Flash-grilled: Marco Calenzo

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

Flash-grilled with Zuma London executive chef Marco Calenzo

Related tags: Chef, London, Restaurant, Japanese cuisine

Marco Calenzo is executive chef at the high-end, modern-Japanese restaurant Zuma in London's Knightsbridge

What was your first job?
During the summer break of catering school and aged 14, I started to work in a pizzeria as a commis waiter. I was mainly working behind the bar making coffee and serving soft drinks to guests. Even so, it is still one of my most memorable experiences, the owner was one of the people that inspired me the most. He had such amazing knowledge and would take me back home every night at the end of the dinner shift. I ended up working there for three more summers.

What is your guiltiest food pleasure?  
A midnight bowl of Haagen-Dazs chocolate and salted caramel ice cream, topped with digestive biscuits and a round of hazelnut Nutella.

What’s the best restaurant meal you’ve ever had?
Le Creation de Narisawa in Tokyo. After spending an internship there, the chef Yoshihiro San invited me for what was for me the best meal of my life; a selection of 17 courses with sake pairing, which was just insane.

What industry figure do you most admire, and why? 
Corrado Assenza, a simple person that is from a small town called Noto in Sicily. He has built a global audience, but at the same time has no interest in being in the spotlight. He has done so much for Sicily, for Italy, and for the entire restaurant industry. 

If you weren’t in kitchens, what would you do? 
An architect; I love the building part as much as the interior design. 

What is your biggest regret?'
Time; I strongly believe that each day should be more than 24 hours.

Pet hate in the kitchen?
Chefs that are not passionate about their job, I just can’t stand it.

What’s the oddest thing a customer has said to you?
It was in Maui, USA, and a guest asked me to cook squid ink pasta with bolognese ragu and meatballs. I had to make a picture and send it to all my chef friends as no one believed me!

What’s the dish you wish you’d thought of?
Gelato. Back in the 16th century Bernardo Buontalenti, an Italian stage designer, architect, theatrical designer, military engineer and artist (and a native of Florence, like me) delighted the court of Caterina dei Medici with his creation. Genius!

Most overrated food?
Pasta Alfredo. I regret to say it, but there are millions of better sauces to match the pasta with. I would rather eat cacio and pepe or gricia if I was in Rome. I classify Alfredo sauce as being junk food.

Restaurant dictator for a day – what would you ban?
People that do not respect, and therefore waste, food

What’s the worst review you’ve ever had?
Friday 6 November 2009: two months after the opening of Apsleys restaurant (I was executive sous chef), Matthew Norman of the Guardian had a meal and he made an entire review talking about Heinz Beck, how famous he was in Rome and how bad was his experience in his London restaurant. I am very open to all sorts of feedback if they are constructive or if they have a point. I believe he wasn’t ready and open enough to understand that Italian food is not only pizza and pasta, and that it can be expensive if premium ingredients are used. Sadly for Norman, the restaurant was awarded a Michelin star after just four months after opening.

If you could cook for anyone in the world who would you pick, and why?
My all-time dream is to cook for the Pope. I am lucky enough to have cooked for celebrities, presidents and so on, but I have never cooked for the Pope.

What advice would you give someone starting out in the industry?
Don’t be a chef. If that is your choice and you really love it then go for it, but be patient and do not seek instant gratification. Instead work hard and study. Build your knowledge and learn from different cultures. 

Which single item of kitchen equipment could you not live without?
I cannot choose just one item, but I know I couldn't work without my team.

What do you cook at home on your days off?
Pasta, my first love after my family. I miss Italian food since I started working with Japanese ingredients on a regular basis.

What’s your earliest food memory? 
The summer time was spent at my grandmother's place, when all the family was reunited and was preparing the “tomato conserva” for the whole year. I ate that for over 20 years, and have never eaten a better; it's a memory I carry forever.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
It came from my father: 'it doesn’t matter what you're going to do as far as you're going to do what you like'.

What’s the closest you’ve ever come to death?
Once I had a massive bleeding, a few days after I had surgery to my nose. The bleeding was never ending, I was taken from home to hospital in an ambulance, and all the time I was travelling I was thinking that I would not make it. 

Where do you go when you want to let your hair down?
The seaside is the place where I relax the most, both in the winter time or during the summer.  

Tipple of choice?
Negroni, without a doubt.

What would you choose to eat for your last meal?
Would be a mix of my favourite comfort foods: Neapolitan pizza, buffalo mozzarella, sea urchin pasta, Neapolitan baba’ soaked in rum, and Sicilian cannoli with ricotta cheese and gianduja chocolate. The perfect pairing would be a glass of Krug to start; a Puligny Montrachet with my pasta; and an espresso coffee to finish.

Related topics: Chef, People, Profiles, Restaurant

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