Stefano De Pieri's recipe for success

Stefano De Pieri developed a lifelong connection with the land and the food it provided, an experience he would bring to Australia, becoming one of the country’s most recognizable advocates for good food and wine.

One of the first celebrity chefs, best known for his love of Mildura and his programs A Gondola on the Murray and Australia’s Food Bowl, Stefano De Pieri has highlighted the importance of sourcing local fresh ingredients and minimizing food waste. He champions produce from the Murray-Darling Basin in his namesake restaurant, which has been housed in the Mildura Grand Hotel’s former wine cellar for over thirty years. He is a celebrated cook, restaurateur, and author, and in recognition of outstanding community service and achievement, he has been made a member of the Order of Australia.

De Pieri’s early memories include daily life around the family farm in Veneto, which he says was “destroyed” by the arrival of a brick factory. “The factory literally incinerated our vineyard with its thick plumes of diesel smoke which poured from the building roof,” recalls De Pieri.

Everything the De Pieri family cooked was grown by them. The family’s three cows generated enough manure for the farm. Asparagus, radicchio of many kinds, the full range of summer veggies, fruits including abundant persimmons, herbs, garlic, borlotti beans, and much more were all part of the De Pieri’s homegrown diet. They also raised silkworms from egg to cocoon and had a large variety of animals. According to De Pieri, poultry, pigs, and cows for milk and fieldwork were essentials on the family farm. While the farm was extremely small, it adequately supported the family’s six children.

“I foraged for mushrooms and tender poppy plants–better than spinach! We farmed lots of ducks, chickens, roosters, turkeys, and so on. Occasionally we ate river fish–hence my eternal fascination for Murray cod,” says De Pieri.

Products from Stefano's Restaurant,

On arrival in Australia in 1974, De Pieri remembers he was always hungry. He recounts his experiences getting used to the food in Australia and making do with what was available on the market:

I was young and walked everywhere. I hated and still hate commercial pies. In the not-so-remote past, we did not have food simply on tap like we do now, and money was scarce. I was not quarreling with what was on offer as I was sufficiently capable of improvising. The thing I lamented most was the lack of good extra virgin olive oil, but for the most part, you could find food if you wanted to. There was even good dark bread from the Atlantic Bakery made in the style of Eastern Europe. It was available from milk bars and was inexpensive. Perhaps there was not a lot of variety, but Queen Victoria Market had more than enough in those days, including Asian vegetables, which were totally new to me. There was quite a bit of seafood around and a small selection of fish. It struck me that there was everything we had in the Mediterranean–think about it, we have it all here, but all you got served was from the same range, never a cacciucco (fish stew) or a fish risotto, for example. However, there was an abundance of offal, which has since gone into terminal decline. It is becoming more difficult to find brains, for instance. When the old butchers retire, it will be hard to find cold meats such as cotechino–a traditional pork sausage often served on festive occasions.

De Pieri moved to the town of Mildura–the home of his in-laws, after marrying in 1991. “Mildura was to me like the world I had left behind–small farms, local stories, community, and bartering. Fish from the river include yabbies, plenty of fruit, veggies, and lamb. There were goats in large numbers. There were brandy and sherry producers. There was simplicity.

Stefano De Pieri

"I made the most of it, and I served an unusual dining style in that there was no menu. This has been a risky way to run the restaurant and not an easy way to build friendships. But I am still here, inspired by the red earth, the river, and traditional farming."

Although De Pieri says he is close to retiring, he is clearly still extremely passionate about food, local produce, his beloved Mildura, and of course, Australia.

Mildura gave me everything: a family and a massive platform. I saw opportunities everywhere, and I joined the numbers who like telling stories and narratives of food and community. Having had a hand in developing new wine varieties in Australia is one story I would love to share with my grandchildren. Max Allen has just produced the ultimate account of what happened in that space with a book called Alternative Reality, and I was so pleased to be reminded of the instances in which I had a finger in the pie. For someone who had a bad relationship with a prestigious wine school back in Italy–I was a total dropout–I am quite pleased with my own “wine redemption.” Now, after twenty years, people drink a huge variety of wines in Australia.

Reminiscing on times gone by De Pieri concludes "I do have plans for the future, but these are more so in the public sphere. I have ‘done’ the restaurant business for a long time. In the future, I hope my team will carry on the day-to-day, with me being a bit more behind the scenes. But not quite yet…"

Images provided by Stefano De Pieri,