Massimo Mele's Garden of Recipes
Chef Massimo Mele’s heritage is defining the next chapter of his career. as he reflects on the gifts of his upbringing, he’s creating new ways to share the traditions he experienced with not only food-lovers, but his own children, too.
It’s a grey morning on the banks of the Derwent and Massimo Mele is buzzing around his garden pulling vegetables, checking leaves, picking and smelling herbs. Summer is long gone, autumn’s yellows are moving to reds and browns, but there is plenty of life in Massimo’s straw covered plots.
As he moves around his garden, plucking late season tomatoes and basil to wash and prep for passata, Massimo reflects on the past season vegetable by vegetable; what thrived, what didn’t, what he learned and what he is going to try next season.
Massimo’s backyard is far from your average hobby set up, the scale would sustain a small restaurant and as your eyes move from the log piles to the custom wood-fired grill with hanging fire-chains and pans to the pizza oven, you can’t help but feel that a lot of really good meals and memories have come from this backyard.
Massimo was born in Hobart, but grew up in Naples and with his father working in hospitality and his mother being a superb cook, food was always going to define his life.
“I was about four or five and I remember these huge feasts on the beach in Naples in summer,” he recalls. “Going to the beach in Italy is not like going to the beach here in Australia; you literally take the kitchen sink and spend the whole day there. My aunties would bring the food and the whole day was a big celebration.”
“Food was always such a big part of what we did,” he continues. “If we were going somewhere, we talked about what we were going to bring, cook and eat and we always created a big spread. It didn’t matter where we went, a restaurant, a home or at the beach, we were surrounded by delicious food.”
Massimo and his family came back to Hobart when he was eight, but as an Italian kid growing up in the suburbs, things were no beach picnic.
“My brother and I were the only Italians in our school and I became the classic ‘Wog Boy,’” he remembers. “I was embarrassed about my heritage because I was different, we didn’t speak a lot of English. People couldn’t pronounce my name so I started calling myself Max, and started to drift away from my culture and heritage.”
The cultural vacuum in Australia’s suburbs in the 1970s and 80s caused many migrant kids to want to move away from their heritage. But as Massimo began to find a love for food working in his parent’s restaurant, the heritage inherent in his DNA became harder to push aside.
As a teen, Massimo devoted himself to a cooking career and left Tasmania to work at Donovan’s, a Mediterranean-inspired institution in St Kilda that focussed his desire to explore the culinary world.
This was the first of many steps on a nearly 20-year journey that saw Massimo return to Italy. There he spent time cooking on the Amalfi coast and reconnecting with his family and heritage by spending time and tending to his family’s tomato farm in the hills of Naples. Eventually Massimo returned to Sydney where he ran the Hugo’s group of kitchens and eventually became the executive chef of La Scala, an Italian Bistro above Sydney’s iconic Light Brigade Hotel in Paddington.
Full circle and a full plate
But as a husband and soon-to-be father, the call to home and family brought Massimo back to Hobart where he is building a restaurant that will form part of The Tasman Hotel, and will be a luxury addition to the Hobart landscape. Massimo is also the food director of Launceston’s Grain of the Silos Restaurant, as well as being a brand ambassador for Electrolux and Audi.
Inside this tornado of activity, Massimo is building a home food experience that celebrates his garden, his heritage and the generations of passion and knowledge he wants to share.
“History and traditions are starting to come back as an important part of cooking and eating,” Massimo explains. “From home to a restaurant experience, people want to know about their ingredients, how to preserve them and the flavour that comes with it.”
Left: Insalata di polpo; Right: Fagiolini, crema di mandorle, nocciole
As we leave Massimo’s backyard garden, we duck inside to his cooking studio that will be the focus of these small group experiences people will soon be able to be able take part in as they cook, taste, share stories and commune.
“Part of what I’m building and doing here is a personal acknowledgement of my heritage and I’m building something I can pass on. As a kid, I don’t remember toys, but I remember those experiences.
Left: Paccheri genovese; Right: Spiedini di agnello con olive e limone
“My mother is my last link to that lifestyle; we make certain things at certain times of the year and some of that is religious custom and some of it is seasonal custom. I want to give my kids the same things that I now value.
“I want them to know that there’s a space within our home and our lives that reflects who we are and where, and who we have come from. We might not have the language at home like I did, but we will have the experiences and customs that connect us through the generations.”
To find out more about Massimo’s new small group food experiences, visit massimomele.com.