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Masha Rener: My Career in Five Dishes

As head chef of London's iconic deli and restaurant Lina Stores, Masha Rener uses world-class Italian ingredients in dishes of unparalleled quality. On the eve of a new opening in King’s Cross, we take in the dishes that have defined her career, from Umbria to Soho

Entering the studio at Foodism HQ, I'm hit with a decadent and delicious smell. It's the unique, tantalising scent of rich, buttery pasta – pasta that's handcrafted with love by a chef with years of experience, using the type of authentic Italian ingredients that can make a tagliatelle strand sing in your mouth. There are only a handful of chefs in London who can cook pasta that smells this good – and Masha Rener is one of them.

Many moons ago Rener moved to London for a year with the intention of developing her English and solidifying her love of cooking in a new country. It was then that, craving the traditional foods of her hometown, she met the owners of Lina Stores, which had long been established as one of London's best-loved Italian delicatessens. They kept in touch, and when the idea for the first Lina Stores restaurant came to be, there was no question of who they'd ask to be head chef. It was simple: an authentic Italian chef with a raft of traditional knowhow under her belt bringing the traditional tastes and flavours of central Italy to Soho.

Each dish Rener puts on her menus is met with a fanfare of enthusiasm from London locals and tourists alike who travel to Soho just for a taste of her pici alla norcina. "Cooking has always been magical for me," Rener says. "Being in the kitchen and developing something new is just truly magical and allows me to concentrate. So much of cooking is just about being present, which is important as someone who lives with their head in the clouds."

Next month, the second Lina Stores restaurant opens in King's Cross, with even the smallest hint of what dishes will grace the menu being met with cult-like enthusiasm from Rener's fans. She'll play the role of executive chef for both restaurants, developing the menus and overseeing the cooking day-to-day. Here, we help her tell her story, from farm girl living in rural Italy to head chef in London's buzzy Soho, and cover the dishes that made her the chef she is today – sharp, traditional and timeless.

Pici alla Norcina

 

This pork pasta was one of the first dishes I ever learnt to cook. I grew up in the Italian countryside in a small town in Umbria with my mum and dad, where they owned their own hotel and restaurant, La Chinsa, which opened in 1985. The norcina was our dish – it's what friends and locals came to the restaurant to enjoy. My mum taught my sister and me how to make it at the age of ten as it was a quick, easy dish that only used a handful of ingredients: the pasta only needs flour and water, and you can roll it out by hand. Introducing it to London at Lina Stores brought its own challenges – you can't get the same 70% pork and 30% fat meat, so we make our own – but we persisted with getting the ingredients perfect and it's become a signature dish. The flavour combinations are weird (pork, porcini and cream seems like it should be wrong) but it makes people take notice. It's quite unlike anything on any other pasta menu in London.

Claudio salad

This salad is named after my father, Claudio, as the dish was his and my mother's invention. Growing up on a farm meant that most of what we ate was what we (but mainly he) had grown. Most days, we'd eat it for breakfast or to kick off dinner, although the chicory was always the most delicious from January to April when it was in season. I remember he was always tending to the part of the garden where those leaves grew, and meanwhile, my mother would be in the kitchen perfecting the dressing using eggs from our hens. It's the first time that I remember noticing the way two ingredients can marry together to make something beautiful, and acknowledging how my parents had worked together to do the same. Bringing it to London, for me, was like bringing a piece of home to the UK. It's a beautiful union of two ingredients and two chefs.

Gnudi

Around the age of 22, when I started to run my parent's restaurant on my own, I became really passionate about developing my knowledge of traditional Italian recipes. I went to Tuscany to perfect their traditional gnudi, and I've been cooking it ever since. It's a simple concept with complex flavours: you take the filling of ravioli (in this case spinach and ricotta), and cook it as is. The story goes that an old Tuscan woman prepared the filling and, in a rush, forgot to do the pasta. She decided to cook the dumpling-esque dish instead, and gnudi was born. This taught me that many recipes are born from mistakes: I used to serve a cheese and potato bread at La Chinsa that did not start well, but after my mum helped me develop the recipe, locals were coming to the restaurant just for that dish. I serve gnudi with burnt butter, sage and parmesan. We tried so many variations, but sometimes it's best to keep things traditional.

Tuna tonnato

Fast-forward ten years and I'd made the hard decision to sell my parents' restaurant in Umbria. As I began to wonder what to do next with my career, my old friends who ran Lina Stores got in touch and asked me to head up their newest venture, the Lina Stores restaurant. It was the biggest life decision I ever made, but it was the right one. One dish I was adamant to have on the menu was veal tonnato: thinly sliced veal in creamy caper and tuna sauce, traditionally made in Northern Italy – but they kept pushing back and saying it was too rich in taste and too old, as they had served it at the delicatessen in previous years. One day, the idea to replace the veal with tuna came to me. It's lighter and full of flavour, with a similar creamy tuna-caper sauce that compliments it beautifully.

Roasted truffle celeriac

This recipe is my newest creation and I am just in love with it. I have a friend who runs
a traditional five-star restaurant in Alba and a few years back, I convinced them to help me get lots of chefs from the north and south of Italy together to discuss their best ideas and innovations. It was there that I first had the idea to develop a dish that paired celeriac, grown in Northern Italy, and black truffle, which Umbria is known for. It's a celebration but also fusion of traditional Italian food. I've been perfecting it for seven years now, and it'll be a vegetarian option on the menu at the new Lina Stores in King's Cross. It's the best feeling in the world when you discover a new combination of flavours that shouldn't work, but do. It's what I'd order, if I went.

linastores.co.uk

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