From Basketball to Michelin Stars: An Interview With Olympic Chef Alexandre Mazzia


While Marseille has been steadily shaking off its gritty reputation for some time now, its culinary scene has been soaring. Even the haughtiest of Parisians, who still see it as a city of crime and grime, have to admit that the food is superbe. With the recent launch of Time Out Marseille, the city is basking in the spotlight as a foodie destination. Yet, local chef, Alexandre Mazzia’s talents have been a fixture here for years. Born to French parents, but spending his formative years in the Republic of Congo, Mazzia’s journey has been remarkable. A former professional basketball player with a degree in science, he eventually traded the court for the kitchen, honing his skills in Paris and Barcelona before making Marseille his home. His three Michelin-starred restaurant, AM par Alexandre Mazzia, largely celebrates these African and French roots and, as the Paris Olympics draw near, Mazzia’s influence is set to grow even further, having been selected to create a menu for the athletes at the 2024 games.

I meet Mazzia in his restaurant on a particularly frenetic day—the start of the Olympic torch relay in which he’s been asked to run. The atmosphere is super-cool, his brigade working efficiently in the moody dining room to the strains of French rap. Mazzia, tall and imposing, is visibly stressed by his packed schedule: a television interview, an Olympic torch relay, then a full dinner service. His eyes dart between his team and the clock, prompting his assistant, Manon, to clarify, “The restaurant closes when Le Chef isn’t here,” underscoring Mazzia’s hands-on approach. Nervous about conducting the interview in English (which was miles better than my French), he confesses to being exhausted from days of interviews, and I tell him I’m grateful he’s carved out time for our conversation. Before we begin, Mazzia excuses himself to brief the team on the day’s reservations (a detail left me horrified – one table requested ‘no chocolate’!), his demeanour intense and serious — no surprise given the restaurant’s standards.

Returning, Mazzia’s nervousness fades as we discuss his culinary philosophy. He likens the restaurant to a workshop: “It’s like an atelier. The way the team works here is totally different from a normal restaurant”. As he spoke, I noted the brigade of twenty-four, many very young, working diligently in small sections and spilling out from the kitchen to various countertops. We chat about the precision and coordination necessary to earn three Michelin stars (as if on cue, as I bite into my pain au chocolat, a waiter swiftly places a napkin underneath) but Mazzia insists that it’s more than just efficient organisation: “It’s the symbiosis with the whole way of operating,” he notes. Less about hierarchy, though he obviously commands respect, it’s about working together as a team and anticipating needs. “That’s the restaurant’s strength—the way we work here.” His confidence in his team is palpable; when I asked if he had anticipated his third star, Mazzia didn’t hesitate: “Of course”. There’s no arrogance in his response; simply clear awareness of the effort and dedication that went in to achieving the impressive feat of three stars in six years.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing for Mazzia, however. Like everywhere, the restaurant had to close for three months during the first pandemic lockdown. He recalls the difficulty of continuing to support their regular suppliers, as well as ensuring standards were three-star when they eventually reopened. But there were earlier struggles too. After completing his training in Saint-Cloud and working for various leading names, such as Pierre Hermé, Alain Passard and Martin Berasategui, he admitted that there were challenges when he was offered his first permanent job at Le Corbusier in Marseille in 2009. “It was very intense,” he recalls, because he didn’t “carry the weight of French or Mediterranean cuisine,” having only arrived in France when he was 15. In hindsight, Mazzia sees this was perhaps a blessing. It was here that he became more confident in his own cooking style and started to think, as he puts it, “Okay, I’ll do what I want”.

“Doing what he wants” has made him stand out extraordinarily. The restaurant’s menu is inspired significantly by his early life in the port city of Pointe-Noire in the Republic of Congo, where he says he would swim every day, go fishing, and have BBQs on the beach. “Spices, smokiness, roasting—these are in the DNA of the restaurant,” he notes, citing dishes such as the mafé, an aromatic groundnut stew, something he remembers enjoying with his grandfather as a kid. I suggest that spice isn’t well-tolerated by many French palates, and he emphasises the importance of balancing flavours—something he’s not afraid to explore, whether it’s using sake in his jus instead of white wine for its interesting notes or pairing eel with chocolate.

Marseille is not like Lyon or Paris, not at all, it’s not the same energy. You have a lot here, you have unbelievable vegetables, the sea. You are in a city but you’re also near the countryside, that’s what I like about Marseille

Marseille, the city he was drawn to because of its global nature, plays a crucial role in his culinary style. He really lights up when I ask about the produce here. “It’s not like Lyon or Paris, not at all, it’s not the same energy”. He half-smiles at me, a wannabe Parisian in Marseille for the day. “You have a lot here, you have unbelievable vegetables, the sea. You are in a city but you’re also near the countryside, that’s what I like about Marseille.” I agreed that the produce here is outstanding (and the weather too, with much more sunlight than the gloomy Paris I’d left). Manon chimes in, suggesting I should move here instead, arguing there’s more good food to write about in Marseille than in Paris anyway.

