Chef Antony Campbell may not be the first name that springs to mind when talking about heart-felt Italian food. The young Australian chef with a passion for pastry and a mum who hails from Italy's north, is the real-deal when it comes to handmade, honest-to-goodness Italian comfort cooking. Antony's never happier than when he's sharing the love at his Italian cooking school at Melbourne's renowned Enoteca Sileno. His nonna would be proud.
J: Italian cooking is very close to your heart. Tell us about your background and your early influences in the kitchen.
A: My mum was born in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, in the north of Italy. She came to Australia with her parents and brother when she was still very young. As such, I was brought up in an Italian-influenced family. Family get-togethers consisted of long, mismatched tables draped in homely linen tablecloths, arranged in a long row down the centre of the garage. In the colder months, the pot-belly stove would be crackling and my nonno would roast chestnuts directly in the fire. Nonna would boil the Bialetti coffee machine on the top of the stove and I was consumed by the aromas.
J: What’s your first food memory?
A: I can clearly remember one year, I was about six or seven, and my uncle offered me some Sanguinaccio to try. He said, “Antony, taste this. It is delicious, it is chocolate pudding.” He was right - it was delicious and it was chocolate pudding! After I agreed with him, he informed me that it was made with the blood from the pig that was left over after making sausages and salami. I can't remember what I said, but I can clearly remember being unimpressed!
J: Describe your cooking style in three words.
A: Produce-driven and honest.
J: Italian restaurants in Australia are becoming less ‘Italian’ and more focused on regional cooking styles. How has the Italian cooking landscape shifted from when you started cooking?
A: When I started cooking, Italian cuisine was still very much under the umbrella of Napoli sauce, spaghetti with seafood, basil and lots of garlic. As long as these ingredients were present, it was considered Italian. Nowadays, we have the benefit of easy travel and instant information via media platforms so we can see a lot of different influences from everywhere. We are finally seeing and understanding the small nuances that make up town, city and regional identities in Italy, and how they combine the flavours that are growing together in their immediate environment and use what is available in any given season.
J: How does being a chef influence what you cook at home?
A: My wife Katie and I eat a lot of fresh and seasonal vegetables, which we prepare as individual dishes. It's like having a dinner made up of side dishes at a restaurant. We go through a lot more olive oil and butter than most people!
J: Where do you love to shop for food?
A: Katie and I mostly shop online, directly from the farm. We invested in a large freezer about a year ago and now order all of our meat directly from the growers. We share a whole cow and sheep with our families about twice a year. It's a great way of learning how to cook every part of the animal and not just the prime cuts. We buy eggs direct from the farm gate of Top Hundred Acres. Kate and her mum run three small flocks of very happy, truly free-ranging chickens and the best bit is they are usually collected just the day before! We are also lucky to be close to a few small fruit orchards that have beautiful apples and pears. The gym I go to has a small shop attached that offers boxes of organic fruit and vegetables. We also use a website called Farmhouse Direct for a few different seasonal goodies.
J: Where do you go for inspiration?
A: I used to look to those in the industry for inspiration when I was a younger chef, but over the last few years it has been my travels to Italy and watching and talking to people that has shaped my cooking. The people I have worked with over the past five years were primarily from Italy. I used to ask them what dish they missed most from home, then asked them to describe it to me. I would then present them with my version of it. It was always fun and on the odd occasion they even gave me a recipe that they had received from their family or friends. I think we often look at what's in vogue and forget to make those honest connections with the people we are surrounded by.
J: You currently run the Cooking School at Enoteca Sileno. Can you tell us how that collaboration came about?
A: I have been working for Enoteca Sileno for the last five years. When I was employed as their head chef (the dining room has since closed), part of my role was organising and running cooking classes, both hands-on and demonstration style. I really enjoy teaching and there is a great response from the classes, so it has very naturally evolved to the point where I am still running a lot of the classes, post being employed as their chef!
J: What’s the hardest part of teaching people to cook? What’s the easiest part?
A: The hardest thing to teach is confidence. People get very intimidated by food and cooking. Stay calm, relax and be confident. The easiest part of teaching is being there with the people and sharing my experience with them.
J: You are also a classic Italian pastry chef. How did your passion for sweet treats and pastry come about? What's the one thing you love most about baking?
A: I have always had a curious mind when it comes to sweets. They are precise, measured and time-consuming. It's the challenge of replicating something over and over again to the same high standard that got me interested in pastry. The thing I love most is how people gravitate to the kitchen because of the aromas that waft from the oven. Even at home, the kitchen is the central hub. We eat, talk and gather around the kitchen bench.
J: Do you have a food hero?
A: No. But I have so much respect for the people who produce it. That's the hardest part in the whole chain from 'paddock to plate' as it is often described.
J: What would be your dream creative project?
A: A small fruit orchard and a good-sized vegie patch with a cooking school on the same property, cooking what we produce and being surrounded by the changing seasons.
J: What was one of the best meals you’ve had?
A: Hand-rolled spaghetti with beef sugo when I was in the Veneto. We were in a small town and all of the restaurants were booked out due to a festival that was happening. We stumbled across a milk bar and they happened to have a small menu so we ordered pasta and wine, and sat amongst packets of chips, scratchies and cigarettes. I know, sounds romantic?! Turns out that the owner's mum, who must have been in her 70's, makes fresh pasta and sugo every day. She also made a very good pork schnitzel and lemon sorbetto!
J: If you could go out to eat anywhere in the world tonight where would it be?
A: Somewhere remote, surrounded by the ocean, with good friends, good wine and good music.