Chef Marco Calenzo

Chef Marco Calenzo

For our first February interview we excitedly sat down with Chef Marco Calenzo, Head Chef at Zuma’s über popular flagship location in London. Aside from being at the helm of Rainer Becker’s famous restaurant, Chef Calenzo has an impressively extensive background working in several Michelin starred kitchens across the globe. Such as Heinz Beck’s La Pergola; Il Ristorante at Castello Banfi; Arnolfo; Onice; Perbellini; Le Creation de Narisawa; San Domenico and a handful of other prestigious spots worldwide. But how does a classically trained Italian chef end up in London cooking Japanese cuisine inspired by a German gentleman? We asked Chef Calenzo himself. Literally …

Okay, how does an Italian chef end up in London, making Japanese food?
“Well, to make a long story short, my wife is Japanese. Therefore I’ve been to Japan many times, I travel at least a few times each year. I’ve been North, South, to Tokyo, even to Fukuoka where my wife is from, all over. This has made me very passionate about Japanese food, I just love the flavors, the ingredients and the culture itself. I really admire their attention to detail, their cleanliness, the precision in their work and the apparent simplicity in such complex dishes. I met my wife over ten years ago, we’ve been married for nine years now and from the beginning we lived all over the world. After meeting in Italy we first moved to London, then I had an opportunity in Beijing, then got promoted and relocated to Hawaii where after a year I received the call to come back to London and work with Rainer Becker as the Head Chef at Zuma London, and that’s where I am today.”

Where were you trained in the Japanese techniques?
“When I was living in Beijing I had the opportunity to work with chef Yoshihiro Narisawa at his restaurant Le Creation De Narisawa in Tokyo [no. 18 on the Worlds’ 50 Best list]. I asked him, well, I told him I wanted to learn more about Japanese cuisine and its ingredients. He gracefully granted me the opportunity to come spend a month in his kitchen and I honestly learned so much from him, it was absolutely amazing. I learned a lot from my wife as well of course. Plus, when I was living in Asia I was always eating out. Whether it was on the streets or in restaurants, I was always trying new things, looking for new spots, finding techniques unfamiliar to me. I’m a very curious human being by nature and if I don’t know something, you can bet I want to know more about it.”

So, who cooks at home then, you or your wife?
“My wife [laughs]. She’s a great cook. She lived in Italy for seven years, so she can cook Italian and she can cook Japanese. It’s perfect … For me.”

Born and raised in?
“I was born and raised in Florence, Italy. But after I graduated from culinary school I kind of worked all over Italy. From Sicily to Rome to Imola to Verona and back to Florence. After all this Italian experience I felt it was time to go abroad. I received the opportunity to help open Apsleys in London and I jumped on it, which proved to be the right decision because after only four months of opening we received our Michelin star. Heinz Beck was the consulting chef at the restaurant, I had worked with him before when I did a stage at his three Michelin starred restaurant La Pergola in Rome and after that I worked with him again at Montalcino in Tuscany. The Head Chef in all three those restaurants was Massimiliano Blassone, he worked for Heinz I’d say about ten years. So, I changed restaurants but the chef remained the same and he was Italian as well. Needless to say, I immediately felt very much at home in London.”

What did your parents do? “My mother was a farmer’s daughter. I remember growing up and seeing her and my grandmother slaughter pigs and rabbits at the farm. There was always fresh meat around and the freshest produce from the garden – the absolute best tomatoes you can imagine for example – and on top of that my father was a sailor, so there was also all this amazing seafood at my disposal. Even though no one in my family was a chef, I still was raised around food. Fresh food. And I loved it. Up until a few years ago the only way I would eat my Pomarola was with tomatoes from my grandmother’s garden. She stopped conserving her own tomatoes now though – she became too old – and I swear the day she told me a part of me went missing. It’ll never be the same again. The flavor of my grandmother’s tomatoes is completely different from those you get from the market.”

