This Croatian chef is educating Melbourne palates to the fresh flavours of Dalmatia, from fishermen’s scampi to asparagus risotto and "true" crème caramel.
By
Sarina Lewis

2 Aug 2012 - 2:54 PM  UPDATED 30 Mar 2021 - 7:41 PM

There is a lot of diversity when it comes to food in Croatia. Around Zagreb, the capital, they tend to use more cream and butter, which is similar to Austrian cooking. Further north, near Hungary, it’s lots of lard and pork, and heavier sorts of dishes.

Škampi na buzara is one of the most loved dishes in Croatia, and shows the essence of cooking in Dalmatia. It is very, very simple: just garlic, onion, olive oil, white wine and a bit of tomato. Living in the south, we have a Mediterranean climate, so our native plants are rosemary, sage and olive trees, and that influences our cooking. We use mostly olive oil and our cooking is very light, using lots of seafood and some kinds of pasta, too.

I grew up on the Dalmatian coast in the historic city of Split, which was originally designed as a retirement palace for the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Our house was built in 1555. It’s an extension of the building inside the Roman Palace, which was built in 305AD and it is a beautiful place. The city would hold a cultural festival every summer where they would play opera in the main square below our house, and we could hear it from our windows. 

I was 20 when I moved to Australia with my family in 1996. I had worked with two chefs in Split. When I came here, I worked at Donovans at St Kilda. From there, I went to Grossi Florentino and Scusami [both in Melbourne], and then on to Otto Ristorante in Sydney for three years. I was also head chef at Bottega in Melbourne. I left to start Dalmatino with my brother Natko eight years ago and we have been here ever since.

I learned how to cook from my family: my grandmother, my aunties and my mum. As a child, you see and then you taste and then you try. You develop a passion for it. It’s in your blood; it’s in your genes. You learn it as part of your culture. The njoki [the Croatian version of gnocchi] we have on the menu is a very traditional dish and I still use my grandmother’s recipe.

Some of what we cook at the restaurant is what we eat at home. Food represents the culture. That’s what we try to do in Australia "” to bring a little bit of that culture here. It’s about bringing people together in joyful moments built around sharing"¦ like the fritule [potato doughnuts], which are traditionally served with figs to welcome guests.

Australia is good, but it was very hard to get used to. People in Croatia are much more social. Every day, you go out with friends and have a coffee and have a chat. Here, people live to work, but in Croatia, people work to live. They may have less money, but they enjoy life more. We try to re-create that by serving these dishes that are synonymous with celebration.