It’s safe to say that in Maltese culture food makes up an important part of people's daily lives. Whether having good taste or having some skills in the kitchen, food is a major part of our culture enriching all our festivities. For some, that passion turns into a drive to share the feeling with others, and this was the case for Mark Zahra, or as he is known in Finland, Home Chef Mark.
Mark Zahra’s love for food goes back to his childhood in Malta, surrounded by the rich flavours of Mediterranean cuisine.
Mr Zahra told WhosWho.mt that his journey in becoming a part-time ‘pizzaiolo’ started when he enrolled himself in professional chef training in Finland, what would ultimately become his home and the location where his business of pizza making was born.
“I found my niche in Italian restaurants, accumulating over a decade of experience,” he added.
Eventually, he recounted, health challenges prompted a shift in the industry he worked in, but that didn’t take away his passion.
In 2020, when most of the world was stuck indoors, trying to experiment with trying new hobbies, including baking bread, Mr Zahra continued working on his passion, which ultimately led him to ‘Home Chef Mark’, a new culinary journey of Neapolitan artisan pizza catering.
He stated that he started making pizza in a regular home oven with a pizza stone and started sharing his hobby on his Instagram page. Eventually, when he started gaining popularity among friends, he felt inspired about growing a pop-up pizzeria business and bought his first pizza oven in 2020. “Since then, the popularity has grown year by year.”
Mr Zahra further explained that his catering business has served multiple occasions, including corporate events, birthday bashes, intimate gatherings as well as weddings.
Asked about what events he caters for the most, Mr Zahra remarked that he has high demand for birthday parties. However, he notes that wedding receptions are his biggest hit. This is particularly interesting to note as not many weddings in Malta include ‘informal’ food, such as freshly made pizzas.
95kg oven on wheels, tents and a rented car trailer
Despite having freshly made pizzas on the go being considered a compelling business concept, one does ask whether this works logistically. Having a pop-up pizzeria means that the man behind the business has to travel, and spend hours just preparing to set up shop.
“Setting up and taking down the pop-Up Pizzeria involves additional hours dedicated to assembling and disassembling the tents,” he reiterated. Mr Zahra adds that in addition to the assembling, he transports a 95kg oven, utensils, ingredients and the tent in addition to renting a car trailer.
However, he added that he is anticipating smoother pop-up processes in the coming year, without revealing his plans.
‘I opt for Italian staples like flour, mozzarella and tomatoes due to their exceptional quality’
Mr Zahra said that his Neapolitan style pizza is made with great precision and passion, which includes being authentic to the taste.
Pizzas are made individually from dough crafted by the businessman’s hands, which is in turn, slowly raised for more than 40 hours.
Despite sounding delicious, in the long run, is it sustainable for a small business to import such ingredients regularly?
“A Finnish import company sources the ingredients for me. I opt for Italian staples such as ‘00’ flour, mozzarella and tomatoes. This is done due to their exceptional quality,” he adds.
However, he further explains that his dishes also incorporate local Finnish ingredients. In fact, one of the most popular items with clients is the famous pepperoni pizza.
He explains that this pizza is made of homemade tomato sauce “enriched with various herbs and ingredients”, and features “Fior di latte for rich flavour, sprinked with authentic Italian Grana Padano.” Mr Zahra says that the Finnish-made Pepperoni then adds a flavourful twist.
“To tie it all together, a drizzle of olive oil completes the delicious masterpiece,” he says.
‘The Finnish four seasons give inspiration to use local seasonal ingredients’
In the context of globalisation and culinary diversity, how does Home Chef Mark find a balance between traditional Italian pizza and local Finnish flavours and preferences?
Despite highlighting the need for authenticity in his cooking, he shares his love for Finnish flavours. These, according to Mr Zahra, “can spice things up nicely.”
Like many other chefs, including many locals, Mr Zahra draws inspiration from all that surrounds him, including the four seasons. He tells WhosWho.mt that in his case the Finnish four seasons give him inspiration to use seasonal ingredients.
With autumn well underway, even if not really felt on the islands, Mr Zahra shared with his client base and following on Facebook, dishes that include one of the most popular seasonal ingredient – pizza using pumpkin sauce. A hearty twist on a traditional sauce.
“These give new dimensions to the flavours,” he says.
Going back to being a full-time foodie: ‘The journey is in progress’
Mr Zahra emphasised that despite being Maltese and loving Italian cuisine, his business will never move away from its origins, Finland.
He told WhosWho.mt that at the moment, he is not working full-time on his business. Despite so, 2024 might be the year he finally takes the leap.
“I’m actively working towards transitioning to full-time with my business. The journey is in progress, and by 2024, time will unveil the outcome,” Mark Zahra concluded.