Valaria, Glasgow: Senegalese dad rises to the challenge to become head baker at popular Scottish restaurant

A Senegalese man with a passion for pastries has become head baker at Valaria in Scotland.
Mafu outside Valaria where he is now head bakerMafu outside Valaria where he is now head baker
Mafu outside Valaria where he is now head baker

When Mafu Diagne arrived in Scotland less than five years ago, he had never cooked or baked before. One thing he did know was that he wanted to support his daughter. Now, the 27-year-old, originally from Senegal, has been appointed head baker at one of Glasgow’s most talked-about venues – Valaria

The eatery in Glasgow's West End is owned by Nico Simeone, the renowned chef behind Six by Nico who hit the headlines in 2020 when he gifted his original restaurant, 111 by Nico, to its head chef Modou Diagne, formerly a kitchen porter.  In 2019, Modou, who arrived in Scotland with just £200 in his pocket, convinced his cousin Mafu to follow in his footsteps. When he arrived, a job as a kitchen porter at one of Simeone’s venues was waiting for him. 

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 Soon after, Modou took his cousin under his wing at 111, where he first developed a passion for cookery. But as Simeone prepared to reopen Valaria in February, he knew the time was right for Mafu to step up to a senior role in the kitchen as reward for his commitment and culinary ability.   

“Modou’s like a brother to me”, said Mafu, who lives with his cousin, Modou in Glasgow. “He convinced me to come to Scotland and I’m so glad he did. It’s been a journey. He’s taught me so much; from his work ethic and his creativity to specific techniques. He’s always giving me advice and pushing me to improve.”

 When Mafu arrived in Scotland, he didn’t speak a single world of English. “I couldn’t even say ‘hello’’, he said. “Learning English from Scots in kitchens probably isn’t the easiest way to pick it up, but I’m making progress. Right from when I arrived, Modou only spoke English to me. That was hard at first, but it’s definitely helped me learn.”

Mafu making pastries at Valaria where he is now head bakerMafu making pastries at Valaria where he is now head baker
Mafu making pastries at Valaria where he is now head baker

During the last year, Mafu has developed a passion for pastries, fuelled by YouTube videos of acclaimed French pastry chef Cédric Grolet. Mafu, who has an 18-month-old daughter back in Senegal, said: “I didn’t know anything about baking when I came to Scotland, but I’ve fallen in love with it. The more you learn, the better you become and the more enjoyable it becomes. Nico told me to watch Cedric for inspiration and it’s become an obsession. I can spend hours watching him on YouTube, copying everything he does. The end result can be so beautiful, it’s always worth the effort.” 

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 “It’s hard work, especially starting at 3am as everything’s freshly made each day, but I love it. The weather in Scotland means there are no distractions and I’m able to focus. I’ve thrown everything into my career and it’s amazing to see how far I’ve come in such a short space of time. It also means I’ve been able to send more money back to my daughter; she’s really why I’m doing all of this. One day, I hope to take what I’ve learned and go back to Senegal to open a restaurant there.” 

Simeone’s faith in Mafu has quickly been restored, he said: “I can’t believe how quickly Mafu picks things up. He’s like a sponge, absorbing everything from everyone around him. Within months, he was better than some people who’d been doing it for years. Like Modou, he has incredible focus to make the best product possible. We could see the talent was there from very early on. After a short time, it was a no-brainer that he was ready to be head baker. I’m really proud of how he’s stepped into the role and we’re incredibly excited to see where he can take Valaria.” 

 After an extensive refurbishment and menu revamp, Valaria has launched its own take on the viral social media ‘crookie’ with Mafu now running the show.

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