--- Watch Australia's Food Bowl with Stefano de Pieri Sundays at 8.30pm on SBS Food and streaming free on SBS On Demand. ---
Life is a celebration of food, wine and culture for host of Australia's Food Bowl, Stefano de Pieri of Stefano's Restaurant in Mildura in Victoria's northwest.
Stefano was raised alongside cattle and chickens on his family's subsistence farm in countryside Treviso in northern Italy. His childhood was idyllic with mornings spent at school and afternoons enjoyed on the property farming, fishing or foraging.
When the school bell rang at 12:30pm, Stefano would hurry home for a sit-down lunch with his parents and whichever of his five older siblings were around.
"There was never a moment we didn't eat together," Stefano explains.
Lunch was the substantial meal of the day, as tradition in Italian culture, with a lighter dinner to follow, which consisted of leftovers with salad or vegetables. Stefano's family embraced the farm-to-table diet and sourced the majority of their ingredients from the backyard.
"We had everything," Stefano says. "We had chickens, we had ducks, we had turkeys, we had guinea fowls, each with their respective eggs." All manners of meat and veggies and other items that come from foraging and fishing, they were all provided through the farm.
Stefano's mother was head chef of the house and cooked with the seasons. Dishes that made a regular appearance on the table included braised duck cooked over an old woodfire stove with pork fat and herbs, handmade pasta ravioli or gnocchi with ragu.
This paddock-to-plate style of cooking taught Stefano the importance of embracing the whole ingredient and letting nothing go to waste.
"In winter when we killed the pig, we systematically went through everything," Stefano says.
"We ate the heart and liver first, we made sausages out of the skin, called cotechino… and we made soup with all the bones of the pig after the meat had been stripped to make salami."
This use-it-up mantra also taught him about the value of food and how to have an open mind to trying anything and everything.
"I was never scared of eating liver or heart or kidney or tongue or brains," Stefano says.
"There's no such thing as 'I don't like' or 'I'm not gonna eat'," he says. "You're gonna eat what's given and take advantage of every aspect of it. Whether it is the food that comes from the farm or whether it comes from nature, you got to take it and you gotta enjoy it."
"You're gonna eat what's given and take advantage of every aspect of it."
While Stefano was rarely involved in preparing family meals, he was put to work sourcing the ingredients from the moment he could push a wheelbarrow. He started out picking grapes and cleaning the cows but slowly claimed the title of family forager.
"I was the one who found the different mushrooms at different times of the season…I was the one who got particular weeds," Stefano says.
Growing up on a subsistence farm that relied on old fashioned farming practices, Stefano quickly learnt the value of hard and honest work.
"My father milked cows twice a day in the morning and in the evenings. He never, never, never missed a day in his life," Stefano describes.
"If you don't work, you don't achieve your goals," he says. "My parents taught me a lot about discipline but also the wisdom to take a break and celebrate in between. It can't be all work no play."
When Stefano turned 18, he migrated to Australia and began cooking for himself out of necessity. He had a professional stint working in a Melbourne kitchen. However, this was interrupted by a car accident which saw him transition into the public service sector where he worked for most of the 1980s.
In 1991, Stefano moved with his wife to her hometown of Mildura. This town was a food paradise for Stefano and he began teaching himself how to cook basic Italian food, similar to what he grew up with in Italy. The inspiration behind this was a desire to reconnect with his culture, but also a response to seeing what he could source from this new environment.
Since the town is located by the river, Stefano has access to freshwater fish, just like in Treviso. His in-laws also connected him to a large variety of farmers and suppliers from whom he was able to acquire the freshest ingredients.
Stefano was so impressed with the local produce and wine in Mildura, he wanted to help the region mark its place on Australia's culinary map. In the 1990s, he and his wife decided to open up an underground restaurant creating simple and authentic Italian meals that celebrated the freshness and integrity of the local produce.
"I'm not perhaps very creative with arrangements of food," Stefano explains. "My focus is more on obtaining good solid credible authentic Italian flavours out of very few ingredients."
"It's very important to have some direct connection between consumers and producers as it makes community."
Stefano is deeply involved in the community, with a highlight of his career being his participation in generating the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show.
"We have changed the way a lot of people drink in this country today. Thirty years ago, they didn't know what Prosecco or Pinot Grigio was and now everybody knows what it is," Stefano says. "It was driven pretty much from here, together with other very valuable, fantastic, and enthusiastic people."
Two decades later, Stefano is still living in Mildura where he splits his time between cooking at his restaurant and producing wine. He enjoys bonding with friends at dinner parties where he'll serve up simple minestrones or risottos, paired with a good glass of wine. These times spent at the dinner table bring back warm and cosy memories of family mealtimes back in Treviso.
Looking into the future, Stefano believes that simplicity is here to stay. He aims to continue bringing recognition to regional producers and emphasise the importance of sourcing local.
"It's very important to have some direct connection between consumers and producers as it makes community," Stefano says. "I hope that one day people will review practices, maybe farms will return to being more in touch with their local community and servicing them a bit more directly."
His passion for family, food and place remains strong, as is his quest to recreate a Veneto specialty pasta ragu as good as his mother's.
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- 2 cups ricotta, drained
- ½ cup grated parmesan
- ¾ cup plain flour
- 1 egg
- 1 jar cooked pasta sauce
- tomato sauce, to serve
1. Pass the ricotta through a mouli into a bowl. Add the parmesan, flour and egg to the ricotta and gently mix together. Reverse onto a floured surface. Remove a piece and roll out with your fingers to 1cm thickness and 1½ centimetres in length.
2. While you are doing this, bring a small saucepan of water to the boil and test your gnocchi to see that they don't disintegrate when cooked or fray around the edges too much. If so, add more flour.
3. Proceed to roll them all out and place them on a floured tray as you go. This gnocchi can be used fresh or can be frozen.
4. Cook the gnocchi in plenty of salted water and as they come to the surface, scoop them out with a perforated utensil and toss them through the heated sauce. Garnish with grated parmesan and torn basil.