Interview With Celebrity Chef Stefano De Pieri

18 Jan

If you asked me to paint a picture that describes celebrity chef Stefano De Pieri, I would certainly use every colour on my palate and create new shades as I go. Stefano is actively involved in and genuinely passionate about every aspect of his beloved Mildura. Stefano’s many businesses and achievements reflect as much variety and flavour as a gourmet antipasto course that keeps getting better with each bite.

I had a chat with Stefano De Pieri to find out how he manages to run a restaurant, bakery, cafe, brewery, organise festivals, raise awareness on environmental issues, film TV shows and still find time to read food blogs.

Your name Stefano De Pieri is synonymous with Mildura. Why is the Mildura region so special to you?

“Well, first of all it’s geographically separate from the rest of Victoria. It looks different, it feels different, it’s got quite a unique climate, it’s got quite a different biodiversity from the rest of the state. It is a place as you know, made fertile by the Murray and the Darling rivers. They have brought a lot of energy to the area, not without enormous problems in terms of the market place, the high dollar value now and environmental issues and so on.”

“Its a very energetic place populated by pioneers who have come after or contemporaneously with a very powerful aboriginal culture, not much celebrated unfortunately but certainly with enormous implications. It’s a part of Victoria where, if you like, aboriginal history is very tangible, you can feel it.”

“The arrival of white people has had a huge impact on the environment in a positive and a negative way. So you put together the human, the historical and the biological diversity and you have a part of Victoria that’s quite unique.”

“In fact you could almost say this is a mini state within the state but of course the distance from Melbourne affords the opportunity to explore what our community can do in terms of self help and self sufficiency. So people have to become quite creative and resourceful in order to keep going, especially in the face of so much adversity now.”

“The rain has destroyed all the crops and put a final nail in the coffin of the grape industry. It’s a place that in some ways defies rationality. I mean, one perhaps shouldn’t even be there but human nature perseveres.”

The weather in Australia has been very unpredictable; do you think that has impacted on your seasonal menu and the recipes that you’ve been cooking?

“Not so much because the restaurant has to fall back on different sources of supply and we can’t always have everything that we want right there in the season. Also, Mildura is not a cheese producer for instance, it’s not a beef producer, it’s got lamb, lots of veggies and fruit, wine and wheat but the restaurant can’t afford to be messed up by the irregularities of the weather.”

“We have suppliers all over the place to keep us going. With climate change exponentially going upward it’s certainly going to make things very tough in the future and there’s a lot of reinvention required.”

So at your restaurant – Stefano’s – you serve a five course set menu that changes daily.

“It’s very simple, we’ve got five plain, little courses of food and our main ambition is to keep it clean and simple. We try to reflect something of the place where possible. Right now, with this rain, it’s been difficult to get almost anything out of there because there’s floods and things going on everywhere. Normally we’re able to pick up something of the place that in one way or another ends up in the menu.”

Where do you get your inspiration from for the menu?

“Maybe this question would have been more relevant 20 years ago when I first started. The source of inspiration in the first instance was a philosophical position, that is that I don’t think it’s possible to have a highly sophisticated restaurant in the country.”

“If you look at Melbourne, which is a city that I know better than Sydney, there is only one 3 hat restaurant in the whole city of nearly 4 million people or perhaps more. You then descend after 2 hats and you need at least one to one and a half million people to sustain it, so in a city of 30,000 people, what do you expect?”

“My philosophy is, if I go to a country town in Australia, I would be happy with a nice table with good glassware, a lovely wine list, good bread, good oil with salt, some water and if possible a local beer. I’ve got a brewery so I make sure that happens, and I’ve got a baker so I make sure that we get our bread or I go and get it from the Italian ladies who still fire up the old ovens.”

“Once I’ve got those ingredients in place, bread, oil, beer, water, wine, tablecloth, good tableware, etc, all I have to do and all I want to do is give you five courses that are not going to make you feel bloated but always generous in terms of quantity with lots of olive oil. If I can deliver that on time, with grace in a country town of 30,000 people, I’ve done my job.”

