23 July 2014

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Interview with Francesco Mazzei


francesco mazzei - Francesco-Mazzei.jpgL’Anima’s Francesco Mazzei talked to Square Meal about his latest venture – L’Anima Café, set to open in London next summer. The charismatic chef also let rip about the ‘shocking’ Italian food he encountered when he first came to the UK, the hell of ‘plastic’ crabsticks, and why you should always wash a chopping board before using it.

You cooked with your mother a lot as a child. What differences do you notice between children’s attitudes to food in Britain today and those of your generation?

I’m 38 now – there were no McDonald’s around when I was young, and no junk food. Our sweets were dried figs, apricots and sultanas – and ice cream on Sundays, if we were lucky. But these days you have to let your kids go to McDonald’s sometimes.

You’ve worked in many Italian cities – which is your favourite and why?

Rome: it’s where my wife Maria and I lived for a long time. Life in Rome is sweet. It’s such a lovely place, and I do miss it a lot. It’s also where I started making a success of cooking. On the down side, nothing works in Rome! Having said all that, I’m not sure we would ever live in Italy again.

You’re from Calabria – have you always tried to remain true to the food of your homeland?

I worked at the Grand Hotel in Rome when I was just 18, and I certainly wasn’t able to cook Calabrian food there. But I feel very proud to be calabrese, even though some people may only associate it with the Mafia. When I came to this country, no one knew about n’duja [a spicy, spreadable sausage from Calabria]. Now, every Michelin-starred restaurant uses it, and that makes me very proud. When I did my work with Pizza Express, it could have been a disaster, but it wasn’t. It was a huge success, and now people know about Calabrian food.

When you first came to the UK, were you surprised by what Brits considered to be Italian food?

I was shocked by the amount of cream used in some Italian restaurants, and some of the lasagnes I tried were really shocking. But in a way I was pleased because I knew I could do better. And it annoys me when people say that anyone can cook a bowl of pasta – not everyone can. People ignore the cooking instructions on packets of pasta – I’ve even seen some people cook pasta in cold water! It’s unbelievable. For every kilo of pasta you cook, you need 10 litres of boiling water.

What characteristics of Italian people do you miss most that British people don’t possess?

Their freedom: Italian people are very relaxed. For example, the whole of Italy shuts down in August – I wish I could have a month’s holiday like that! It would be unheard of to do this in London. But over there, they’re relaxed about it, and they have peace of mind.

And how do British restaurant critics compare to Italian ones?

I think that British critics really know a lot about food over here. I don’t think that British critics are necessarily better than Italian writers, but there is a bigger variety of food over here, so their knowledge is probably a bit better.

Everyone thought L’Anima would get a Michelin star this year and it missed out. Did it upset you?

It’s not a problem; I don’t really follow them any more. L’Anima has been going since 2008; we are Italians, and we create an Italian experience. If I get a Michelin star in the future, that will be great; if I don’t, it doesn’t bother me. But a friend of mine once said that the French invented Michelin stars to protect themselves!

What’s been your biggest kitchen disaster?

When I was 16, I decorated a cake with kiwi fruit, but the chopping board I used had already been used to chop garlic. People ate it, and nobody said anything, but I tried it and cried all night.

What’s your food heaven and food hell?

Heaven for me is my mother’s handmade salami, while hell would be crabsticks – I can’t stand plastic food. The food I know I shouldn’t eat too much of is Häagen-Dazs Cookies & Cream – but I can’t help myself. I can eat a lot of it.

What do you do to relax?

I wish I had time to relax more. I spend my free time with my kids, and I also love gardening. One day, I’ll open a gastropub, with a huge garden at the back. In fact, if I hadn’t have become a chef I’d have set up a farm – either that or I’d have joined the army.

Interview by Stuart Peskett, August 2011.
© Stephen Perry.

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