4 Jun 2009

L’Anima Magic: Francesco Mazzei

An extended version of an interview which originally appeared in The Guardian
The renowned chef of the top London restaurant discusses technique, training and his signature tagliata...
“You look like you’ve just woken-up. Take a coffee and we’ll start in five minutes,” said Francesco Mazzei, executive chef and patron of Broadgate’s ‘L’Anima’ restaurant.
Lanky, with a resemblance in face and spirit of adventure to Anthony Bourdain, Francesco is probably London’s hottest chef. Square Meal and Tatler declared his restaurant best newcomer, and The Independent called it ‘ravishing’. Most recently Gordon Ramsay voted him one of Britain’s ‘faultless’ chefs.
As I waited for him to return, sipping the velvet crème from my Musetti latte, I became mesmerised by staff tenderly sponging the rice-white leather chairs in the slate and travertine, porphyry and plate glass dining room. They made a daily responsibility look balletic.
“It’s the way they make it”, said Francesco when I complimented the coffee, before shooting his in one. He is fuelled by five espressos a day, but never later than 3pm, because his 18 chefs “might become frightened” of him.
Francesco’s C.V. reveals a butterfly. From eight, he worked in his family’s pastry and ice cream shop in Calabria (Italy’s toe). Ten years on, he established a fish restaurant with the President of his catering college before moving to the deluxe Grand Hotel, Rome in his early 20’s. Inspired by the international environment, he took a sabbatical to learn English, landing at The Dorchester under luminaries, Willi Elsener and Henry Brosi. He soon fell in love with London’s vibrant restaurant scene which “has the best of all cultures and is a great place for a chef to be – I couldn’t have realised my dreams in Italy.”
He has since opened legendary restaurants. He was head chef at Jeremy King and Chris Corbin’s ‘St. Albans’ and “thanks them” for teaching him “commerce behind cooking”. He launched the restaurant for Thailand’s Royal family, touring Cambodia and Bali, and opened venues for long-term mentor, Alan Yau. Their paths remain intertwined with projects underway in Istanbul and Miami. The gently burbling water feature besides the bar bears testament to an awareness of Feng Shui learnt from the master restaurateur who is the force behind ‘Sake No Hana’, ‘Hakkasan’ and the original blueprint for ‘Wagamama’.
Despite being so tucked away that my terminally lost cabbie waived the fare, Francesco no longer worries about L’Anima’s furtive location. “If anything, it’s made me work harder. Where I come from people are prepared to travel two hours for suckling goat.” When L’Anima opened last May after five months of planning delays, during which Francesco twice overhauled the menu, he put in 22hour days. “Although my hands were burnt blue, I kept going. This is the realisation of my dreams so far. I put my heart and soul into this.” Hence ‘L’Anima’, Italian for ‘soul’. But I wondered whether he can switch-off. Apparently “only on Sundays, the family day” devoted to Maria, his “Sicilian rather than Italian” wife and their two year-old girl, Mia Sofia.
Nonetheless, it is a difficult time to run a restaurant, especially of this calibre. Unlike ‘The River Café’, another high profile Italian, Francesco acknowledges the credit crunch and keeps prices sane. Whilst he is delighted to “accommodate expense diners who wish to spend £1,400 on Super Tuscans,” he also offers a tender £25.50 set-lunch. “But there are good buys on the a la carte, like the Sicilian rabbit (£16.50).”
Talking of relative bargains, one of Francesco’s favourite pit-stops is Brixton’s ‘Franco Manca’. He loves talking to Giuseppe Mascoli, the passionate pizza chef from Positano who is “as obsessive about ingredients” as he is, and makes a feature of British cheeses. “Giuseppe bakes 500 pizzas an afternoon using just two ovens, with only four tables!”
Cheese, incidentally, is something that seriously interests Francesco. He helped launch England’s own buffalo mozzarella at Laverstoke Park, Hampshire, and intends to serve it alongside Calabria’s finest. “We’ve had good reactions in the restaurant. Where possible, my philosophy is to cook British ingredients with an Italian accent.”
Through a clear door, I am taken into L’Anima’s cellar where guests can dine amongst the tantalising racks filled with obscure treasures from Calabria. Francesco loves these concentrated wines, with their ancient Greek influences. For example, he sourced the rarely exported, black fruit and leather scented Polpicello from Scavigna’s steep slopes as dramatic collaborator to his signature dish, aged beef tagliata. “I feed potatoes with truffles, chives, Parmesan and then stuff a marrow bone and lay the beef on top.” Built like a mushroom, the beautifully balanced dish delights aristocratic fans like Lady Hamlyn and legions of serious foodies alike – The Times called it ‘knock-out’. Other curios include an English sparkling wine, endorsed by the Queen, and a breathtakingly mineral Corsican, harvested to the lunar cycle.
I was curious to find out what Francesco might have done in another life. “Mafioso,” he half-jokes, “or a footballer, if I didn’t have banded legs! But seriously, this is it. I have a passion for my team. My head chef, Luca has been with me 12 years.”
The interview moves into Francesco’s immaculate kitchen. We taste as we tour. He is from a family that makes their own salami, right down to raising and killing the pig. Everything in sight is prepared from scratch. To a soundtrack of Pavarotti, I see a cauldron of fish bones bubble into stock, whole carcasses, bat-shaped turbot, hefty salt cod and long octopuses. Another fridge contains white roses from the tables, “protected overnight.” There are at least six trays of different pastas. From the cedar sweet wood oven (in front of the charcoal josper) I taste a warm breath of ciabattini with precise, emerald Calabrian olive oil. Francesco “doesn’t like it too fruity.”
“Spring is the best season for a chef,” says Francesco. “Just look at the vegetables: pea shoots, borage, nettles, wild asparagus… I find myself taking 25 ideas at once to my head chef. I even love simple soups made from greens.”
What is in his cupboard at home? “Moorish cardamom. Look at me, I look Moroccan – I’m always first to get searched at the airport! The influence is in my blood. I crave sweet and sour, nuts, sultanas, and aubergines. I was in Istanbul a week ago to help set-up ‘Zuma’. It was a re-discovery! Their pita stuffed with vegetables, honey, onion, paprika and oregano is so similar to Southern Italy’s version. And I tasted lamb brochettes which, although more finely ground, reminded my of my mum’s.”
Over the interview, I’ve noticed how difficult it is to eek criticisms from Francesco. Probably wisely, he is frustratingly diplomatic and sincerely charming, “it’s key to respect people in this industry. As a teenager I was in charge of much older people. I learnt quickly that you learn from everyone, including you, Douglas.”
But what does this polished chef of rustic food think of the likes of Blumenthal and the ‘molecular gastronomy’ movement? “There is only one Ferran Adrià. I met him once although he was hard to understand, even in Spanish. I’m not sure about the others. Technique is important. There is a lesson I want to stress for every chef starting out: do it step-by-step. You can’t leapfrog legwork. If we’re not careful, we’ll end up with no one able to cook a steak properly or prepare a jus. Everyone will be eating fucking pills!”
I couldn’t agree more, which is just as well - my Italian mother taught me that it’s nearly impossible to make a Calabresi change their mind.
So what of the future? Whilst Francesco refuses to give details of another major project in London, expect to see him in print. He is writing a semi-autobiographical book about Southern Italian food. But thinking a little wider, if this dynamo of the kitchen keeps focussed on making the finest food rather than the trappings of television, I foresee a day when an endorsement of Ramsay, rather than Ramsay’s endorsement will mean much more…
See: The Guardian for the version published
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