As part our Grazie series we’re taking a closer look at the most exciting artists, designers, chefs and creatives inspired by Italian style. Chef Francesco Mazzei is a man who understands the importance of craft, heritage and using the finest ingredients. Raised in a family who believed passionately in creating their own food, Francesco has gone on to open critically acclaimed and highly respected restaurants all over the world, where he has created incredible Italian dishes that look beautiful and taste even better. We spoke to Francesco about his journey, his methods and the art of Italian dining.
Hi Francesco. Can you tell us a bit about your background and how got from starting out to where you are now?
Born and raised in Calabria, the toe on Italy's boot, I moved to Rome in the 90s and joined The Grand Hotel. Inspired by the vibrant international hotel environment, I left to learn English and landed a job at The Dorchester in London working under the amazing Willi Elsener and Henry Brosi, before returning to Rome to take up a role at Michelin-starred La Terrazza dell’Eden. Since then, I opened Santini restaurants in Edinburgh and Milan, the Royal Sporting Club in Bangkok, Franco’s on Jermyn Street and St Alban in London, as well as venues across the world alongside restaurateur Alan Yau.
At the age of 34, I opened restaurant L’Anima in London's Liverpool Street which showcased dishes from Southern Italy (Calabria, Puglia, Sicily and Sardinia) - one of a kind in the capital. Last year, I was appointed chef patron of Sartoria in Mayfair and launched my first cookbook ‘Mezzogiorno’.
How did you get into cooking and what inspired you to become a chef?
My first job as a teenager was in my uncle’s ice-cream parlour (gelateria) in our town in Calabria. At that stage, I had actually signed up to catering college to become a General Manager. One summer day a very well-known local chef came by the gelateria and he ordered one of my creations, a Mangia e Bevi. He loved it and said I ‘really had the touch’, as he put it. It was then that I began to reconsider everything and thought that maybe I should focus on culinary arts in college.
My family in Calabria has always been my main source of inspiration. And Calabria itself, my home region - it's still an under-the-radar region that is off-the-beaten tourist tracks and has so much to offer. There are so many incredible dishes and ingredients that are unique to this part of Italy that I've been eager to introduce to the tables of Britain in the past few years.
Are your cooking methods strictly Italian or do you get inspiration from other cuisines?
I love to respect traditional methods and recreate dishes in the way they have been made for generations in Italy, with a chef’s touch. I always say that my style of cooking is mamma's cooking with a chef's hands.
Italy is known around the world for its food. Do you think growing up in Italy influenced you passion for food?
Absolutely. I was born in a family where we've always made everything ourselves, from home-pasta and cheese to ‘salami’. To this date, we still bake our bread daily. Food has always been central to our life and I wouldn't be where I am had it not been for my family's love for food.
What do you think makes Italian food and dining so special?
The fact it's so strongly linked to family, friends and good times. That's how food should be in every culture but in Italy, we take it to a whole different level.
What are some of your favourite dishes to cook and to eat?
My mum's Pastachijna, her special take on Southern Italian Lasagne with aubergines, spinach, ricotta, beef and veal mince and quail eggs, which is on the menu at Sartoria in Mayfair, London.
Who are some of your favourite chefs and favourite restaurants?
The list is very long! Park Chinois is the epitome of Chinese cuisine in the most luxurious setting, Chef Lee is a good friend and he really makes the best Chinese cooking in London. Alan Yau has been my mentor for many years and his restaurants always achieve the highest standards. At weekends, you'll often find me at Bellanger on Upper Street with my family for lunch or at the Quality Chop House in Farringdon – the staff are wonderful, there’s a great wine selection, and they use amazing British produce.
What do you think sets Italian style apart from the rest of the world?
The way Italian cuisine celebrates ingredients and their simplicity while striving to strike a balance among flavours. The mantra is always 'less is more'.