Growing up as part of a large Maltese family who bonded over food left its mark (literally) on chef Shane Delia. Today, he continues to please Melbourne diners at Maha Bar & Grill with his modern take on Middle Eastern cuisine with the Mediterranean hospitality he grew up with.
"Family is what I hold most dear. Although I only have one brother and sister, I grew up in a huge family. My dad has eight sisters – and just on his side, I have 34 cousins. Every Sunday, there would be about 50 or 60 of us at my grandpa’s house.
I learned to cook when I was 13 years old. Mum would leave lists of things for me to do after school – cutting potatoes, putting roasts in the oven – and then it just developed from there. The men in my family are also great cooks, especially my grandpa – he was a star in the kitchen. He’d do everything from scratch – even raising the rabbits. I remember going to his house to feed them, thinking they were our pets; little did I know they’d be going in the stuffat tal-fenek (rabbit stew)!
He cooked Maltese dishes including bragioli (braised beef), bigilla (broad bean purée with marjoram and olive oil) and ross il-forn (baked rice with pork or beef and tomatoes and cheese). It was simple food, but it had soul, love and honesty, and it brought us together, which I believe is what food should do.
I wasn’t the best at school, but I knew becoming a chef would make my family proud. I also liked the hierarchy and competition in the kitchen. After finishing my training at Hotel Sofitel where I met George [Calombaris], I briefly worked at Gabriel Martin at Treasury, before taking on the role as sous chef at Eleonore’s Restaurant at Chateau Yering in the Yarra Valley in 2002. Within nine months, at the age of 23, I was promoted to executive chef. It was an amazing opportunity to work at a restaurant that was part of the Relais & Châteaux group, but after five years, I was ready to open my own place.
I went back to Melbourne, and George and I opened Maha Bar & Grill. My food at Maha is the heart and soul of Middle Eastern cuisine wrapped up in the Mediterranean hospitality I grew up with.
So many people don’t know what Middle Eastern food is, so I wanted to break down the barriers, while adding my modern twist to dishes. Sometimes I introduce Asian flavours, too, such as the makrut lime in the barramundi with crunchy chickpeas and prawns.
About 85 per cent of our trade comes from our souffras (banquets) – it’s a great way for people to try a wide variety of dishes and is also a chance for me to source what’s good and put it on the table. Of course, we cater for dietary requirements, too. People often forget that running a restaurant is about hospitality and that it’s all about looking after our customers. I have a tattoo that runs along my arm that reads 'strength in hospitality’ in Maltese; it’s my family motto and I am permanently reminded of that."