Meet Culinary Expert Adam D'Sylva
The culinary driver behind award-winning Melbourne restaurants Tonka and Coda talks with Libbi Gorr about finding himself between two worlds as a child... and how food enabled him to conquer the globe.
Adam D’Sylva is on the move. When he speaks to me, it’s from his car, enthusing about the trips he’s taken overseas this year to Italy and India. Much has already been made of Adam’s dual heritage from those countries, and in particular, how it’s shaped his style of cooking. But the clue is in his summation of the fact, and where he’d made his mark.
“I’m actually a first-generation Melbourne boy. Melbourne born and Melbourne bred,” he says.
Which is how the much exalted Indian-inspired deliciousness of Tonka came to pass, in this cultural melting pot of a city. His Italian mum learned how to make curries from her then-husband’s Indian family, but she couldn’t stomach ghee, a staple of Indian cooking. She substituted what she trusted from her own Italian family background, olive oil.
“So that’s what we do at Tonka, which makes it really light. All the in-laws would use ghee, so their curries would be really oily and heavy.” says Adam. “In fact, when I was in Delhi this year, I couldn’t eat the curries. I’d take a mouthful and I’d think, ‘I’m dying’. It’s so rich, I can’t stomach it. I ate a bowl of pasta pretty much every day when I was India. My definition of Indian food is ‘ghee-free’.”
Avocado, cucumber and mint salad with lemon mustard dressing
Burrata with basil pesto on olive sourdough
Adam D’Sylva was born in Melbourne in 1977, the same year colour television arrived. We were becoming accustomed to colour in every way. Malcolm Fraser won a second term as Liberal PM, opening our doors to thousands of Vietnamese refugees, but Melbourne was still Melbourne, and whilst ‘wogs’ had found acceptance in the spaghetti halls of Lygon St, brown skin – Indian skin – was still quite the novelty.
“Correct,” Adam D’Sylva says quietly when I raise the complexities of a multicultural childhood during this era. “Correct. I grew up with a bowl of pasta and a bowl of curry on the table every day. That was just normal. I guess that was a kind of lesson in disguise. I didn’t realise how fortunate I was, and how much it would impact my life.”
Despite the best efforts of the Jesuits at Melbourne’s prestigious Catholic boys’ school Xavier College, Adam D’Sylva was not cut out academically for what normally constitutes success. There were only a couple of other pathways to power for kids who were different, trying to crack the big time outside the well-worn roads through law and medicine. There was showbiz. There was footy. But Adam D’Sylva pioneered yet another path to fame and fortune: food.
STATES OF ORIGIN
Trailblazing ran in the family. Adam’s mother Anna Ciamba grew up in a small town called Sulmona in the Abruzzi region two hours from Rome, famous for being the capital of sugarcoated almonds. But the sweet life took a tragic turn when Anna was only six, and her war veteran father Francesco suicided, leaving her mother Liberata widowed with five children. A few years hence, Anna’s eldest brother Mario packed up his four siblings along with his mother, and in 1966 lugged them across to Australia to build a brighter future.
Adam’s nonna, Liberata, is ever-present as he recalls early happy days cooking with his family. “Nonna even lived with us in her last days,” Adam shares. “That’s why gnocchi is such a significant dish for me, because when she passed away at our house… like, I remember seeing her die, pretty much,” he recalls. “We realised a few days later that there was a batch of her gnocchi still in the freezer. I’d have to say that will always be my most memorable meal: eating her gnocchi after she’d passed. Knowing this would be the last time we would eat her cooking. Yeah. So. There you go.”
Adam is less clear on his father’s family history, but what he does know is that his dad came to Australia from Chennai, India at the age of 19. “My dad had been a butcher and my (maternal) uncles started off as butchers as well. I was standing up on a butcher’s tub washing dishes from when I was about five,” says Adam.
“As a teenager I always cooked for myself. I’d be climbing under the house and grabbing the passata and making spaghetti Napoli every day, because I’d come home from school and sport hungry, home alone because my mum worked in the butcher shop with my dad,” he remembers. “It was a good old family business. And then we would all work in the shop on Saturdays. Any spare time we had, we were working. If it wasn’t school sport, we were working. School holidays, my brother Chris and I – we’d go in and work.”
SQUARING THE CIRCLE
In his final year of school, Anna took her younger son aside. “Mum just said, ‘You’re not really very academic, you should start working if you like cooking so much’.” Soon, Adam was balancing his schoolwork with making pizzas three nights a week. The argy-bargy of the kitchen suited his nature. “After school, my first three years were with German, Austrian and French chefs from around the world and I learned a lot from them. They had a very different, sort of hard-arsed attitude,” he says. “When I started my apprenticeship, I really didn’t understand how tough it was. But then I thrived on it.”
All up, Adam’s 27 years of professional cooking has seen him live in Italy, New York and Hong Kong. “I always encourage chefs to travel,” he enthuses. “To learn about the world. And then I think, if I used that technique from that dish, in a totally different cuisine, maybe that would work? You can just cross over a bit. Pull these little things out...” Thus was the first brick laid in Adam’s food empire, back
“No one was doing Coda – Asian-inspired food – in a Movida style... you know, as tapas in a luxe setting. And it worked. Everybody followed: Chin Chin, Gingerboy.” He chuckles again. “So like, 10 years ago when we came up with the idea for Tonka, no one was doing that kind of Indian in an upmarket environment, and I kind of pioneered modern Asian tapas-style food down in Flinders Lane. But I don’t really think about that stuff. I don’t really reflect on what I’ve achieved at all. It’s all, on to the next thing, what’s next?”
Charred broccolini with white miso hollandaise
Spaghettini with prawn and zucchini
His latest passion, as it happens is Boca Gelato, in Ivanhoe – a nod to his Italian roots. He has, however, reflected on the fact that what set him apart as a child, is exactly what has given him his access-all-areas star power in the global world of food.
“Whatever country I’m in, everyone comes up to me and asks me where I’m from. ‘I’m from Melbourne’, I say. ‘No’, they say,” as D’Sylva warms to his story, “‘Where are you from?’” It happens to him wherever he goes. Bali. Lebanon. Thailand. “I feel like I’m a bit of a chameleon.
Whatever country I’m in, I get spoken to in the local language because of how I look. I almost blend in. It’s quite useful.” Xavier College now asks him back as a mentor, which really tickles his fancy.
“I’ve never kind of aimed to be one of the top 100 chefs in the world – to be this, to be all that. I just don’t think food has to be very complicated. It’s just got to be full of flavour. It comes back to that ugly delicious thing. It’s just a pot of curry, this big murky brown thing …but when you taste it you say OMG that tastes amazing.”
It tastes like home, I venture? “Correct,” he says. “My thing is to create a dish that people would want to come back to. So a majority of my menu will always stay the same.”
This year, he celebrates his 45th birthday. He’ll be breakfasting with his children. Lunching with friends. There’s golf. Media commitments. With the food at his heart, Adam D’Sylva is back on the move.