We can’t think of anyone we’d rather hang out with than chef Stefano Manfredi: not only is he an Italian food genius, writer of inspiring cookbooks, columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald, Mr & Mrs Smith reviewer and maker of his own superior coffee brand, he’s also just the kinda guy you’d like to have as a best friend. (A best friend who invites you round for dinner. Often.)
Stefano was persuaded to down pans for long enough to chat to Smith Travel Blog about beautiful broccolini, yummy yabbies and Muscovy drakes from Jum Jum farm…
When did you first realise you wanted to be a chef?
I’ve always been around food. For the first six years of my life in a small northern Italian town, my mother, grandmother and aunties would cook great food for their families, from ingredients grown by them or someone they knew, and all from scratch. One uncle made salumi from his own pigs, and another made cheeses.
When we came to Australia, my mother continued the cooking traditions, so artisan food has always been part of me. I trained as a teacher but was always cooking at home so, when I got fed up with teaching when I was about 22, I started to work in kitchens. I am essentially ‘untrained’.
The year before last, you quit metropolitan life to oversee two new projects: boutique hotel Bells at Killcare and its sister property, Pretty Beach House, 100kms north of Sydney. How did you come to be involved and what excites you most about it?
After a long career I thought I was over the physical and mental strain of opening another restaurant. We have a great coffee, ceramic and restaurant consulting business and I write a weekly column for the Sydney Morning Herald. The lure was the stunning beauty of Killcare and the Bells and Pretty Beach House properties (pictured left). The icing on the cake was the prospect of setting up the vegetable gardens. We started off with one small one – the one that can be seen from the restaurant – and then expanded.
Where do you find inspiration?
Inspiration comes from travel, art, music, books and good company – but mostly, inspiration comes from our vegetable garden. Whenever I travel to Italy, I try to bring back seeds of vegetables that aren’t found here. It’s often a challenge to grow them in a different climate but, when they succeed, the reward is well worth the effort.
You’ve earned awards by the shelf-load and glowing plaudits for your imaginative Modern Italian cooking. What would you say is your signature dish? And what’s tickling your tastebuds this month?
Over a 33-year career there are many dishes that stand out. There are the traditional preparations from my family, such as potato gnocchi with burnt butter and sage (or with truffles), tortelli di zucca (pumpkin tortelli), osso buco, saffron risotto, trippa, and many more. There are also dishes developed in my restaurants over the years, such as grilled duck with balsamic; tagliatelle with yabbies, butter and sesame seeds; seafood and barley stew; grilled Murray cod with spinach, pine nuts and sultanas; polenta taragna with wild mushrooms; and Amedei chocolate tartufo with caramelised clotted cream.
Two days ago, we received our first delivery of 15 large Muscovy drakes from Jill Wran’s farm Jum Jum, 30 minutes north of Killcare in the Yaramalong Valley; the flavour of their meat is absolutely stunning. We are grilling the breast, we’ve made ravioli from the legs and a sauce with the carcasses. All that on the plate with braised black radish from the garden. We are going up to visit the farm on an excursion with staff from the restaurant later this month.
One of Mr & Mrs Smith’s criteria for a truly great hotel experience is that guests should know where they are in the world. How important is a sense of place to your cooking? Or are you bringing a little corner of Italy to the table?
There is no getting away from my Italian roots and neither would I want to. I’m using the tastes and preparation skills of my native cuisine on Australian ingredients. Both Bells and Pretty Beach House have a strong sense of where they are. Though they are near each other, they are also different not only physically but also in the food that we offer. Bells is a restaurant with all the hustle and bustle of a busy dining room with simple, tasty Italian food prepared with skill.
Much of what’s on the plate we grow, or we know who it’s grown by. Many of the dishes have evolved from ingredients in the garden so a sense of place is obvious. We carry that ideal on to Pretty Beach House but the food there is perhaps a little simpler and more ‘casalinga’ or home style. The reason is that our Pretty Beach House guests are with us for many meals, sometimes over a week or more so we can’t overfeed them with rich food.
You recently reviewed Hotel Signum (left) in the Aeolian Islands for Mr & Mrs Smith’s forthcoming Italy hotel guide. What do you look for in a hotel when you’re booking somewhere for yourself? What constitutes excellence for you?
I want to arrive somewhere and immediately relax into the life and pace of the hotel. Hotel Signum has that aspect in common with Pretty Beach House in that you arrive and immediately your reality is changed so that it is in sync with the surrounds. Excellence is service that is seamless and almost unnoticeable. The service and pace at Hotel Signum was like the soothing sound of the nearby sea as it moved the round pebbles on the shore.
In an ideal world, who would be your dream dinner companion and why?
It would be my uncle Sandro, my father’s younger brother who died far too young. It had always been my dream to go and spend time with him learning how he made his delicious salumi. That was his job, to go around the surrounding countryside, slaughter a family’s pigs and make sausages, salami and prosciutti.
Which other chefs or foodie insiders do you most admire? Where would you go out to eat if you not at your own restaurant?
Here in Australia, I admire Vietnamese chef Luke Nguyen, Australian chef Neil Perry: their restaurants [Red Lantern and Rockpool] are excellent. In Italy, I have great admiration for baker Gabriele Bonci [Pizzarium] and Gualtiero Marchesi has always been an inspiration.
What will you have for dinner tonight?
Tonight I’m cooking for my daughter. She wants lots of vegetables and no wheat. So I’m going to prepare polenta taragna with broccolini, eggplant and capers [He even sent us a picture – see right]. Polenta taragna is a mixture of cornmeal and buckwheat, which isn’t really wheat.
What is the single most important thing you have learnt about food?
Two things: use the best seasonal ingredients and cook them simply with skill and love. Oh yes, and that there is so much more to learn.
And what is the most important thing you have learnt about life?
It’s not the number of friends you have but the quality of the friendships. Oh yes, and that there is always so much more to learn.
Visit Stefano in Australia at Pretty Beach House or Bells at Killcare. Stefano’s review for Mr & Mrs Smith will be published in our new Italy hotel guidebook, out in Autumn this year. In the meantime, you can read Mr & Mrs Smith’s own anonymous review of Hotel Signum in the Aeolian Islands.