Who inspired you to become a chef?
“Uff, it’s always tricky when people ask me this question because the real answer is: I didn’t really know I wanted to be a chef. I really didn’t know what I wanted to be at all. But, my best friend decided he was going to culinary school, so I decided to go with him. I mean, what could be more fun than going to school with my best friend, right? When I had my first experience in a restaurant I immediately fell in love though. Even if I was only peeling potatoes, I was so happy observing all this food being made: the fresh bread, the fresh pasta, I didn’t even know you could make your own pasta! That’s when a switch went off in my head and I knew this was what I wanted to do. After I graduated I very quickly started working in a really good restaurant, not Michelin star but under a chef who had been trained in Michelin starred kitchens. He taught me so much and in the end helped me get my first internship at a two Michelin starred restaurant. Slowly but surely I started to find my way and I started to gain real experience in other restaurants around. Once you work in a good restaurant it’s easy to find the next job in another good restaurant, and the next one after that and so on and so forth.”

You’ve worked in some very coveted, decorated kitchens. What was it like to go from that type of environment to a more trendy and international kitchen like Zuma?
“At the end of the day, the concept behind any good restaurant is to provide very good service and very good food. This is how I was trained and the kitchen I currently work in is no different. We have a big team and we all work very hard and we all learn every day. There is so much to be learned about Japanese techniques – even for a Head Chef – and I really truly enjoy it. When I step into the dining room after a hard day’s work and I see and receive the appreciation of our guests, that’s what makes it all worth it.”

After spending so much time cooking Italian food and so much time in Asia, identity crisis wise, what has your preference: Italian or Asian cuisine?
“At the moment, Italian. Of course. Because it’s what I am educated in and what I’ve been eating since the day I was born. But my food has a lot of Asian influences and today, even when cooking Italian, I notice I’m using more and more Asian ingredients and techniques. It’s an interesting fusion and it helps you do something different from the standard Italian restaurants. For instance, I love using Japanese seafood – it’s the best in the world, especially the way they treat it – but I will also never manage a kitchen that does not have Parmigiano in it. I will always make sure we have the best cheeses from Italy, and Balsamico.”

How badly do you miss Italian coffee?
“Everywhere I go, I have Italian coffee.”

Excellent, I’m following you!   
“[laughs] No, I make sure I have Italian coffee at my disposal wherever I am.”

No Afternoon Tea for you then?
“No Afternoon Tea for me. But I do know what my own restaurant concept one day will be because of tea, believe it or not. I would love to do an Italian Afternoon Tea. We have some of the best cookies in the world in Italy, truly. Every region you go in Italy there are different cookies – sweet and savory – and they’re all delicious. Those, along with some small Italian sandwiches, combined with a cup of English, Chinese or even Japanese tea … Amazing. I have a strong background in pastry – I actually was the pastry chef at Onice Restaurant in Florence for a while – and I just love it. My wife is a pastry chef too, so I think it could be something really special.”

You ever burned something real bad on the job?
“Oh, I make mistakes every day! It’s a great thing, it’s only through mistakes that we learn to do better next time. If we don’t make mistakes we don’t learn. Mistakes are a good thing. Just don’t burn the kitchen down.”

What has been your favorite dish you’ve made in your career so far?
“It’s a dessert I named after my oldest daughter, Masako. When I was working at Mio in Beijing I came up with this idea to mix yoghurt, raspberry and matcha green tea – 3 of my daughter’s favorite things – in one dessert. After a year on the menu people were still raving about it. One day I invited my daughter to come to the restaurant to try it, she was licking the plate afterwards. She absolutely loved it and she was so happy when I told her it carried the same name as her. Now I just have to figure something out for my other two kids …”

How important are new trends to you?
“You always have to be in search of new things and you always have to keep your eyes open to everything, the good and the bad. Nowadays I don’t have as much time as I’d like to go to other restaurants and see what they are doing, but I still try to do so as much as I can. On my days off I always eat out. Sometimes for relationships, sometimes for inspiration and sometimes because I simply found something I really like. I think it’s very important to stay current and up to date and to know what else is out there as a chef. I respect everything out there and I’m always open to learning new things. That’s the secret to being a good chef I believe: maintaining the willingness to learn.”

