She's got the fire
Larissa Mazzoli, the sous chef in charge of Chamas, on what it's like telling men how to get their grill on
Close your eyes and imagine a barbeque. Any barbeque. What do you see? Chances are, a majority of you conjured up images of a bunch of men standing around a grill or pit, casually basting skewers of meat or deftly flipping burgers and sausages with a pair of tongs. Or maybe you saw filleted fish on a big fire, surrounded by a bunch of men ready to break out into some sort of fire dance. We've almost taken this setting for granted; men cook the meat - and we don't like being chaperoned around the fire - and this is how it will always be. Well, not always. Definitely not at Chamas, in the Crowne Plaza hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road. Here, at this Brazilian-style churrascaria, amongst the brigade of chefs rotating skewered meats over charcoal flames and tending to braising ribs - you know, manly men duties - is a diminutive master griller. And she is the one giving the orders.
When she's not watching every bit of hot food leaving the kitchen, Brazilian chef Larissa Mazzoli is rather timid and shy. "My English is not so good," she says, coyly trying to dodge the cameras. The 24-year-old chef is the first to be showcased in a new series of curated culinary videos titled 'Kitchens of Dubai' (available on YouTube) and she seems relieved to be away from the probing mics and lenses. "Was I good?" she asks, nervously. "Did any of that make sense?" Her short video is on the fineries of cooking various cuts of meat - just like they do at barbeques in Brazil - and she jokes that her hands were trembling. "I'm more comfortable in the kitchen. I can speak to you through my food better than I can on camera," she says with a laugh.
I thought she would be more intimidated about giving orders to a bunch of surly men, something she admits is not always easy. "There aren't a lot of women in my position, so it's definitely something different for a lot of these guys here. Also, I'm really small," she says (she means short and petite), gesturing with her hands to her stature, "and I think that makes things a bit harder." But, she adds, this isn't her first rodeo and that she has seen it all, ever since her early days as a chef in training.
Larissa was passionate about cooking from a young age, something she says her paternal grandmother nudged her into by way of her delicious food. "She was always the designated cook and when she cooked, everyone ate. It was that good. She used to bake the best breads in my hometown - Jundiaí, about 60km from São Paulo - probably the best I've ever eaten," says Larissa. In fact, when she was 17 years old, she went to work at a bakery, inspired by none other than her grandmother. Her baking stint led to a bit of an epiphany, especially when you think of how all the top chefs in the world are all men.
"Baking is definitely a man's job," she explains. "You wake up early in the morning and haul giant bags of flour and sugar and other ingredients. and, to make things worse, the vat that you mix the dough in is not on the floor, but elevated. That means you really have to put your back into it, lifting those bags up to empty them into the vat. It was exhausting work," she says. "I did that for a year, baking something like 200 loaves of bread everyday, and I was done." But not without a sense of irony, it seems.
"The truth is, in most restaurants, women are made pastry chefs. Even in Brazil, I would have found a job as a pastry chef easier than I would other positions in the kitchen. I think it should be the other way around. Men should do the baking and pastries and women should do the hot food!" Which makes perfect sense, because we all know how much we love mom's food. Right?
Having started out at such a young age, Larissa quickly gained a few matronly mentors. "We should never forget those who first gave us a hand early in our lives," she says, remembering fondly the executive chef and her sous chef, Patricia and Karina, respectively, who watched over her during her early years in the kitchen, and with whom she still keeps in touch today.
"They mentored me and pushed me to be a chef. Patricia always said that I would one day be a great chef," she recalls. "I still remember the day when she called me and said 'send me your CV'. That was it. Four words. I stuttered trying to ask her why and for what, but all she said was 'send me your CV'. And then she added it had to be in English. If you think my English is bad now, imagine what it was like back then!" she says and laughs. That was about four years ago, when Larissa was barely 20. Needless to say, her English has gotten a lot better.
"So, in the middle of work, I got someone to help me type out my CV and I sent it to Patricia. The next thing I knew, I was heading to Dubai for a job!" she says. "I was really worried that I wouldn't get the job or last long because of my lack of English/communication, but I was lucky - the kitchen was pretty much all Brazilian! I fit right in!" she says laughing. She went from strength to strength, working a few stints around Dubai before finding her place in Chamas, particularly with her skills with meats, and especially when it came to Brazilian food. To top it all, she is the youngest chef, which, coupled with being a woman, doesn't exactly bode well for giving orders.
"Everywhere I worked, the women were vastly outnumbered by the men. And of the few places that had female chefs, I was the only one on hot foods," she explains. "In one place I worked, we were three women, and two of them were pastry chefs. In another, we were four and, again, I was the only one on hot foods - grilling meats and playing with fire." She adds that there's nothing wrong with being a pastry chef - after all, she did start in that section of the kitchen - but she wouldn't trade it for the stove and the grill. "I love it. I prefer the cuts and scrapes and burns! Bring it on," she says showing me her arms with plenty of little nicks and burns. "If I can do it, I'm sure a lot of women can do it," she adds.
And when she's not showing the guys in the back how it's done, she's busy introducing guests in the front to Brazilian cuisine. "I'm trying to make this into a complete Brazilian experience," she says with a big smile. "We've even had celebrities like [professional footballer] Thiago Silva come here," she says proudly.
Despite the long hours and having to give orders to her male colleagues, oddly enough, it's not the pressure of the kitchen that gets to her, but how much she misses her home and her grandmother. "She passed away some years ago, and I miss her everyday. I wish she could see me today and how far I've reached. I also miss my home and long for my vacation so I can go to my hometown and eat all my favourite things," she says.
She says that making time for her friends is one of the costs, especially when they complain that she has 'no life'. "They keep calling me to go out with them, but I'm always in the kitchen. They make fun of me and say that I love my job more than them. I know I have lost or missed out on a lot of things people my age would have done, but it's all worth it. I'm doing something I love. I have no regrets. I feel that I have achieved so many of my dreams and that I am still young enough to create new dreams for myself. Not many people can say that." She adds that she will always be thankful for everything she has and everything that has happened in her life.
As long as she's in the restaurant, you can be guaranteed that Larissa will make sure you have the best that Brazil has to offer, starting with a barbeque to put those manly barbeques to the test.