Interview with Mateo Zielonka, chef

In just 11 years, this complete self-taught chef has earned himself a nickname, ‘The Pasta Man’, and over 812,000 followers on his Instagram account. In London’s Soho district, ‘his’ restaurant 180 The Strand is always busy. To coincide with the release in France of his second book, Pasta Masterclass, we take a look back at this extraordinary chef’s meteoric rise and, beyond that, his passion for pasta…

How did you get into cooking? Were you already cooking as a child in your native Poland?

Not really, no. Even though I’ve always been fascinated by food, I didn’t cook much if at all. When I was 17 or 18, I started watching The Sopranos. More than America or the mafia stories in the background, I was captivated by all the meal scenes, in and out of restaurants. So much so that my brother gave me the recipe book from the series. But I was still living in Poland at the time. Most of the ingredients needed were not available back home… No, I had to go to England to take the plunge. When I was 22 or 23, I joined my best friend there for the holidays. After 2 days there, I was offered a job as a dishwasher. ‘What if I changed my life? At the time I was a personal assistant to businessmen and other influential people. I resigned and that’s where my adventures in the kitchen began: on the dishwashing side, 11 years ago now.

Going from dishwashing to pasta couldn’t have been done with a wave of a magic wand…

No, it didn’t. I took one job after another, in different establishments, learning the trade, year by year. Until, about 7 years ago, I was given the opportunity to make a fresh pasta dish. A first for me. And I loved it. Preparing a pasta, shaping it… The process is so incredible. Not to mention the taste! The experience left a deep impression on me. I started making them at home. Almost obsessively. I worked during the day, practised in the evening and posted. I created an Instagram account. I wanted to share my tribulations in the world of fresh pasta, before deciding that this would be my job, my daily life.

Why do you like pasta so much?

Making pasta and giving it shape is soothing. It’s a bit like baking bread or even gardening. You get your hands into the mixture of flour, fine semolina and eggs, you feel its texture… It’s very relaxing. And then, at home, in the kitchen, with friends or family, it’s always a sociable moment of sharing and passing on, leaving lasting memories. Add to that an infinite number of shapes and colours, as well as different sauces and flavours… I can’t get enough of it. I want to make pasta for the rest of my life!

You say you have to go to Italy to learn: do you go there that often?

I’ve been to Italy three times so far. I learnt how to make a few pastry shapes from Italian nonnas. It was very enjoyable. In particular, I remember this old pastificio, a family business where some old ladies taught me the art of agnolini mantovani after I, in turn, showed them a preparation that they didn’t know. I, who am not Italian and 50 years younger than them… Great moments!

What are your sources of inspiration?

When it comes to pasta, all cuisines have something to say: Italian, of course, but also Japanese, Chinese, French, Polish, South American… There’s a pasta for everyone! And then there are the flavours that catch my eye here and there, during a meal, in a restaurant or elsewhere. Nature also inspires me a lot, as does art. Not necessarily at the time, but the day after a dinner or an exhibition, I can wake up with the idea of making this or that recipe…

Why this second book?

The first one, published two years ago, was very playful, very colourful… The tone was quite light. This one is more complete. It goes more deeply into the subject. It’s full of explanations, tips, QR codes to videos… A multitude of shapes and sauces are covered… That’s why I’ve called it Pasta Masterclass. 

All these lessons and tips would almost lead you to think that not everyone can make good pasta…

I don’t think so. The process is simple. The most important thing is to use the right ingredients and to practise. You improve quickly, you gain confidence… And making pasta isn’t the same as baking. You can reuse scraps, you can keep dough pieces to rework later…: there’s more flexibility.

If you had four pieces of advice to give?

First, good ingredients. That’s the basis. It’s essential. Next, it’s essential to cover the freshly made pastry, in an airtight container for example, to prevent it drying out. Also, as I said earlier, remember to keep the scraps: you can use them to make maltagliati. Finally, pasta lends itself well to batch cooking. You can freeze dough pieces and shape them later. Ravioli also freezes well. With pasta, there are a thousand ways to avoid wastage and make your life easier.

Which recipes from your book are you particularly enjoying at the moment?

I really like my malfatti, dumplings filled with ricotta cheese and served in a simmering tomato sauce. This time of year, all you need to do is replace the spinach with chard. Serving pasta in a Parmesan broth, in brodo, is just as appetising. We often tend to throw away the rind of this cheese. That’s a shame: it’s enough to flavour a simple vegetable broth in which to cook fresh pasta, such as sorpresine or tortellini. I’m also crazy about my vegetarian ‘nduja, an alternative to this emblematic Italian sauce, traditionally made with pork and chilli, offered here without meat and with oat cream instead of mascarpone. What’s more, everyone raves about my tagliarini, whose cooking water washes down a mixture of ricotta, lemon zest and spinach. The result is a simple, delicious sauce…