Where Cheong Liew has a flower pot in his hand waiting to be put down, the Manfredi family have a tree - a family tree, that is. It's a tree with good strong branches: Franca, the mother; Luigi, the father; Frank and Steve, the sons. Now with the success of bel mondo, their second restaurant in Sydney, along with Steve's other involvements (La Mensa and the Grace Bros. food outlets) the tree of their 'Italian food in Australia' as Steve describes it, is becoming more robust every day. But the comparison with Cheong is not all that tenuous. Where he has succeeded in making connections between different cuisines, the Manfredis have made the connection between Italy and Australia.
Abroad, the taste of Italy is an exotic plant, rarely found in Australia. Within Italy, the transition of a local dish from one village to another, let alone from one city to another, is fraught with difficulties and danger. The addition of different herbs, a different oil, vegetables, let alone the difference in fish and seafood around the coast - make mockery of replicas of local dishes. And to transpose these flavours to another country, let alone another continent ... Impossible.
Well it's not. Palate memory and the skill and resourcefulness to adjust to different ingredients make it possible - that is, in the hands of Steve Manfredi and his family. "When we first started what we wanted to do was transpose my family's home cooking into a restaurant situation. And I guess, we were really affected by our introduction to what was Australian food at the time, the Bonegilla experience. And thinking 'We can do better than this, we have this culture, we have got something really special here.' My mother and grandmother's cooking isn't something that everybody else has. Even back in Italy it wasn't the case, and here the contrast was more profound."
And so followed the opening of The Restaurant (in Ultimo), "looking back now it was a pretty flimsy restaurant, it had no design content. All it really had was the food, that is what drew people in. I think the late '70s and '80s were about the kitchen as the centre. I think as we have grown up in terms of sophistication, in the capital cities especially, we are looking for a complete experience, we look for more than just the food. There are so many places that do good food now, and I think what sets restaurants apart is the way they deliver that food".
For the Manfredis it has always been about maintaining a fine line between home cooking and restaurant cooking. "You have to make it special enough so people want to come out, but at the same time, maintain the simplicity and the flavour." What is amazing is how the Manfredis have kept the 'Italian taste' within the sophistication of Sydney, the hype of the food writers, and the demands placed on them to fit within the perceived trends. They've maintained it because, as Steve describes it, "we had the templates there in Italian cooking. We don't feel that we have to create something new all the time. You see a lot of what is called 'modern Australian', which is just about young kids with no boundaries. Our Italian background has given us the framework in which to create and cook. All we are really doing is applying the ingredients we have here to the Italian approach and method of cooking. There has been an evolution in terms of our food, but we have kept that central premise of simplicity and freshness which has always been the hallmark of my family's cooking. We don't stray too far from that."
But for Manfredi this is not about a long lost culture but a living one. "There are a lot of Italians (in Australia) hooked on nostalgia for the homeland, who never really left Italy, and have this nostalgic idea of what Italy was like. We came to Australia in 1960, just before the economic miracle hit, when that hit, especially in places like Milan, the sophistication of the restaurants and the whole culture went ahead in leaps and bounds. Many migrants left between the war and 1960, and so missed out on that jump."
"The thing that I have over a lot of modern Australian cooks is that I have been eating this sort of food ever since I could eat, whereas a lot of Australian chefs haven't had the culture of the table in their family. They do it as a career, and a lot of them love it, but then they go home and eat McDonald's. They don't eat what they are cooking. The hardest thing to do is to get young chefs to taste the food. We have a meal together in the afternoon at four o'clock. It is a rotating system between each section of the kitchen as to who cooks, so everybody gets a go at cooking staff meals. We have to teach them this way, because understanding comes from many years of eating."
"Simplicity is what we have really pushed and I think that is what people expect from us. I think there is a responsibility on the part of the restaurateur too. They shouldn't turn around lamenting the fact that they can't put anything simple on the plate if they never have put anything simple on the plate. And I think they have to be brave enough to do it".
And speaking of bravery, there are many who feel that the Manfredi contract with Grace Bros. is too big a challenge, even for this family. Steve admits to this, and to the difference in style - "it was why we took it on, to learn. Grace Bros. is where people really are. At our end of the market (at bel mondo) we only work with a very small number of people. To have access to this number of people is what all our fantasies are; to do something of quality at this level of the market, all the way down to the milkshakes - we make all the syrups, all the gelato for ice creams - it is all done in house. We don't buy anything in except for the bread".
"But there are not enough service staff in Sydney. Our answer to that is to start training people in house. To nurture people, in terms of training and culture, is hard because it costs a lot of money, but we are doing it. At bel mondo there are 65 staff, 22 at la Mensa, and the new project has got 65, so that is about 155. Management has really been part of what we have learnt to do in the past 2 or 3 years". As with many of the great chefs in this book, it becomes essential to move from getting everything right in the kitchen to managing the front of house. And in the Manfredis case now, this is covering a very wide spectrum of hospitality environments.
My mother Franca Manfredi and my grandmother Angelina Pini. Also Gualtiero Marchesi and Angelo Paracucchi.
A 1995 interview with Stefano Manfredi.
Roast eggplant, peperonata and bocconcini
Warm black lip abalone, shitake and corzetti salad
Sea scallops with bollito of beetroot and onion, anchovy dressing
Squid and mushroom ragu 'under a sheet'
Grilled long - tailed bugs with cannellini beans - olive oil, tomato and saffron rice
Roast suckling Illabo lamb with rosemary and roast potatoes
Goats milk panna cotta with fresh mango and champagne jelly