedicated his energy even in his very last days.
It is probably his very humble and sociable approach which struck a chord with every person hecame across. He never looked down at anyone. In every action, he kept in mind his humble roots from where his food journey took off. His mother, who I had the pleasure to meet, points out that Charles “was born in a pot and died in a pot.” Indeed, his life was all about food. His father who is affectionately known as ‘Il-boss’ points out that “my son always dreamt to have a restaurant but we could not afford it. This did not in any way dishearten him and “he was adamant to reach his goal no matter what it takes.” It would be fair to state that he was never too keen about formal
training yet with his dream in mind, he decided to learn the fundamentals to work in the food industry at the catering school in Paola. Interestingly, his father notes that “he initially studied to become a barman yet in the process felt the urge to work in the kitchen which led him to shift his studies towards that direction.” His debut in the food industry was at a very young age at Le Roy. It was there under the vigil eyes of an Austrian chef that he learnt the tricks of the trade. It was there where he felt the desire
to learn more and to make a name in this cutthroat industry. Following his stint there, he moved to another restaurant, Papagall Restaurant. His culinary skills were further polished during his time at La Vallette Band Club. The place offered him a taste of something different; an eatery outlet with a strong social aspect.
It was a special time on a personal level. It was during that time when he met the person who had to become the love of his life. The breakthrough in his gastronomic journey came at the age of twenty-three when a call for the management of the King’s Own Bar was published. With the support of his family “our bid was successfully
accepted” says his father. The place quickly developed into a gastronomic attraction and was popular both with locals and foreigners. King’s Own was major step in his career. “He now had no cushion to rely on. He could only bank on his own abilities and his family” says his mother. His time at King’s Own was characterised by a number of ups yet also some downs. However, like every good captain, he always weathered every storm. His mother fondly recollects his initial fears to cook in a correct manner roast chicken, those instances when she used to rectify the taste of his tomato sauce with a pinch of sugar and his fear to cook rabbit for sixty persons. His wife, Stella points out that the Kings Own was not just an eatery outlet and a social hub but also a second home. “It was there where he spent most of his time. It was there where the children met their father during work days and weekends. The place gradually developed into a family gathering.”
In 1997 Charles was called to handle another major stepping stone in his culinary path; the opening of Tal-Familja Restaurant. Notwithstanding the initial challenges, Tal-Familja gradually developed into a staple of local culinary excellence. It was here that his reputation reached all corners of the island. It is at Tal- Familja where I fell in love with his food. His passion and commitment towards food were exceptional and played a fundamental role in the career path his children took, to the exception Daniela who was never too fond about kitchens. But let’s be honest, we are not all meant to be chefs.
During his culinary journey, he earned a reputation for several dishes he is to date famous for. His father fondly explains in great detail his son’s lamb shanks with carrots, tomatoes, garlic and the best wine his cellar could offer. His children also fondly refer to his aljotta which he used to prepare in large quantities. A very simple recipe with that pinch of love which made it stand out of the crowd. He was fully committed to his work which often meant he had to sacrifice numerous parents’ days, parties and weddings. However, he never complained. He knew it was part of the package he had committed to. Notwithstanding his inability to honour specific family commitments he still heavily contributed to a proper upbringing of his five daughters. His efforts though have been well rewarded with the recent Hall of Fame; WRMC 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award and his daughters’ achievements over the past years.
There is a consensus among all those who came across Charles that he was a gentleman with such a calm and charismatic character. His character was an explosion of colours which would give life to every place he stepped in. Every room was a social gathering and an opportunity to enjoy some quality time with his friends and loved ones. It is hard to tell who were his friends as every place he happened to be in was an opportunity to make new acquaintances. Stella recollects those special moments when they used to enjoy singing with bottles used as microphone. “Those were unforgettable moments hard to digest that we will never experience again.” Monday was a sacred day which no storm or heatwave would ever stop the Preca family to meet and enjoy each other’s company. The children fondly note that “there was a sense of waiting for his call to meet. We used to meet at around 12.30. The most important thing in such gatherings was the presence of nanna and nannu. We used to dine at the
best restaurants where he fondly appreciated and learnt from the work of others. The term ‘rivalry’ did not exist in his vocabulary. He always felt the industry had to be
united rather than divided. Our time together was not only about food. It was about the simple things we used to share together. Those moments will never fade away.
He used to visit other restaurants and hotels to discover new recipes.” Charles was a perfectionist. Detail was a key factor in his life whether it was a table, his kitchen
or a daily dish he would prepare. Travel was his source of inspiration. Whilst he remained loyal to his family’s food traditions, he constantly sought to evolve it with
new techniques and ingredients he came across during his regular trips around the world. He was a music enthusiast and a great artist. “His portraits were amazing and had a natural flair for photography. Indeed his photographic lens had a natural eye for village characters such as Ÿeÿa l-Monkija. He was also very forward-looking. He never left an opportunity pass by without evaluating the opportunity it could offer.” His wife notes that “he had that unique ability to turn a bare room into an amazing
Indeed, Charles is dearly missed by all. Cassandra Clare once noted that “there are memories that time does not erase… Forever does not make loss forgettable,
only bearable.” The feeling of him not being around is still unbearable for many especially his loved ones. However, his legacy is so strong and there to last forever. Charles was a hero to his children and for all those vying a career in the food industry.