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Chef Ignacio Mattos cooked for Obama and conquered New York

The boy who grew up in rural Uruguay has made his mark in the Big Apple and turned his restaurants into foodie destinations

Ignacio Mattos
Chef Ignacio Mattos at Estela, his downtown bistro in New York.Adriana Glaviano

Ignacio Mattos, a renowned chef in New York, is celebrating the 10th anniversary of his esteemed restaurant, Estela, on Houston Street. Since its inception, this intimate downtown bistro has garnered accolades from food critics and earned a coveted Michelin star. It’s now an obligatory foodie destination, firmly established in the local dining scene. Its dedicated clientele sometimes dine there two or three times a week (which they can track on an app).

Mattos now has four restaurants and a hotel. Lodi in Rockefeller Center with its art deco flair, is inspired by Milanese bars and offers pastries. Altro Paradiso is an Italian restaurant in the heart of SoHo, while Corner Bar in the group’s Nine Orchard Hotel has a chic city bistro vibe. All of his restaurants are elegant and meticulously appointed, yet fresh and inviting. His dishes may seem simple, but they never fail to impress with quality ingredients, careful plating, precise technique and surprising flavors.

Grilled Berkshire pork with English peas, fava beans in pork broth, and fresh greens is one of the dishes by Chef Ignacio Mattos served at Estela restaurant.
Grilled Berkshire pork with English peas, fava beans in pork broth, and fresh greens is one of the dishes by Chef Ignacio Mattos served at Estela restaurant.Adriana Glaviano

Mattos invited us to meet him at Estela. His staff asked us to wait for him at the marble bar, but he arrives before we have a chance to sit down. Mattos is wearing a white T-shirt, just like in his photos, and his intense gaze immediately grabs our attention. He appears focused and relaxed, ready to share a story without any obvious Uruguayan influences. It mostly unfolds in New York, a city that welcomes people from all corners of the planet.

Mattos orders us a dish to share: Ahi tuna sashimi served with an oil style emulsion made from infused fish bones, squid ink and olive oil accompanied by Ponzu sauce. The dish features endives with walnuts, anchovies and ubriaco rosso cheese. It also includes miso-infused zucchini with pine nuts, as well as a house specialty — fried black rice with squid and romesco sauce. The entire menu is inspired by the city’s immigrants and their food. “I wanted everything to feel very New York,” said Mattos.

Gastronomy has become something of a fetish and chefs are opening more and more restaurants. Honestly, I don’t know if it’s the solution, but it’s one way to do it.” He is known as a hands-on chef who happily takes on cooking and dishwashing duties when needed. He did this frequently at Estela, but acknowledges that with four restaurants and 500 employees, he started delegating tasks. “I used to go to the market every week for 17 years. I still go, but just when I’m cooking at home.” He believes gastronomy isn’t for everyone, but it’s still his passion. Personal time and family are important — he has a 12-year-old son from a previous relationship, and an infant son with his current partner, Laila Gohar, an internationally recognized artist who works with food as her creative medium.

Mattos began cooking out of necessity. He spent his childhood in the countryside of Capurro and Santa Lucía, in Uruguay. “I grew up with a grandmother who never said, ‘I love you’ — that was not part of her vocabulary,” said Mattos. “But the way we expressed love was through food. Me and my two brothers, we grew up in the countryside, you know, with all the things that come with it. In the summer, we’d make peaches and plums in syrup, tomatoes, jams, and even wine. But in the winter, I’d have to go out and butcher a pig in the cold and listen to it scream.” Mattos was put in charge of the cooking when he became a vegan because his grandmother didn’t understand what that was all about. “When I was 12, I noticed that my friends weren’t eating well, so I started baking bread and cakes that I sold to them.” At the age of 16, he started working in a catering service and moved to Montevideo. “That’s where I figured out that cooking would be my thing. It’s not like I really had much of a choice, you know? I wanted to leave Uruguay and become independent.”

