Q&A with Victor Lugger, co-founder and CEO of Big Mamma Group

The co-founder and CEO of Big Mamma Group on its latest outpost: the typically spectacular Carlotta.

You were born in France, studied business and founded a crowdfunding start-up before moving into restaurants. What inspired you to change course so dramatically? And as a Frenchman, why Italian restaurants?

All families have their love language, in my family it’s food. It has always been like this – with my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. It’s not about cooking incredibly well, necessarily – it’s about caring. One of the recent chats on our family WhatsApp was about what we’re cooking next Christmas! And that is not unusual for us. So that is how I became a restaurateur. As for Italy – well, if you want to be in the hospitality business for the long haul, and be successful, then you have to work incredibly hard. And to work hard, you have to do something you’re passionate about. We are not Italian; I grew up near Strasbourg and my dad is half German – but he often worked in Italy and I have spoken Italian from a young age. Opening Italian restaurants was an incredible opportunity to explore the Italian way of life, which I love for its conviviality, hospitality, and the way its culture, history, regionality and values are expressed through food. I could talk for ages about what is loveable about the Italian way of life, but I think most people know instinctively what I mean.


Were you not concerned about competition, given the sheer number of Italian restaurants that already exist in Paris and London? 

I don’t look at other restauranteurs as competition, and I think you’d struggle to find many restauranteurs who do. We started 10 years ago, and we’ve met so many restauranteurs since then. They’ve become friends, they’ve become partners, and they’ve shared everything they can: from suppliers to knowledge of recruitment and buildings. Secondly, there were things we wanted to cook that we couldn’t find anywhere else. We had our story and we wanted to share the emotions that Italy creates within us.


What is that story, and how does that translate to the food?

I think it’s the story of simple, traditional food in an opulent atmosphere. We take sourcing seriously, and we never Anglicise or Frenchify our cooking, which isn’t easy – but at the same time the service, atmosphere and design creates fun and lightness. It’s about taking food very seriously, as Italians do, and taking everything else very lightly. Our food is not about the recipes, necessarily. You will find those online, and in books. What makes it taste the way it does is the producers who cure the parmesan and the ham, the farmers who supply the milk for the mozzarella, the chef who cares that the pasta is fresh enough, the pizzaiola who perfects the pizza in the last two minutes. It’s about creating a team and a workplace where chefs can express passion for food every single day, and who are happy to be here – because if they aren’t, the food won’t taste good, regardless of the recipe.


Big Mamma is a certified B Corp, one of very few restaurant groups to have achieved that status. What inspired you to go on that journey? 

We’ve been a B Corp for four years now, and you’re maybe only the fourth person to speak about it, which is interesting. I didn’t do it for people to ask me about it, obviously – but B Corp is something I think we could all be more aware of. It is a rating system that gives you points and makes something vague like ‘doing better’ very actionable, every day. It’s not just for me as a CEO, so I can brag about it at dinner parties; it’s for everyone: head office staff, waiters, chefs, the people touring suppliers in Italy. All of them have two or three responsibilities through which they participate in being a B Corp and help us do things a little bit better. I don’t think we’re going to save the world with pizza. But if we do things 0.1 per cent better every day, that compounds, and B Corp status fuels and informs our aspirations to make the world a better place.


How is that reflected in your sourcing and your approach to running the business?

A friend of mine once told me that being an entrepreneur is making 20 decisions every day on matters you have no clue about. Having values helps because it allows you to narrow your choices and B Corp helps in the same way. The values don’t come from the sky; they are an aspiration to make the world a better place, distilled into a load of constraints and choices which help you make snap decisions on a daily basis on what to source and what not to source, and energy and buildings, and going totally paperless. The other day we were having a conversation about a scallop dish I love in Jacuzzi, our restaurant in Kensington. It’s not on the menu anymore, and I was asking why. They said, well it’s not so responsible to source scallops after 15th May – and that was the end of that.


Big Mamma is famed for being opulent and overstated. How have you adapted the Big Mamma vibe to Marylebone, which is a fairly understated place?

When I moved to London five years ago, we were very tempted to live in Marylebone, because it seemed like a nice transition from Paris. Then we ended up in Hampstead, which is as English a place as you can get. I love this neighbourhood, though – maybe because I am French, but also because it is beautiful, elegant, refined and rich in culture and heritage. It is understated, but the streets are vibrant. It could be a street in a city in Italy, with its rich mix of restaurants and retail. The way we’ve adapted is to create a restaurant that is a little more intimate, a little more elegant, a little more understated in many respects. The food is a homage to the Italian American culture. Most of our team and chefs are originally from the region that stretches from Rome to Puglia and Sicily, so we have revisited those recipes from mothers and grandmothers and added an Italian American touch – give it a sense of glamour and ‘je ne sais quois’ that makes everyone excited.


What has the space been like to work with?

What I like about this space is that when you enter into it, it feels big but at the same time full of little pockets and corners. I love that combination of intimacy and scale. Carlotta is a big restaurant and a small restaurant at the same time. There’s the bar and the basement and the crazy toilets, and all those big-restaurant vibes – but then you are seated in a small nook with your loved ones. It echoes our first restaurant in Paris, East Mamma, and our first restaurant in London, Gloria, and those have a very dear place in my heart. I remember first visiting the old Natural Kitchen space and having that same feeling.