Nearly every good young chef knows how to roast a pig in New York these days. But how many can say they’ve roasted one in the middle of a city street? A fashionable one at that. Ignacio Mattos did just that for the annual Sagra del Maiale event at il buco . It might sound like the place you’d find a guy raised on a dairy farm in Uruguay.
But Mattos had it all figured out by the age of 16. His cooking teacher was his grandmother. Milk and vegetables went from the family’s farm straight to their table. A locavore before his time, Mattos packed his bags and traveled
the world with his friend, Chef Francis Mallman. Last stop on this journey was Chez Panisse in San Francisco and then to New York’s The Spotted Pig.
Whatever you do, don’t call Il Buco’s cooking Italian — at least in the traditional sense of the word. In fact, il buco began as an antique store, eventually transforming into one of the city’s most effortlessly romantic restaurants. The menu’s a mix of small plates from Italy and Spain, such as Porchetta alla Romana served with white polenta and sauteed black Tuscan kale and risotto with cuttlefish ink, squid, basil, chili and lemon.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Hard to say, I wasn’t that worried about it I guess! I realized that I wanted to cook when I was 16.
What was your first job in food and what did you learn?
It was at a catering company. I worked with two old ladies, we worked overnight. It didn’t really show me what I was expecting to see in the gastronomic world that’s for sure. However, it was a really good example of what these ladies in their sixties could do. They were really hard workers. That was the example of what this business is all about, really hard work.
How has your Uruguayan and Italian background made its way into your cooking style?
I tell everyone there are certain things that are so basic and primal like taste, memory and the associations of those things. It was easy for me to build these into good fundamentals. I grew up eating well. My family has a dairy farm and we grow vegetables. I can’t even talk about a “Uruguayan gastronomy”. It is a country made up of immigrants with no indigenous heritage so it is a big mix of cultures mostly Italian and Spanish. It has certain characters, costumes and habits that are typical of those places. I think what it gave me a bold, straightforward cooking style.
You worked for a year at the famous Chez Panisse with Alice Waters. Tell us about that experience, and how it’s helped shape the chef you are today.
It made me very confident in myself. It was very shocking to see all these people so respectful of all the traditions and produce. Cooking simple food, with such a care! The environment in that kitchen is very special and it is hard to explain. Professional and fun, it was always interesting.
Which do you prefer: The New York or the California dining scene?
They are very different and everybody knows that. I really like both places. I would say there is definitely a more concerned kind of costumer in the Bay Area than here, but New York is getting there. The speed is just different…and makes for a different appreciation. Here everybody is running and I can’t tell you if most of them really need to be in a rush. In California they enjoy the whole experience of sitting at the table (at least in the Bay Area).
How was it working at The Spotted Pig?
It was a good experience. I was a little shocked at first because I had just spent a year cooking in the downstairs kitchen of Chez Panisse, which I mentioned has a different speed. But the change was fun. April knows the difference and how tricky that change is, but I had a short stay there.
You’ve worked in several kitchens throughout Spain and Italy. How is the outlook on food different in Europe than it is in America?
The European way of life is similar to South America. It is all about the table, food and drinking. Some American habits have been embraced through globalization. Not all of these things are good. Some of these very strong traditions and ways of farming throughout Europe are getting lost. A simple example is the pig slaughter; every family used to do it in the winter. Now it is really hard to find, believe it or not, but it is one of those things that I still have in my memory. I think America has been growing and improving quickly, today I would say there are not many things that America can envy produce wise. Ways of farming, different breeds of animals are here now. It’s obvious in Europe there are centuries of traditions behind so many different products. However, today you can really get serious stuff over here. It will take some more time, Americans have been adopting really good customs and habits.
What do you bring to il Buco’s kitchen?
il Buco has always been very committed to sustainability and using the best ingredients available; from premium olive oil and salt, to fairly treated animals for meat and that for me has been a priority. It’s not easy to get into a place that has a very strong foundation but I think that the integration of my cooking at il Buco has been very natural. Sometimes it gets a little complicated because some people expect il Buco to be an Italian restaurant, and from an Italian point of view, we are not! and it’s not our goal! We keep it a little more fun, respectful to the traditions but in a very diverse way!
Every year at il Buco you celebrate the Sagra de Maiale event, which features a whole spit-roasted pig. What made you decide to begin this tradition?…
is something that Donna and Alberto decided to start here, which I
really like, and it is something that we do back home for special
holidays and celebrations. I have a lot of experience with outdoor grilling/ cooking. The reason is just to get together, eat and drink. I
never imagined as a kid in a tiny South American country that I would
be fire-roasting a 200lb. pig in the middle on a NYC street! Last year the infiernillo (grill) was too small. We couldn’t fit the pig on there so we attached another metal piece and made it work. It was higher on one side but we managed. I was concerned about the timing but it worked out pretty well. What a fun, crazy day!
What did you learn from your journeys with Argentinean chef Francis Mallmann?
I was lucky to work for Francis at the beginning of my career. He’s a really cool guy! It is not that easy to really get to know him. We traveled to so many places: Argentina, Brazil, Europe and the States. I learned to be able to deal with everything and anything under any circumstance. You have to be an adaptable human being and cook, no matter what. One
thing that I still remember about cooking with Francis was when he was
upset, or should I say disappointed, about something like under
seasoning. We would start arguing about the whole thing and he would say, “A cook that doesn’t season food properly is a coward! I
would rather have over seasoned food! This food was made with no
passion!” He was completely emphatic about it and his whole point was
really about confidence. He wasn’t angry. He was coaching and teaching. It was his special way. He made me become confident in my ability.
What is your favorite dish on the menu right now at il Buco?
I love the Huevos Fritos a lo Pobre and the Cavolonero (kale salad). I eat that salad everyday. The
potato empanadas, the pulpo and the squash polenta are things I also
snack on as much as possible. Ahh! I can’t forget the carpaccio!
What is your least favorite (and yes, you must pick one)?
The specials on the menu change every day, so it is hard to say. Sometimes there may be something that I am not one hundred percent happy with, but when we adjust it can end up being great. Sometimes it is like that, there are ups and downs but we always work through it. Honestly, I am not the biggest lamb fan. But we offer it at the restaurant a lot and people love it. For me, I can’t do it.
Which culinary trends do you embrace?
Which culinary trends do you wish would just die already?
Enough with all this buzz about celebrity chefs. I
believe it is great for those who deserve it and there are a lot of
people that have been working hard for a long time so I’m happy to see
them doing well. However,
the reality is that there are too many people in this category right now. Work hard with good talented people, put your time in and don’t cut corners.
There are a few Uruguayan restaurants in Queens – have you been to them?
Chivito D’Oro in Jackson Heights (Queens) is a nice place to go for a
good parrillada and the grilled short ribs which for me, is a very
special cut for grilling. This is an honest place. You have the meat, the bread and the wine…that’s it. They have great intestine, sweetbreads, blood sausages and other sausages.
Any new projects on the horizon? Spill the beans…
There are ideas, but right now I’m just trying to create the consistency and structure that I desire at il Buco.
Address: 47 Bond St., nr. Lafayette