Giovanni Pilu Behind the Scenes
Behind the scenes at his Freshwater restaurant, Giovanni Pilu fosters a family-like atmosphere built on congeniality and support.
I spent more time on the beach when I lived further away from the water,” laughs Giovanni Pilu. “But every day I drive to the restaurant, I see the water and I think ‘wow’, every day, no matter what is going on. I never take it for granted.” The Sardinian-born chef, and wife Marilyn Annecchini, opened Pilu in a grand weatherboard beach house on the edge of Sydney’s Freshwater Beach in 2004.
The property had been a restaurant for 35 years prior to Pilu moving in, firstly a fish kiosk, then a fine diner. Giovanni, Marilyn and crew celebrated the restaurant’s 17th birthday during Sydney’s winter lockdown. “It has gone fast,” says Giovanni.
“That said, some days it feels like we’ve been here for 150 years, especially when you have to constantly reinvent yourself. We had to reinvent ourselves again with the latest lockdown, just like we had to in December 2020 in the middle of summer and Christmas, always our busiest period. What keeps you going is the staff, you keep going for them, they keep going for us, everyone working for each other. It has become a family and so you don’t give up.”
Octopus a sa schiscionera; Lemon taglierini with bottarga and artichoke cream
The business has always been a family affair. Prior to opening on the sand at Freshwater, Giovanni and Marilyn had their first restaurant, Cala Luna, down the road at The Spit, Mosman. Marilyn greeted guests, Giovanni a few steps away presided over the tiny kitchen. Some of the staff from those early days have been with them since.
“Marilyn is key to the success of this business,” says Giovanni. “She is the engine room, and always has been. Marilyn has a great eye for detail, we would not still be in business if it weren’t for her.”
“We are business partners as well as life partners,” he continues. “Our individual strengths complement each other’s, we have a good balance, but most importantly, we are the same philosophically – neither of us is a quitter, so we re-group, we re-invent, and that’s how we keep growing.”
A growth mindset is key to success, says Giovanni. “I tell my team, ‘I can teach you skills, but I can’t teach you attitude’. If they don’t have the right attitude, the right mindset, forget it, it’s impossible. You become ‘good’ when you have a good attitude, ego cannot come into the kitchen. It doesn’t fit in the door.”
Giovanni credits his time in other restaurants as having taught him how to be a good restaurateur.
“As an individual I am a cook first, and slowly I’ve learned how to be a restaurateur,” he says. “Cooking is the easy part, that I can do with my eyes closed now I’ve been at the stove for 30 years, but managing staff, that is a skill you can only learn over years, you can study it, but dealing with unique individuals, each one of them with their own needs, their own way of thinking, that requires a whole other set of skills.”
Giovanni says he’s fashioned his management skills from watching others. “I worked with two brothers in Sardinia, one was a chef and the other was front of house,” he recalls. “They were nasty, an old fashioned chef and manager, constantly screaming, never a nice word, very negative, but; they were very good at what they did, they ran a five star hotel restaurant very successfully.
Oven roasted suckling pig and pumpkin; Seadas of ricotta with corbezzolo honey
I only lasted three months in that job, but from my time in that restaurant I learned what I didn’t want to be like. I thought, ‘I will make sure I am never like that. If I am a chef or a restaurateur one day, I will never speak to anyone like that.”
In Olbia in the north of Sardinia, Giovanni and Marilyn worked in a restaurant together. “That restaurant taught me how to be accurate, how to be tidy,” he says. “The chef was OCD, he wore a shirt and tie under his apron, and while I learnt some kitchen skills, the chef was not open minded, not open to new ideas and I thought, ‘no I never want to be like that as a boss’.”
It wasn’t until he arrived in Sydney that Giovanni found a chef and business owner with an ethos he was keen to emulate. “I was working at a small restaurant, the owner wasn’t the best chef I’d ever worked beside, but he was such a good person to work with,” he says. “You could spend day in day out seven days a week with him and you never got sick of him,” he remembers.
“I thought, ‘That’s the kind of person, the kind of restaurateur, I want to be’,” says Giovanni. “He showed me how important it is to build a good relationship with each person in the restaurant, to lead by example and to be the kind of person that the staff want to work with. I learned from him that to run a restaurant you have to be more than a great chef.”