Francesco Mazzei bringing the spice of Southern Italy to the heart of London’s cuisine

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Cooking is considered to be one of the most versatile art forms, it has the capacity to engage all senses. The fresh and colourful ingredients can be seen as a beautiful painting created on a white plate; and the different aromas and their influence on how we perceive taste, the texture of food and the sounds of its preparation that contribute to the enjoyment of dining. By definition an artist is a person who works in, or is skilled in the techniques of any of the fine arts. An artist is a person who creates art and so the ability to create a beautiful dish is, in that sense, an art form. Let’s think about Salvador Dali, the famous painter, who was also known for opulent dinner parties and even published his own cookbook in 1973 called Les Diners de Gala. Many top chefs are seen as culinary artists especially for the way they present the food they cook, showing great creativity. While some fully embrace the ability to bring visually beautiful dishes to the table, others follow a more essential, less pretentious approach focusing on high quality ingredients and taste, which is an artistry all of its own. This is the approach of choice from Chef  Francesco Mazzei, winner of many awards, and one of the most renowned Italian chefs in the UK. I had the pleasure to interview him.

“I would not say my food is artistic, I am able to put the food on the plate but this does not mean I am an artist. Italian food is about ingredients not so much about presentation” he affirmed. 

Francesco was born and raised in Calabria, the toe on Italy’s boot, and he has been living in London for a long time. We both come from the region that has one of the most beautiful sea views in Italy, a lovely Mediterranean climate, as well as friendly and welcoming people with a good heart. Calabria is well known as the region famous for using peperoncino (chilli pepper) and for producing n’duja (the spicy chilli infused pork sausage spread). As a child, Francesco was adamant he didn’t want to be a chef, he would rather play football. However he ALWAYS had a passion for food.

“You would often find me in our family kitchen baking bread and making pasta with my nonna and mamma…” he said.

Ciao caro Francesco, Calabria is your region and I am so proud to say that it is my region too. Is this vibrant part of Italy well reflected in your personality and can we find it in your dishes too? Yes, and yes! Calabria is reflected in my cooking and my lifestyle and I have ensured produce of Calabria and other ingredients are prominent throughout my dishes.  

I can really relate to your statement “growing on our mamma and nonna food” but the  mamma and nonna from the Mediterranean Southern area of Italy are very different from the rest of our country and people from Calabria are known to be ‘spicy’, hot and lively.

In your own words what is the difference in growing up with Calabrian Nonna’s food in contrast to Northern Italian Nonna’s food? It is the same thing but they just use different ingredients. As you say, in Calabria there is more use of spice and Southern Italian recipes can often be lighter as we use olive oil rather than butter. Also, I feel South Italian follows the seasons more carefully. 

From your Uncle’s gelateria in your town in Calabria, what brought you to London after passing via Rome and when did you realize that you would set your roots here? The General Manager from my job in Rome sent me to London to learn English, I loved my time at the Dorchester but soon came to Rome. It wasn’t until a number of brilliant opportunities presented themselves to me that I decided to stay in London permanently. 

In the Sartoria restaurant in Mayfair, where you are the chef patron, I heard that it is very important to you, that the menu showcases dishes from Calabria as well as other regions in Italy, with a focus on the South. One of these dishes is Eggs Purgatorio, which was one of your Grandma’s specialties. This reminds me a lot of Calabria and my Nonna too. Clearly, a little piece of the heart of Calabria lives in your Mayfair kitchen. 

Which is your favourite Calabrian dish, and which one do the English love the most? My favourite Calabrian ingredient is n’duja. It’s on the menu at all three of my restaurants and it’s dishes based around this ingredient that my English customers enjoy the most.

What is the most surprising English ingredient that you have found while living in the UK and do you use it in your dishes? There are plenty but Wild garlic springs to mind as it is about to come into season. It’s versatile and full of flavour – I use this in risottos, soups, garlic bread. 

What is your favourite English dish and which one would you suggest that Italian readers  definitely try? It’s a very simple recipe, which my family also love, and it is, Shepherds Pie. Imagine a bolognaise made with lamb, chunky mirepoix veg and thick mashed potato baked in the oven. 

Being a chef can be a solitary job on one hand but on the other it also means working as part of a wider team in the kitchen and the restaurant. What do you enjoy most, cooking on your own or working as part of a team? Being part of team. I am lucky to have a great team around me and in my kitchens, they are integral to the running of a successful restaurant. 

Considering the pandemic and what we are living through these days, is this affecting your plans for the near future? Yes, unfortunately it has affected us in a big way over the course of the last year. We have lost business and staff have lost their jobs. It has been a really difficult time. However, saying that, now we have some hope that the lockdown is coming to an end and normality will return in the not too distant future. 

*Barbara Panetta, scrittrice

Barbara Panetta