After an accidental start as a chef, Luciana Berry has enjoyed triumph after triumph – which bodes well for Mano Mayfair, her new Brazilian-Japanese fusion venture on Heddon Street, writes Tanya Ghahremani
Luciana Berry never dreamt of being a chef. She loved food and appreciated good cooking, of course – but making it a career? When she was growing up in Brazil, her family wouldn’t even let her in the kitchen when they were preparing food, because they cooked so much, and she didn’t have the time. Instead, she thought she might have been an electrical engineer, and she even studied it at university.
But, thanks to a happy accident, Berry did fall into cooking – and today, she’s preparing to take up the role of head chef at one of the most anticipated new restaurant openings in London, Mano Mayfair, from restaurateurs Romain Fargette and Alexis Colletta.
The chain of events began in 2004, when Berry travelled to London for six months with the intention of learning English. She quickly became enamoured with the city and decided on a permanent move, taking up a job teaching Portuguese at Harrow School.
‘The food was not good,’ she says openly. ‘I remember there was a steak and kidney pie. The pie tasted like Guinness, the steak was hard and the dough was so thick. And everybody was enjoying it so much, and they were so polite. I was like, “Are we eating the same food?”’
She quickly asked if she could try her hand at cooking something instead, and began serving up classic Brazilian dishes for each of the houses at the school. ‘After a month, I had to open a [catering] company,’ she says. ‘So I was cooking for the Harrow School parents, and for all of the houses in the school.’
As her client list grew, interest in her cooking did as well. At one point, Prince Edward visited the school and asked her to cook for him. She chose to make a chicken stroganoff, which was a hit.
‘After that, I said, “I have to do a course, because I cannot do the same dishes all the time.” I decided to do Le Cordon Bleu, and then when I graduated, a week after, I applied for Masterchef: The Professionals.’
Berry thrived on the series, making it to the semi-finals. In 2016 she was invited to cook at 10 Downing Street for David Cameron and 320 guests. ‘I did a picanha, which we have on the menu [at Mano] now,’ she remembers of the event, which was a barbecue in the garden at Number 10. ‘They thought I would do burgers, and I said, “No, we don’t do burgers in Brazil. We do proper meat.”’
Later, she joined Top Chef Brasil 2020 and made it all the way to the final, which she won. Having made a name for herself in the industry, Berry began to consider her next move. ‘About five years ago, I had an investor who wanted to do a Brazilian restaurant, and we did the concept and everything.’ That project didn’t happen, but when Berry met Fargette and Colletta – thanks to LinkedIn networking – they discovered that the concepts for Berry’s abortive venture and the early ideas for what would become Mano were strikingly similar.
‘I think honestly we just had a common bond right away,’ Colletta says. ‘After the first meeting, she sent me the concept book, and it just matched the same colour codes of Mano. And she was like, “I wanted to do that.” It just matched perfectly.’
Berry agrees. ‘It was like déjà vu. It was basically the same idea, but this was five years ago.’
Fargette remembers: ‘[Alexis] called me immediately, because I was in Italy. “Romain, you need to come. Come. She is the person.”’
The menu is Nikkei-inspired, which refers to Brazilian and Peruvian ingredients cooked with Japanese methods – already popular in Brazil and Peru, but a newer concept in the UK. Standout dishes include cassava chips with wasabi mayo, the Mano tartare, which consists of blue fin tuna with tapioca squid ink and beer crackers, and the costelão com miso (tender black Angus beef ribs with a miso dressing). Many of the dishes include cassava in some way, because, as Berry explains, it’s the ‘most important ingredient’ in Brazil.
What has resulted from Berry, Fargette and Colletta’s efforts is a beauty of a restaurant. With a prime Mayfair address just off Regent Street, furnishings imported from Italy, an aesthetic that weaves Sixties São Paulo energy with Brazilian influences, and even a basement speakeasy bar that draws upon the Japanese influences of the restaurant’s Nikkei cuisine, Fargette and Colletta hope Mano will feel truly personal – despite the difficulties facing the London hospitality sector.
‘We feel like the service standards have decreased a lot,’ Colletta says. ‘Just the quality of the service in general. Simple things: a member of the staff opens the door for you in the restaurant. This is not something you see any more.’
Fargette agrees. ‘The customer, when they come in the restaurant, they need to feel like they are at home.’
Image: Fiona Scott