Luckily, Mattos ended up in the right hands, in the right place, and at the right time. In Montevideo, he apprenticed under Michel Kéréver, one of Alain Passard’s mentors, and at Francis Mallmaman’s restaurant, Los Negros, where he stayed for seven years. “I’ve traveled with him, working on various projects, and let me tell you, it’s had a huge impact on me. It’s been such a fantastic opportunity to explore and experiment in different settings. There are very few people who do it as well as Francis.” Mallman said Mattos “doesn’t rely on pure innovation to express himself through his food. Instead, he lets his explicit and universal flavors be the only guide to his meals. He was actually the first to hide the main ingredient in the dish presentation, turning each bite into an exciting discovery.”

Ignacio Mattos
Ignacio Mattos at work in his kitchen.

Mattos came to New York for the first time 17 years ago with Mallman, his mentor. “I arrived with nothing but a job with Francis. I left and then came back, still with nothing. I owe it all to the connections I made in restaurants. Conquering New York wasn’t even on my mind. It was always about cooking and being consistent.” He also spent time at Zuni Café with Judy Rodgers (San Francisco), apprenticed under Martin Berasategui in Lasarte (Spain), and roasted meats in Da Cesare (Albareto Della Torre, Italy). In São Paulo, he handled up to 1,600 place settings daily at Paola Carosella’s A Figueira Rubaiyat. Mattos reopened Patagonia Sur in Buenos Aires until it was time to return in a big way to the United States. “I was looking for a new challenge, and then this amazing opportunity came up to cook at Chez Panisse with Alice Waters in California. I ended up spending about a year and a half there. It was such an exciting time for me with so many opportunities. But I realized that I wanted to come back to New York — it’s home for me.”

He served as the chief executive of Italian restaurant Il Buco for five and a half years. In 2011, he seized the opportunity to open Isa in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. Initially offering a wood-fired cooking menu, he added a refined and experimental touch. The goal was to make it accessible to young people with plates for $45, plus wine. Isa quickly gained popularity and attracted top chefs like Fredrick Berselius of Michelin-starred restaurant Aska, Fabian Von Hauske and Jeremiah Stone of Contra, and Pam Yung and José Ramírez-Ruiz from Semilla. “It was a very interesting team that won over a lot of people, but not everyone got it, and the numbers didn’t work.” Mattos, once hailed by food critics, had to close his first restaurant. With a newborn son (Paco), he found himself in a city that devours even the greatest chefs, wondering what to do next.

Chef Ignacio Mattos' Estela restaurant in New York City.
Chef Ignacio Mattos' Estela restaurant in New York City.Adrianna Glaviano

“So there I was, no job and up against the wall. It was now or never. I knew I wanted something different, something of my own. The Nordic era of Noma was booming, and everyone was jumping on the bandwagon. That’s when it hit me — I wanted to create simple, well-made food in a cozy atmosphere that would feel like a party.” Estela opened in June 2013 and survived the summer. Four months later, they couldn’t accommodate all the crowds. “It became the place where everyone wanted to hang out because there wasn’t any other casual spot as good as ours. We paid off the investment in just a year and a half – miracles really do happen!” As if that wasn’t enough, President Barack Obama himself paid a visit and everything just exploded. “A whole entourage of 32 cars rolled in. The streets were closed off for several blocks on all sides. They had helicopters, snipers — the whole thing. Everyone turned to look when he came in and started applauding, like it was a soccer game or something. It was a real spectacle!” Since then, Chef Ignacio Mattos has been unstoppable.

Just like his signature dishes, the flavor comes from the heart. Mattos learned to say “I love you” through food, elevating it to an exquisite art. He spent countless hours in the kitchen, relentlessly pushing boundaries, to create a welcoming universe that tantalizes the senses. This Uruguayan maestro embarked on the journey of the American dream to honor the very countryside that shaped him.

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