As an inner Melbourne food enthusiast, it is often difficult to see beyond the brioche bun burgers and salted caramel cupcakes of our city-centric lives and realise that in regional Victoria, there lies other food cultures that come in many forms, both good and bad.
Mildura, the citrus capital of Australia, is a place that encompasses both. In the farthest reaches of inland regional Victoria, the regional city is often overlooked from a social and political point of view. Stefano de Pieri, a Venetian-born cook with a passion for community, has always been concerned with this.
After dabbling in Victorian politics while based in Melbourne, de Pieri and his wife Donata settled in Mildura in 1991, where he assisted in the refurbishment of the Grand Hotel and also set up his restaurant, Stefano’s, in the hotel’s cellar. Under de Pieri, the restaurant became an icon of Victorian dining, drawing interest from all over the country and beyond.
“I was honestly trying to tell the story about Mildura, to get down to the bowels of location,” de Pieri says. “I was striving for this, even though I was just an improvised cook. I was cooking from the heart, like when I went to my mum’s place and got a good meal, after my mum had been making these dishes over and over again for many years.”
Along with the restaurant, De Pieri pursued other projects such as recipe books, a television series based on celebrating the produce of the Sunraysia region, contributing to food education, and playing major roles in food and culture festivals. Throughout all of these projects, it is clear
de Pieri has always been conscious of celebrating and promoting Mildura’s fresh, local produce.
“When I first came here, I saw this town had a lot of potential for food, but it wasn’t really reflected in anything that [Mildura] did at the time,” de Pieri says. “There was a disconnect between what was being offered and what could have been offered. I said, surely we can do a bit better than that. But there is a proliferation of fast food, and there is a nexus between fast food and socio-economic status.”
De Pieri says he has met with some resistance from the locals in his endeavours to bring Mildura into the spotlight.
“A lot of people interpreted it as some kind of arrogance, because I came to Mildura and said, ‘here’s the citrus capital of Australia, and you can’t find a freshly squeezed orange juice anywhere.’ It’s only this year we had the first orange festival, the Zest Fest. And even then it was mostly done by people not in the local food industry,” he says.
“It is sad but it’s a cultural thing here where parents may not teach their children to cook, where sometimes there’s no pleasure in sitting around the table and talking and eating together. And to me, that is what food is all about.”
As part of Australia’s food industry for more than two decades, de Pieri’s opinion of the country’s food culture may come as a shock to the average food blogger.
With a long history of striving to make a dent on local mentality, you can understand why he might be a bit cynical.
“A lot of people think the Australian food industry has changed. I don’t think it has at all. There were always people interested in food, even 20 or 30 years ago – always good restaurants. But it shouldn’t be about that, it should be about what people eat at home; and aside from people watching Masterchef now, that hasn’t improved much,” de Pieri says.
“The only thing that’s changed is the presence of farmer’s markets. I think they are a good avenue for smaller farmers and for people to get fresh food from the source, but they’re there because we don’t have butchers shops and smaller grocery shops anymore. There used to be smaller growers, small businesses; but it’s all being suffocated by Woolworths and Coles. When I came to Australia there were bakeries, real ones. There were milk bars instead of 7-Elevens, there were butcher shops with sawdust on the ground and, good bad or indifferent, they were part of the community. Now most of them have gone.
“It is evolving obviously; innovation’s happening in a localised way. But it’s as if there is no past. There were a lot of innovative people and great restaurants back in my days and before, in this country. Just read old editions of the Good Food Guide and there are hundreds of great restaurants every year… but is cheffing the only way to define food in a society? It’s about distribution, availability of produce, about relationships with butchers, with deli owners and with cheese makers. I don’t feel that that has changed that much.”
Despite his enduring presence in the industry, de Pieri’s passion for sharing good food and drink remains strong. After officially handing over the reigns to Stefano’s late last year, de Pieri has taken on both the brewery and restaurant at Mildura Brewery, which is housed in the beautiful art deco architecture of a former cinema at Langtree Avenue.
“It was a crazy project from the start,” de Pieri says. “To establish a brewery in Mildura at a former cinema site was a great bit of lateral thinking, a way of reviving the tradition of the cinema by restoring it; but from the point of view of a business owner’s future serenity and life balance, well, it’s crazy. It’s a challenging market for this kind of thing here.”
Although he continues to lead on the food side of things at the brewery’s restaurant, it’s clear that his beers are de Pieri’s main interest. de Pieri says his ambition is to dispel the stereotypes associated with beer consumption.
“The long-term plan for the Brewery is to continue to make good beer, and to keep the food fresh, simple and beer-friendly. But not burgers. I don’t have burgers at The Brewery anymore. I’ve abolished them.
This notion that if you have a beer then you have to have a burger, it is insane. It diminishes the hard work of brewers who are scientists as well as craftsmen. Why can’t a beer be served with a most beautiful dish?
There’s nothing wrong with a beautifully made burger, but it’s like people who say Italian food is about pasta. Beer is about a lot more than that,”
de Pieri says.
“I would put good beer in the same category as wine. A good craft beer is as interesting as a glass of wine so I would put them on the same level. They’re both things that have to be done respectfully and beautifully. I’m not going to serve a good bottle of chardonnay with chips and a burger, am I? So same goes for really good beer.”
De Pieri says that, given the challenges of operating in a regional area, his longer-term ambitions for Mildura Brewery will require investment and patience.
“It takes time to build a team where you’re all on the same page. This is not the city; I can’t just pick up some good chefs and give them a brief and bingo, they make it happen,” he says. “In a place like Mildura, it has to happen more organically; you have to train people, you have to refine your ideas about what’s possible, and you have to source good local ingredients and keep it simple,” he says.
“If we were in Melbourne, you could get on the phone to suppliers and things would arrive in the morning. Not here. If you want produce here, you have to make a choice. You have to say, what fish, when does it come, who do I get it from, do I have no fish or do I have Murray cod which costs an arm and a leg?
I get texts from this great fish supplier in Collingwood all the time saying, ‘Oh, I have these fresh anchovies.’ Oh yeah? By the time you transport them to me, how much are they gonna cost and what are they gonna look like when they get here? They’ll be rotten little things.
“You’re limited. For example, we’ve been using these big shoulders of lamb grown around here. They’re delicious, but the lamb is too big. So we’ve been going down south to source the lamb, where the price of the lamb is through the roof and the transport cost is unbearable. And by the time you trim it for cooking and then slow cook the meat, you lose about 70 per cent of the weight. So the price goes through the roof. So now we’ve decided that we’ll take it off the menu and source the local lamb, and instead of cooking it one way, we’ll do a Moroccan dish that is tasty and affordable for people, there won’t be miles attached to it and it will be good with beer as well.”
Given that Stefano has so much to say about the obstacles Mildura presents to a restaurateur, it is almost surprising to hear that he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“Someone once said to me if you can succeed in the country, you will succeed anywhere. Because it poses so many limitations and challenges; it’s so seasonal. You really have to sharpen your wits,” he says. “But there is no place like Mildura. I wouldn’t live anywhere else. My experience and my reputation was formed here.
“And I like the connection between food and this landscape. It’s a very lovely, hot, strange, daunting, scary landscape and it’s a great landscape. The appeal of this place is the mystery. It’s a crossroads, of climate change, industrialisation of our agricultural sector, globalisation… they’re all intersecting here. There are very few places in Australia where you can see the effect and the impacts of this stuff at one point. It’s here.”