Adriano Zumbo likes to get high on his own supply. "Yeah, I'll have about eight handfuls of chocolate a day, just straight out of the box at work." He also does a fair bit of what he terms "quality control" on his famously unusual pastries, though he says he has to steel himself, "because sometimes if I start, I just can't stop".
You can't really blame him. Since he burst onto the scene, seemingly from nowhere, with his Balmain shop in April 2007, the 28-year-old pâtissier has attracted non-stop rave reviews for his sweet exotica. His macarons, whether they be classic flavours such as rose or vanilla or the custom-job Negroni batch he did to woo the GT team, are among the finest home-grown examples, while the likes of Miss Marple (a miniature maple sugar crêpe cake) and Wheely Good (passionfruit mousse sandwiched between slices of almond meringue) are as well made as they are oddly named.
You're from Coonamble, in north-west NSW, right?
Yep. My mate was on the Coon cheese ad: Coonabarabran, Coonawarra... he was one of the scouts holding the flag.
And you got hooked on pastry how?
When I was young, I was a very fussy eater. My parents had a supermarket and I used to hang out with them before school when they had to open the shop very early. I started to fill my bag with lollies unbeknownst to them when they were in the office or whatever - Curly Wurlys, bags of Allen's, everything. And at school, I'd eat lollies and hand them out and that's how I became addicted to it. I didn't really want to eat anything else. I only ate ham sandwiches, pasta with no sauce, crumbed chicken; I was very limited in what I ate at home. I loved everything else, though - Shapes, lollies et cetera.
Then my sister opened a new supermarket with a bakery in it. I'd help her after school. I started to make White Wings cake mix, doing golden sponges for her little bakery, and then I started eating the batter a lot. I ate eggs and sugar until I was sick, so I had to start baking with it, and I played around with colours and I'd take them to school. The guys at school would say, "That's mad cake, mad cake" and I wasn't loving school so I thought, "I'm going to go and find an apprenticeship". My first one was with Dobbo's, Dobinson's Cakes in Rose Bay. I worked at the one in Palmer Street in Darlinghurst when I was 15 and nine months. I did a little stint at George's Restaurant, went back to Dobbo's and then I went to Wokpool [Neil Perry's first modern Asian restaurant, a forerunner of XO and Spice Temple]. That was a turning point, professionally, with the quality ingredients, the team, and the skills I learned. That was around 2000.
Was that your first introduction to Asian flavours? Were you still a picky eater?
It was, but I was starting to try things. Working in these places, things started to come to me - cheese, everything. Now if something's on the plate in front of me, I eat it. It took a few years and a few people I look up to, with me thinking, "If you'll eat it, then I'll eat it", but now I think to develop new taste sensations you have to eat everything, otherwise you're missing out.
I job-jumped for a while after that until I ended up at Victoire [the acclaimed Balmain bakery] and I stayed there until 2005. I felt as though I had to learn there but also develop my own style a bit. From there I had to get out of town for a while, and went to Cairns for a while, then I came back and started working from home and selling things at Fox Studios markets and supplying Bertoni [Bertoni Casalinga, the Balmain café], and then I opened the pâtisserie here in 2007. I opened the Café Chocolat at the end of 2008.
And MasterChef turned up the heat?
We'd had heaps of publicity before that, and it was already picking up, but that just shot it - bang! I'm on the final episode of the celebrity season, too. I'm doing a revamp of the croquembouche - it's like the one from the first season, only twice as hard. Surprisingly two of them do a better job than the guys in the first series, and they're celebrities. It was quite amazing.
What was Christmas at home like for you as a kid?
Pretty big, lots of food.
With an Italian edge?
There's no panettone or panforte in the recipes you've done for us.
No, there's none at all. I didn't really grow up with it - I grew up with trifle.
Mum and my sisters. They'd always make lasagne, zeppole, crumbed chicken, pasta, meatballs, trifle. We had turkey and ham too, but everyone was more interested in the Italian stuff.
What do you do for Christmas now?
I work. We close Christmas Day, but I don't have time to go home.
What will you be having - two cobs of corn and a Mars Bar?
Definitely corn. Meat. Asparagus. Some gelato from Messina.
Do you get high on your own supply?
Yeah. I'll have about eight handfuls of chocolate a day, just straight out of the box at work. I like to do quality control, but I can't eat too much because I don't want to blow out - sometimes if I start, I just can't stop.
What's your favourite at the moment?
That's a hard one. I like Miss Marple. Maple syrup and crêpes. Maple syrup mousse with an orange and strawberry jelly and then fresh oranges and strawberries and then a disc of sugar on top. It's pretty nice. If I start on one of those, I'll just demolish it.
What do your mum and dad think of this? Did they see it coming?
I don't think they did. They'd have been a bit quiet about it.
But now that you're recognised as a something of leader in your field and on TV?
Mum goes everywhere and says, "That's my son". She'll come back from the city when she's been down, and she'll say, "I've met this lady whose daughter wants to meet you…", and blah, blah, blah, you know what I mean?
Do they like anything you make in particular?
They're really, really fussy.
Which part of Italy are your parents from?
Let's talk old-school chocolate and lollies. Where are you on the Violet Crumble/Crunchie divide?
I used to always have this argument with myself. Do you go for the hard honeycomb or do you go for the honeycomb that melts? It depends what mood you're in, of course. I used to like letting my tongue dissolve the inside of the Crunchie, whereas the Violet Crumble, you've just gotta smash it.
It's the way it shatters that matters.
They're both great in their own ways.
What about the Gaytime?
One of my all-time favourites. I was a bit shy about asking for them at the shop when I was younger, but I just loved them too much. Now it's no problem, of course. I've got them down as a flavour for macaron day. Sixty flavours, one day.
Do you have any other particular favourites in the classic Australian canon?
Man, I like them all. Chokito, Curly Wurlys - they're so fine and caramel, and you can crush them up and chew on them. And they come with a joke. I love lollies with jokes. Milo bars. Fantails are good, Kit Kats. I love the Cadbury Snacks with all the different flavours - so artificial, but so good. Caramellos.
Is there a single sweet you don't like?
I don't think so.
How do you feel about that mass-produced Australian chocolate now?
I can eat it, but I don't really like it as much. I'm really into high-cocoa percentages at the moment. I usually buy Lindt 70 per cent at the shops. It's very thin, easy to eat, you don't have to eat too much of it.
Don't get me wrong, I love Valrhona, and Amedei's Chuao is very good, but when I'm at home Lindt is good. You can get their fleur de sel now, and that's good, too. They're quality for when you just want to sit back and snap it and eat it at home.
What's on your flavour radar at the moment?
I'm going very savoury - corn, eggplant, tomato - but I've also been making a few things with bubblegum. I've been playing around with a lot of smoke, too.
And what are you hoping to get for Christmas?
A Summer Roll. Man, I haven't had one for ages. Nougat. Coconut. Mmm.
PORTRAIT WILLIAM MEPPEM
This online exclusive interview was posted in November 2009.
Check out Adriano Zumbo's Christmas recipes, including cranberry-rosemary Florentine bars, passionfruit, lychee and coconut bûche de Noël, candy cane macarons, rice pudding trifle with saffron jelly and mango and mint salsa, gianduja Christmas crackers and gingerbread Christmas trees.
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