We sat down with Mediterraneo’s head chef Matteo Siliberi to talk about his career as a chef, his love for travel and the power of a pork and cabbage broth.
Remember the “What Does It Look Like I Do For A Living” challenge where people posted selfies to Twitter outside their workplace and/or in uniform? If you came across Matteo Siliberi’s selfie, you probably wouldn’t peg him as the Head Chef of one of Kampala’s most prestigious Italian restaurants. Matteo is stocky with a bristly short haircut and tattoos that peak out of the rolled up sleeves of his chef’s uniform: running from his forearms to his fingers.Soft spoken, but candid; he takes his time to choose the right words, not because he might say the wrong thing, but probably because he would rather be having this conversation in Italian. He spoke to us about his life and journey as a chef and global nomad.
Matteo’s story begins in Northern Italy where he grew up between a seaside home with his grandmother and a rough housing estate in Milan with his mother. “People would say ‘Ah, this area is dangerous, it is dangerous’, but you grew up there so for you it is (not)…” he remembers. Though the city is best known for saffron infused risotto, the dish that seems to best capture growing up in Milan is a specialty known as Cazzuola, a stew made from slow-cooked pork cuts and celery cabbage. “Milano, the North of Italy is cold, so we need a dish with a lot of calories, you know when it’s cold food gives you a lot of energy.”
It seems to also have brought people together as he speaks of learning how to make it from being invited to neighbours’ houses and observing how they made it, eventually developing his own formula. However, Italian cuisine is very diverse and many of the country’s cities have a unique cooking style and dishes that seem alien to outsiders, “Not all the Italians know [Cazzuola], [it] is typical for Milan.”
Cazzuola’s ability to bring people together served Matteo early on in life, when he made his first batch after joining the army as a trainee pilot in his teenage years. Far from home, he made an acquaintance from Milano who actually knew what Cazzuola was and got not only the warmth of calories, but also the warmth of friendship and fond memories.
Two years into his five-year program, Matteo dropped out for financial reasons and took his first trip out of Italy with a friend. He caught the travel bug and for three years hitchhiked around Europe with his dog. His mother, noting his love for travel and knack for cooking, encouraged him to join Scuola Albergheria; the prestigious catering school offered training in everything from French to economics. Matteo enrolled for five years and this time he finished.
Twenty years after finishing his formal training, Matteo has worked with luminary Michelin star chefs from Alain du Casse to Paul Bocuse. His cooking career has seen him work everywhere from Australia to North America, South America, France, Thailand, South America, Tanzania, Namibia and Botswana; you name it. “You should not spend more than one year in the same place,” he says, insisting that travelling is an education in itself for up-and-coming chefs. In Uganda, he first worked at the Sheraton Kampala Hotel, helping launch the Seven Seas Restaurant, before moving to Kololo’s Mediterraneo restaurant. When I asked him how long he has been in Uganda, he said it has been five years. “Because when I reach in this country I feel something like, er…” he paused thoughtfully for a second, “like freedom”.
I was curious. Having travelled so widely, and for so long, picking up so many influences, has he established a distinct identity in the kitchen and on the plate? “There are many people that come here [Mediterraneo just for eating my seafood, because they know que they can only eat my seafood here, in this way.” As a landlocked country, Uganda presents challenges in accessing fresh seafood as most of it has to be imported. However, there are some local fish species which he has incorporated into his cooking such as Tilapia, whose texture is similar to the gilt-head bream, better known as Orata in Italy.
“I think now, I put my root in Uganda” Matteo says, with only the slightest hint of longing for the road in his eyes. He explains that travel is important when one is younger, but as one gets older, the necessity to stay put grows. It is possible that Matteo intends for his education in some of the best restaurants around the world to manifest in something permanent. But then again, maybe the freedom he found in Uganda is what he had been searching for in his travels all along.