When are you happiest at work?
“I’m always happy! So far, I have to say, I have always gone to work happy. I never wake up not wanting to go to work. Going to work is less stressful than staying at home right now [laughs]. With three kids running around I think my wife’s job is much more stressful than mine.”

Last supper? 
“Something I simply cannot live without: a good pizza [laughs]. And a good dessert of course -probably an Italian/French dessert – and a nice platter of sushi and sashimi. Basically I’d go for a mix of Italian, French and Japanese, just like the way I work.”

What’s next?
“It’s funny because I’ve always said no to the idea of opening my own place – even when a lot of people suggested me to do so – but lately I’ve been thinking more and more about it and I think I’d be open to it now. I’m still very happy where I am today, but someday on the horizon, when the time is right, I think I’d like to have my own restaurant. Who knows, the future is bright!”


To taste Chef Marco’s creations for yourself, make your way to Zuma London on your next visit to the UK! In the meantime head over to the ever so addicting Instagram for some culinary inspiration via @marco_calenzo. AND – for all you lovebirds who can’t wait for Valentine’s Day – scroll down to find the recipe for Chef Callenzo’s famous dessert and sweet homage to his first-born: Masako.

MASAKO

For our first February interview we excitedly sat down with Chef Marco Calenzo, Head Chef at Zuma’s über popular flagship location in London. Aside from being at the helm of Rainer Becker’s famous restaurant, Chef Calenzo has...
Nutrition facts: 200 calories 20 grams fat

Ingredients

Raspberry snow:
Raspberry puree        1kg.  
Gelatin                        10g
Cream                         500g

Milk & Yogurt parfait:
Sugar                400g
Egg white         250g
Sugar                100g
Gelatin              10g
Yogurt               1kg
Cream               1l (half whipped)

Green tea ice cream:
Milk                2l
Cream           0.5l
Egg yolk        360g
Egg                 n.2.5
Green tea      q.b.
Sugar            75g

Matcha green tea crumble:
Milk powder        100g
Cake flour            175g
Sugar                    95g
Melted butter      95g
Corn starch         40g
Green tea             5g

Instructions

Raspberry snow:
Soak the gelatin leaf in cold water for 5 minutes.
In a casserole dish gently heat 200gr of raspberry fruit puree, add the gelatin (make sure to squeeze the water out).
Later on mix all ingredients together with the help of a whisk.
Put the mix in a siphon and charge with 2 soda siphon cartridges.
Add liquid nitrogen in an empty bowl, spray the raspberry foam inside and wait for it to solidify.
Take out and blend in a bar blender until it becomes a thin snow. Keep in freezer until needed.

Milk & Yogurt parfait:
In a Kitchen Aid bowl add the egg whites and 100g sugar and start to whisk slowly.
Put the 400g sugar in a pot with little water inside and bring to 121°c, add the gelatin leaf (soaked and drained from water).
Slowly add the sugar mix into the egg whites that are being whipped. Increase the speed and whisk until at room temperature.
Add the yogurt to the egg white mix and when all is mixed well, finish by adding the cream.
Freeze in preferred shape.

Green tea ice cream:
Mix the eggs and sugar in a bowl with a whisk.
Boil the milk, gently add the eggs, make sure they’re added little by little.
Heat the mix to 82°c while continuously mixing, put the mix through a chinois and with the help of a hand blender add the Matcha green tea to taste and mix.
Put in the fridge for 24 hours before mixing it in the ice cream machine.

Matcha green tea crumble:
Mix all ingredients by hand until they start to form round shaped balls.
Put in the fridge for 2 hours to rest before cooking.
Cook gently at 110°c, mixing it every 10 minutes. Make sure the green color will not change during the cooking. If needed, finish by drying it out in a food dehydrator machine.

Masako enjoying Masako!

Notes

Plating guide: In the center of the plate add the milk and yogurt parfait. Spread around some green tea crumble. Add few lines of raspberry sauce and fresh berries. On top of the parfait add a quenelle of green tea ice cream, spread on top a little bit of green tea powder and finish with the raspberry snow.

 

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