Nourishment as Nostalgia: Interview with Italian Food Stylist & Chef, Mattia Risalti.
We recently had a chat with Hamburg-based chef and friend of the studio, Mattia Risalti. We spoke about his transition from designer to chef, his personal culinary philosophies and how his Italian heritage influences his sustainable approaches to cooking.
There’s no doubt a poetic irony in Mattia’s career shifting from designing kitchens to working within them, but the realisation of his true passion wasn’t something that came immediately.
“After graduating from the University of Florence I moved to Berlin where I still worked as a designer for six years. It was a totally different world — the design world. But it was in Berlin where I rediscovered my passion for cooking.”
After a while he couldn’t help but answer his culinary calling.
“Although I love design and I love the approach, it wasn’t my thing. Then my wife told me ‘Hey, you’re so talented in the kitchen, why don’t you try to work in a proper kitchen?’. I thought it’s never too late... So I’m very thankful to my wife Milia, because she told me to take one year off and make the best out of it. From then, I left the design field and moved to a restaurant kitchen where I worked for Tim Mälzer. This was the beginning.”
The restaurant work offered an exciting start to his cooking career, but after a while, Mattia felt compelled to move on and carve his own path as a freelancer — partly in food styling.
“Basically, a food stylist is a chef for magazines. They’ll develop recipes and take care that everything looks delicious on the plate.”
It quickly became clear through our conversation, that the essence of Mattia’s culinary passion can be traced back to his Italian heritage. Consequently, when he found himself homesick in Berlin, cooking functioned as a means to reminisce.
“Food is my connection to Italian culture… I was missing the taste of home so I was trying to reproduce it from memory by creating the same flavours. From there I started to reconnect.”
The height of his culinary nostalgia transcends above flavours alone, though.
“I come from a big family. My Mom had to feed eleven kids. So the kitchen was constantly busy. Very busy. You can imagine the pots and pans… My Mom was very skilled. She could manage everything. She was the master of the kitchen. I’m quite amazed how she could always cook extraordinary meals with ordinary ingredients. It was perfect. Simple and extraordinary. She was really creative, which is something I took from her.”
“We had living rooms, but we spent more time around the kitchen table; chatting, being together, eating until the pots were empty. Really empty… We loved to scrape the bread in the pot to get out all the sauce. We hated to throw stuff away — so nothing was wasted.”
“It’s so important to know why you are cooking. Whether you’re missing home or it’s just a memory or what. So I started to collect a few simple words to say ok, what is my ‘domestic kitchen’... These words are: convivial, hospitable, simple and sustainable.”
Mattia has a special fondness for bread, which led him to work with Brotklappe, one of Weimar’s most celebrated bakeries.
“I’m obsessed with bread. I bake bread almost four days a week and I can’t get enough. So I built a friendship with the [Brotklappe] owner and he said ‘lets run a daily kitchen here’. I said that he doesn’t have a kitchen, or the equipment — and this was in March last year in the middle of the lockdown — so I said ‘Are you crazy?’. But he was super confident and it made me really excited… We started with sandwiches and then we soon started to fool around and think about new recipes with leftovers of the daily bread. So we decided to make our recovery recipes.”
And it was here that his Italian culinary heritage converged with his desire for sustainability.
“The most valuable lesson I got in the kitchen was to make the most of everything and never throw anything edible away… It’s an important thing to learn from poverty; the art of the kitchen. In Italy it’s called cucina povera… So we started to collect old Italian recipes — Tuscany has three or four important recipes which are based off stale bread… We discovered how powerful it is to work with leftovers — and for the bakery business this was mind blowing. It offered the opportunity to ‘close the circle’ of sustainability."
To Mattia, the culinary process is not purely focused on taste or nutrition, rather he holds special importance to the communal experience of sharing a meal.
“With design, if you want to produce something like a chair, you spend three months sketching, then you’re building it in 3D, then you go to a producer and they ask you for one or two years to produce it — but after two years, it’s already old. With both [cooking and design], you kind of sell emotion, but with food, it’s a much faster process, and it goes directly to your palate.”
“I’m quite a hospitable person and I really like big gatherings squeezed around a table. It’s a typical Italian thing; you sit at a table and you talk — not about business, but about the food… It’s more than just a bunch of recipes — it’s more about the way you’re treating your guests. For me, there’s a lot of tradition and emotion involved... I love to cook and to make edible emotion for my guests. I like to use food as a tool to reconnect to a story or share a story with guests. This is, I think, for me, the fundament of food.”
Thank you to Mattia for the warm and enlightening conversation. You can feast on his links below.
Words by Ewan Waddell.