“If people want to categorise me way above their ambition, that’s their choice but that’s not what I want. I travel a lot to country towns and I’m grateful when someone gives me a lovely up of coffee and a smile. You’ve got to understand your limitations and deliver within them, you’ve got to stay within budget and offer people a genuine experience and as much as possible an experience of the place.”

“So when I look back at the last 20 years, I’ve had a finger in the creation of the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show, I have helped to create the Mildura Writer’s Festival, I was the inspiration behind the Murray River pink salt, I brought contemporary visual arts to Mildura – look online under Mildura Palimpsest.”

“Palimpsest is from in the past when canvases were expensive and an artist didn’t like their painting, they would clean the surface, paint over it with a neutral colour and paint another picture. That’s what we do to our landscape, we constantly repaint.”

“It’s not just about food, it’s about the arts as well, it’s about a sense of community and it’s about the environment. I was the face of the ‘Save The River Red Gum‘ campaign. So food for me is perhaps 20% of my interests and the other 80% is distributed over a range of other things which I think all contribute to create a town. “

You were born in Treviso near Venice and you’ve been calling Mildura home for many years. Is there a special connection for you between the Murray River and the canals of Venice?

“Not so much the canals of Venice, The Gondola On The Murray was really a metaphor for the general area where I come from which is represented by the gondola. The connection is more between the fact that my village was on a river. I was always fascinated and enchanted by river life; I would spend hours just looking at fish through the clear water, go fishing, watch other people fishing and smell the river.”

“So if you grow up right next to a beautiful river and you end up in Australia next to another gorgeous but totally different river, it’s still a river, isn’t it. They run through your mind and you can’t forget them.”

Have your book and the TV series ‘A Gondola On The Murray‘ attracted more attention than you anticipated?

“At the time yes, I was very chuffed and pleasantly surprised. A Gondola On The Murray is still showing overseas.”

Are there plans to continue the ‘Stefano’s Cooking Paradiso‘ TV series?

“Yes, I would like to; the question is when and how. At the moment I am working more on the brewery because it is a burgeoning business and you have to pay enormous attention to it. If you want to know more about what I do with breweries and microbreweries, do you have an iphone?”

Yes, I do.

“Go to an app called Beer Buddy, there are other applications called Beer Buddy that are about how to get the best value for money. My Beer Buddy explains the difference between a Pilsner and a pale ale so it’s an interesting and complex app that deals with all microbreweries.”

“The other work I’ve done quite extensively is with Cellarmasters which distributes my wines which are low alcohol. It’s not easy in Australia to do low alcohol because there’s so much sun and drought. Generally I try to go from 10.5% to 12% or 12.5%, the ambition is to lower the alcohol content and create interesting textures for food.”

“Once you go up to 15%, as a lot of wines do, the overwhelming affect of alcohol diminishes the match with food unless you’re eating a huge porterhouse that needs a huge red wine. Beyond that you’ve got to keep the alcohol level more user and food friendly.”

So what motivated you to launch your own wine range?

“It came out of my experience when I established the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show. I wanted to create a show where you would benchmark the new varieties like pinot grigio, nebiolo, sangiovese etc.”

Out of the interest that developed there, I said “what’s the irrigated viticulture capable of producing in Australia?” Thus far it has produced wines that are drinkable, accessible and cheap but they always try to imitate, stylistically, the wines of other regions – perhaps of the cooler regions.”

“I think different varieties more suitable to the Mildura climate, treated differently, picked perhaps a little bit earlier, fermented in a particular way with certain yeasts can result in lower alcohol, better textures for certain foods and more crispness.”

“In fact, my pride is that when people taste one of my wines, they don’t associate it with irrigated viticulture. Of course it is, but it tastes different and not expected of this climate. New varieties give you a chance to explore and push the boundaries.”

What’s a favourite dish that you serve at your wine bar and which one of your wines would you match it with?

“My favourite wine is a blend which emulates a wine from the region I come from, which is Veneto – the general region around Venice. I wanted to emulate an Italian style called Bardolino; it’s a light, juicy, easy to drink red and what would I match it with? Anything from a barbeque quail to light Asian dishes or virtually anything. A glass of Tre Viti, Bardolino style and a beautiful homemade bread, homemade capocollo and you’re in heaven.”