Discussing his move to Marseille inevitably brings up another major facet of Mazzia’s life—his career as a professional basketball player. When he first moved to France he played alongside Michael Brooks at SMUC Marseille Basketball, the US Avignon-Le Pontet, and eventually for the French National team. He stopped playing in 2007 and, when I ask why he decided to transition from basketball to cooking, he is quick to correct me. “I didn’t make a transition,” he says. “I played basketball and learned cooking at the same time over the course of ten years.” Unlike many renowned chefs, cooking as a career didn’t call to him from a young age. I get the sense that it was more of a slow burn, a gradual falling in love.

His role in the Paris Olympic Games naturally brings together both of Mazzia’s passions. When I mention the Games, he becomes the most animated I’ve seen him—not because he’s rehearsed a spiel for the press, but because he’s genuinely excited. “To be able to show the world what we’re [France] capable of doing is”, he says, “an honour.” He adds, “I’m really proud to be able to do this; to showcase our hospitality and expertise to the athletes.” He downplays the prestige of being asked to represent his country with a simple, “They asked, and I said yes.”

Mazzia will be cooking for the athletes inside the Olympic Village, which will transform into the largest restaurant in the world, catering to 15,000 athletes from across the globe. He’ll be there every Monday and Sunday during the Games, serving dishes he’s meticulously devised for the event. I had the chance to taste one of his signature creations at an Olympic food conference last month—an exceptionally aromatic smoked salted hake with tapioca in a veggie bouillon. If the mass preparation matches that sample, the athletes are in for a treat.

To be able to show the world what we’re [France] capable of doing is an honour. I’m really proud to be able to do this; to showcase our hospitality and expertise to the athletes

Much of the athletes’ menu is veggie and vegan friendly. The plan is that 60% of meals will be plant-based to promote sustainability. Using generous amounts of butter and sugar (as most French chefs are wont to do) was pretty much a no-no for professional athletes, which might have been a challenge for some chefs, but Mazzia’s cooking has never relied on classic French taste boosters. He wasn’t scared of the task—in fact, he even suggests that relying on “très gourmand” things such as butter and sugar is “very regressive” and that working on new techniques and different ways of carrying flavour is what he’s all about. He tells me about a broth he and the team tried yesterday, rich and decadent, not with fat but with body coming from verbena.

If this all sounds a bit virtuous, rest assured that his cooking is anything but. His AM restaurant might be reserved for a (very) special occasion, but I did get to eat at his charming food truck outside—Michel par AM, named after his grandfather, a fisherman from Île de Ré. Mazzia opened it during lockdown when restaurants were forced to close, and it was so well-received it became a permanent fixture.

The truck is reassuringly close to his main restaurant. Toward the end of our chat, I watched various members of his brigade hop to and fro, reinforcing that it’s an extension of his restaurant rather than a gimmicky way of making more money. The enticing smells of food wafted from the truck to where I sat across the road, and a queue was already forming twenty minutes before it officially opened at eleven am—a mix of families with prams and older locals. With huge amounts of mise en place dotted around the truck, the brigade cooking and serving the food were just as focussed and diligent as their colleagues in the main restaurant.

Mazzia’s ambition with the food truck, much like his Olympic cooking, was to offer something both tasty and healthy. “With the food truck, I’m always thinking about my children,” he says, “making food they want to eat, but in a healthy way.” The menu was indeed fresh and filled with veggies, but it felt fun, playful, and replete with flavour. Several people were ordering his ‘KebAM,’ his take on a kebab with spiced flatbread and grilled marinated citrusy chicken (with a veggie version featuring grilled and marinated celeriac), topped with marinated cucumber and red cabbage slaw, served with frites topped with a piment gelée. There was gazpacho made with petit pois and asparagus, topped with sumac grenadine, and a fresh ‘boisson du moment’—iced green tea with hibiscus, mint and lime.

Michel par AM—and the main restaurant— are a little out of the main part of town in the quiet huitième neighbourhood near the pretty Prato beach—an excellent spot to picnic after visiting the truck. I, however, couldn’t wait. I devoured a perfect palm-sized croquette-supplí-hybrid (filled with perfectly al dente linguine, peas and smoky scamorza) topped with dill and spring onion in about 20 seconds flat. It was gorgeous, hot and well-balanced—the most beautifully presented truck food I’ve ever eaten. Enjoying it in the sun, I couldn’t help but think Manon was right about moving to Marseille.


Parts of this interview were conducted in French and have been translated into English.

Photos kindly provided by, and reproduced with the permission of, Alexandre Mazzia and his photographers David Girard and Matthieu Cellard (individual photo credits are in the captions; cover photo by David Girard).

July 2024

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