“We always had a plan to open our own place,” says Mustapha Mouflih, “to offer high quality food for a good price.”
So far so standard, for any half-decent chef. Yet beneath this understated goal lies a rare, all-consuming passion, a meticulously plotted career path and a well-baked philosophy.
Rewind to this summer, and another of the down-at-heel shisha cafes that once lined lower Kentish Town Road reopened under new management. From the outside, you’d be mistaken for thinking it was a little more than a passable ice cream parlour, with a line in the usual ciabatta toasties and nuked slices of lasagne.
Yet Anima e Cuore has confounded casual passers-by ever since. First up, the colourful fresh gelato has proved far from your average cornet fodder. And those making a sortie further inside the humble café interior have been rewarded with consistently – almost incongruously – sensational regional Italian cooking.
Born and raised in Catanzaro, Calabria in the ‘toe’ of the country as one of five brothers, Mustapha’s Moroccan family made their living selling pets at the province’s markets. They moved from town to town regularly. The treat for helping on dad’s pet stall? A local meal.
“As a big family, we couldn’t afford to eat out all the time, but we’d always do it after a day on the market,” he says. “We tried so many different things, I just caught the passion for food. It was all I wanted to do. My dad didn’t like it though, telling me I should study to be a solicitor or a doctor. It was my mum who got him to agree in the end.”
And so began the makings of masterplan. Mustapha met Alessandro Altoni at chef school near Lake Garda. A lifelong friendship was forged debating the huge differences in culinary styles across the less than 20km in each direction they both travelled to study.
It was agreed: they would open a restaurant together. The pair came to London, but took jobs in different places. “You need to borrow a little bit from each chef you work with to construct your own style, your chef charisma,” says Mustapha. “We said it from the beginning; you take one path, I’ll take another. Until the time is right.”
They worked their way through Mayfair’s top kitchens, amassing huge recipe collections, favouring new openings so they could learn about launches – and about failure.
What struck both – whether they were cooking at Four Seasons Park Lane, Le Gavroche, Ilia or Cecconi – was that they were often serving the same people. “It’s like a clique of billionaires,” says Mustapha. “But everybody should have a chance experiment and discover good food, like I did growing up. That joy shouldn’t be missed just because it is expensive.”
And that altruistic belief runs through everything at Anima e Cuore. Over six years the chefs amassed and imported equipment (courtesy of Italy’s all too numerous credit-crunched restaurants), then they hand-built the interior and kitchen, and launched the next phase of their mission.
Word has travelled fast. Mustapha is clearly lit-up by the success, and talks excitedly of his latest plans: to visit local schools, sharing cookery skills and his passion for new flavours.
But he and Alessandro aren’t tempted to let the success taint their original vision. They finally have the venture they planned for so many years. They are not interested in raising prices, squeezing in more bookings or even asking for a service charge.
“We started with one view: to do everything as nature intended. It’s got to feel like home. We wanted the chef to come to your table himself, tell you what we found at the market today, then go to the kitchen and cook each dish.
“Of course service is important, but we don’t want you to pay for someone standing behind you, topping up your wine all the time, who then tells you to leave after two hours because they have another booking, and you’ve just spent £200.”