Oh yum! I’m drooling!

“Some nice bread, some nice meat, beautiful prosciutto, a glass of Bardolino, a couple of tomatoes in olive oil, what more do we need?”

What’s your relationship with Victorian Olive Groves Australia?

Victorian Olives Groves Australia is made up of Peter Caird – the olive oil maker, Dr Zito and his wife, and Dr Hart and his wife. The Zito’s and the Hart’s have property on the Mornington Peninsula, I’ve got access to olives in Mildura and Peter has been making olive oil for as long as he can remember.”

“We all met about 5 or 6 years ago and we had this ambition to put olive oil in a bottle and give people joy. It’s turned out to be a bit tougher than that; olive oil is a hard sell in Australia.”

“I have the face, one has the skill for producing olive oil, the others have the property, so it was a consort of interests. It has given me a lot of joy over the years.”

I saw that you posted a picture on Facebook of yourself and your friend Gianni making pasta. What other fond memories do you have of food?

“We used to go to Phillip Island and go fishing so I posted those photos of me 30 years ago. Maybe I’m posting a dream or an ambition to put up a sign ‘gone fishing’. They are a reminder that there can be other lives outside of the restaurant.”

What does food and cooking mean to you?

“Cooking means hard work, at the end of the day and when everything goes well you see a lot of satisfied, happy faces. Food is the thing that keeps us connected and it’s a good, honest way to make a living if you do it with generosity and enthusiasm.”

“It also means for me to remain very connected to my original culture. I came from farming background, very close to the land and we ate what we grew. These things are connected to pleasurable memories for me.”

What do you think of food blogs?

“I don’t read a lot of them because by the time I do a bit of blogging myself, go to work, the brewery, organise a few arts festivals, do a few appearances, look at Facebook and look after my family  – I have 2 teenagers – I don’t have a great deal of time for reading food blogs.”

“But if I did I would find them most interesting because everyone has got a wonderful take on things and like any other interest, food is always developing and evolving. People have new ideas, new observations to make and important discoveries to share so I would love to read them but unfortunately time is getting a bit tight.”

Maybe when you have more time for fishing?

“Yes, you either go fishing or you read blogs. Why do you blog?”

For me, passion for food is something I have to express or I can’t live, basically. I worked in the beauty industry for 10 years and I decided to change paths to follow my passion for food and writing.

“So you’re doing this for a passion at the moment to see where it leads?”

Yes, I’m writing regularly for a magazine and Gourmetician is a way for me to keep my creativity flowing and share what I love.

“Good on you. You can try something new to see where it leads you and it might lead you in an unexpected direction. Well, I will read your blog.”

Thanks Stefano, it’s been a delight speaking with you.

“Thank you and good luck.”

Stefano’s Restaurant
Quality Hotel Mildura Grand
135 Langtree Avenue, Mildura

(03) 5023 0511

info@stefano.com.au

Stefano’s Gallery 25 / Cellar Door & Bar
25 Deakin Avenue, Mildura

(03) 5021 3627

Stefano’s Cafe Bakery
27 Deakin Avenue, Mildura

(03) 5021 3627

For more information visit www.stefano.com.au


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2 Responses to “Interview With Celebrity Chef Stefano De Pieri”

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  1. Stefano De Pieri’s Donation Kicks Off The OzHarvest Charity Auction « gourmetician - February 14, 2011

    […] Stefano De Pieri has kindly donated 2 cases of Stefano De Pieri assorted wines valued at $320 to kick off the auction for 2011. This auction will begin at 9am (EDT) on Wednesday the 16th of February 2011 and end 5.30pm (EDT) on Wednesday the 2nd of March 2011. […]

  2. Chef stefno | ChazkSolutions - March 11, 2011

    […] Interview With Celebrity Chef Stefano De Pieri « gourmeticianInterview With Celebrity Chef Stefano De Pieri. 18 Jan. If you asked me to paint a picture that describes celebrity chef Stefano De Pieri, I would certainly … […]

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