No one person or people in my family were necessarily the reason I became a chef, but it was more the desire to travel. I realized that working in hospitality would be a great opportunity to travel the world and live in different countries. That is what inspired me.
I don’t necessarily think that I have a signature dish, although at Civico 47 we have the Mafalda Pasta served with a prawn bisque, tomato and bok choy. It’s an absolute crowd-pleaser! There’s also our brown butter and sage ice cream, these two are so popular that we struggle to get them off the menu. I love to cook pasta, but I don’t want either of these dishes to be known as my signature. Having said that, I think pasta would definitely be my forte.
What I’ve begun to see in Sydney in particular, as well as in parts of Europe, is a kind of return to traditional cooking and dining. We are moving away from molecular gastronomy and customers have become more interested in simple food. There is less transformation from the chef but more concentration on good quality produce. This has seen caviar and lobster dishes make a comeback.
I always saw it coming back, this simpler, more approachable way of cooking. It just makes more sense practically in the kitchen as well as financially. Customers are beginning to want a more straightforward and easier to understand dining experience, while still being able to enjoy fine dining.
Many venues are starting to move away from technically developed menus towards more authenticity of the restaurant and the food itself. Many chefs can think up unique stuff, but a lot of the time it just won’t work on a large scale. What works is food that is real and of good quality. It’s about enjoying a meal that people can understand, going to a restaurant and enjoying the experience it has to offer.
In the past couple of years, both chefs and restaurants underwent challenges with finding available staff, putting a lot of pressure on the restaurants. It got to a point where some of us had to close on certain days due to lack of staff. We have tried to resolve this by looking after our current staff. It may seem obvious but it’s essential to make sure your staff are happy and that you treat them fairly. Show them that you trust and value them, listen to what they have to say, that is the key. At the end of the day in this market staff retention is so important. If we all work together to value and maximise each other’s strengths, we can produce better food.
It’s a combination of things – seasonality is always the first priority because it tells me what produce, especially with veggies and seafood, is readily available and the freshest. Seasonality tells you what you should be using; if it’s winter you go heavier, and summer lighter. The rest is from browsing social media, books, going out to eat, travel and exploring my Italian background and traditional recipes that I get inspired by. I guess I’m lucky to come from a country with such a strong background in food.
Most of my creative process is developed from this. For example, globe artichokes are in season, so I have a look at how they have been used in traditional Italian cuisine. I may be inspired to adapt something from the traditional the dish, but then give my twist to it.
It is important to realize that traditional ways of cooking should not be taken for granted. There is a reason why that way of cooking has stood the test of time. You can try and revolutionize this all you want, but sometimes it is good to just stick to the basics. Sometimes its simplicity that really impresses people. As chefs we try to overdo it, but I believe that if it works, it works.
Firstly, Federico Zanelleto from Lumi Dining. I worked with him years ago for quite a while. He’s probably one of the best chefs in Sydney. Talented creative, one of the few who can be creative whilst still going a little bit against the grain. He works well at reinventing things and making things better than the originals are.
Secondly, my friend Nicola Coccia. He has a restaurant in the Central Coast and I love what he’s doing. He cooks only with fire, which is not a new concept in Australia but he’s in a very challenging region, where he is championing this cooking style. He’s the only one who does Italian cooking with fire in that way. As Italians, we do open fire cooking on the spit, but he takes it to next level. For example, he puts the pasta water on a stove powered by wood or timber to cook it. His approach is unique.
Then there is Antonio Pappalardo. He has a pizzeria in Italy, he’s very young and has been successful for over 10 years. He is in a challenging spot in a town near Brescia. It’s in an industrial town but he is great at sourcing quality ingredients. He is a great operator in the sense that he understands that running a restaurant is not just about the food you cook, but also about the hospitality being a 360-degree experience.
I don’t have one example, but showing your staff that you trust them and encouraging then to grow their skills and passion is key to improving their progress. You need to understand individual strengths and skills, and drive them to do a good job, trust them and always ask questions instead of always talking at them.
People by nature just want to give an answer but asking them for their point of view makes them feel like they have a sense of belonging and creates that expectation of responsibility.
Yes, there are a few. I’ve noticed myself and others feel that a positive experience going out is combination of good food, service, a good location and good company.
I’ve been to exemplary restaurants where the food has been great, but it never stuck as much as those places that really brought the entire 360-degree hospitality experience. I have visited small food venues in Italy where I ate fried pizza sitting on a plastic chair, eating off a plastic plate. What stood out to me was the simplicity of it all, the energy of the place, and the company. That experience was about family and the people around me. I’m looking at the ocean, it’s a warm day, it makes me happy. It’s because of the moment, and that is what makes a memorable experience.