Philip Lago & Mystique Mattai: The Couple That Cooked Their Way To A Book Deal
Following the release of their Eat With Us cookbook, Philip Lago and Mystique Mattai discuss working together, junk food and taking the chore out of cooking.
If there’s a couple who add proof to the saying “opposites attract,” it’s Philip Lago and Mystique Mattai. As creators of recipe and food site Chef Sous Chef, authors of the Eat With Us cookbook and co-hosts of their Dining In web series on Food Network Canada there’s no doubt their chemistry works well, but their journeys to food were different.
Where Lago grew up in a large family with close ties to the food and restaurant industry, Mattai had a smaller family, overseeing the cooking rather than being the main chef. Where Lago discovered his passion for food while studying at a summer course in Italy, frequenting markets for fresh ingredients to make simple, delicious and cheap meals, Mattai’s background is in art and art history.
But it’s these differences that make it work so well. Where Lago takes care of the cooking, drawing on his experience working in restaurants and travelling, Mattai takes the role of food stylist, funnelling her creativity and artistic eye into presenting the dishes in the smartest, most beautiful way possible. It’s a constant process of collaboration and teaching the other something new, but it results in memorable food.
“If we were to take a risotto, it’s a thought process from two different angles,” Mattai explains. “Phil is thinking about the cooking process, what flavour pairings make it taste good, but when I look at risotto I think of beige rice, flat on a plate. How am I going to showcase it? So, it works from there. If we’re doing a mushroom risotto, I’ll say to leave some for the top or to have a garnish. I’m looking for different elements to tell the story.”
Their book, Eat With Us, combines their processes and presents them in a way that encourages the reader to take a slower, more mindful approach to cooking. Split into sections that cover simple weekday meals, comfort food for the soul and lavish means for special occasions, its variety speaks to their individual takes.
The more you speak with Lago and Mattai about the book, the more you see each dish is rooted in story, inspired by their lived experiences. Mattai’s favourite from the book is carbonara. “It’s a simple, all-season dish,” she shares. “I went to Italy with my mum for my 30th birthday. The first restaurant we went to in Rome didn’t have cacio e pepe, but it had carbonara.” It ended up becoming one of her favourites to the point that, when she returned home, Lago developed a recipe to hit the same spot.
“We photograph it and then we eat it. There’s no filler”
For Lago, a standout recipe from the book is beans on toast. “It’s a super easy, delicious meal that reminds me of my nonno because he didn’t waste anything. Simplicity was always key. It’s beans, chicken stock and parm on toast. It’s a very delicious and humble dish.”
Above all, though, the couple want the book to stand on its authenticity. “We’re very much inviting you into our kitchen,” Lago says. “It’s an ode to how we eat and the recipes we cook.” Mattai adds. “We photograph it and then we eat it. There’s no filler. We’re not propping things up. If we’re cooking it, shooting it and sharing it, it’s a good dish we’re proud to share with you.”
While a cookbook covering so many occasions and culinary moods could be seen as timeliness and a resource to look back on for years to come, both Lago and Mattai believe it comes at an integral moment for people, particularly millennials.
“For a lot of people I know, cooking is a chore,” Mattai says. “When you compare that to how easy it is to order on Uber Eats, even pre-pandemic, millennials aren’t in the kitchen. What we tried to do was remove that chore element and make it an experience. Get a glass of wine, light a candle and have some flowers on the table. Treat yourself and enjoy.”
Lago agrees, noting the physical and mental benefits that come with cooking your own food. He lives by American author and journalist Michael Pollan’s mantra that you can eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.
“You know what’s going in. You’re using real ingredients,” Lago shares. “Cooking requires you to be completely present. We grew our relationship through cooking, so it’s an important time to unwind, catch up with each other on the day and connect.”
With so much work going into the creation of a book, it’s hard for the couple to think of what’s next. For context, they spent a year developing and choosing its recipes and then another nine months preparing and shooting everything.
For now, it’s about enjoying the process and the time spent with their daughter. “Sometimes I look at working a nine to five and the stress that comes with that,” Mattai says. “I’m grateful we get to spend so much time with Lennox. I want her to be proud we spent time with her. She’s a very big part of our day.”
ROASTED BEET, FENNEL AND CITRUS SALAD WITH BLUE CHEESE AND WALNUTS
Serves 4 | Total Time: 45 minutes
3 medium beets, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch wedges
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
3 tbsp orange juice
2 tsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp olive oil
1 fennel bulb, quartered and thinly sliced lengthwise
2 clementines, peeled and sliced crosswise
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese
Fennel fronds, for serving
ROAST THE BEETS: Preheat the oven to 425 F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the beets into a medium bowl and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Arrange in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet and roast for 25 to 30 minutes, turning once or twice, until fork-tender. Set aside to cool for 10 minutes.
MAKE THE ORANGE VINAIGRETTE: Meanwhile, add orange juice, vinegar, Dijon and salt to a salad bowl and whisk until combined. While continuously whisking, slowly drizzle olive oil into the bowl until the dressing is bright orange and emulsified. Season with pepper to taste.
DRESS THE SALAD: Add the fennel to the salad bowl and gently toss with the dressing until the fennel is evenly coated. Place in the fridge until the beets have cooled.
FINISH THE SALAD: Add the beets and clementine slices to the fennel and toss the salad to redistribute the dressing. Top with walnuts and blue cheese and tear fennel fronds overtop for garnish.
ELEVATE: Alternatively, this salad deserves to be shown off in all its beauty. Sprinkle the fennel fronds on individual salad plates. Alternate layering the fennel and clementine slices then tuck the beets in and around the salad. Drizzle any leftover dressing from the bowl overtop and sprinkle with the walnuts and blue cheese.
Excerpted from Eat With Us: Mindful Cooking to Make Every Meal an Experience by Philip Lago and Mystique Mattai. Copyright 2021 Philip Lago and Mystique Mattai. Photography by Mystique Mattai. Published by Appetite by Random House, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
INTERVIEW BY ESTELLE ZENTIL