Most people – Italian or not – harbour a particular fondness for Italian food. Whether it’s an attachment to a pasta sauce recipe handed down through generations in a family, or a memory of a special meal shared with family and friends at home, the culinary heritage of Italy is one that seems to bring and bind people together, all revelling in a shared love of simple food done well – and, of course, a shared love of carbs.
For the home chefs featured on The Chefs’ Line Season 2, Episode 1 (which airs on Monday August 6 at 6pm), Italian food represents far more than a shallow pursuit. Nadia Holmes, Sebastien Le Cornu, Paolo Castriciano and Ivano Del Pio aren’t professionally trained, sure (unless hours spent learning the ropes under the close watch of family members counts), but that hasn’t stopped them from living and breathing Italian cuisine.
"Finding a good olive oil is a crucial step, as it’s the first thing you put in the pan. It’s the beginning of the story you’re telling.”
They’ve each carved out a distinct niche in the tapestry of Italian food, drawing on lived experience and cultural heritage in equal parts. Here’s what cooking Italian food – in all its different iterations – means to these four home chefs.
The Innovator: Nadia Holmes, 38
Nadia Holmes is living proof that despite centuries of tradition, Italian cuisine can represent fertile ground for experimentation. As a home chef, food blogger and vegan, Holmes frequently creates animal-and-waistline-friendly alternatives to much-adored Italian staples from her childhood, like tofu ricotta and walnut meatballs.
Holmes’ vegan-Italian shtick is testament not only to her own ingenuity as a chef, but to the adaptability of Italian cuisine as a whole.
“A lot of the dishes enjoyed in Southern Italy where my family’s from are accidentally vegan, you could say,” she says. “They use a lot of olive oil instead of butter, for example, because the recipes are from a time when meat, cheese and dairy were luxury items. Veganising Italian food is actually quite easy, and I really enjoy coming up with different alternatives.”
Despite her obvious point of difference, Holmes' classic approach to cooking stems from sturdy roots in an Italian diaspora in Melbourne, planted when her father’s family emigrated from the Campania region in the 1960s. “If you really want Italian flavours, don’t forget really good olive oil, salt and tomatoes, she says. “And always cook Italian food with passion,” she says. “People are more likely to want to look at your food if they think you’re passionate about it.”
The Family Man: Paolo Castriciano, 29
Born and raised in a 200-person village in Sicily, Paolo Castriciano spent his childhood making olive oil and small-batch red wine with his grandparents. This, he attests, was his culinary education – one that’s served him well into adulthood.
For Castriciano, cooking Italian food is about maintaining a connection to a particular time (his childhood) and place (his Grandfather’s house). “When I cook, I feel like I never left home,” he says. “When I bring the flavours and smells to my kitchen, I feel like my Grandmother is beside me.”
Invariably crucial to his efforts is a generous dose of two things. The first: good-quality olive oil, because, as he says, “without olive oil, you can’t do semi-dried tomatoes, you can’t do eggplant, you can’t do anything.”
Secondly, it’s all about the love. “When you’re cooking Italian food, you must cook with passion and love,” he says. “You have to put your own twist on things, but the old way and the tradition is something you learn from the beginning, and you should never lose sight of that. It’s been passed on from father to son and then on again, so keep the tradition alive within your family. That’s what you have to do.”
The Modernist: Sebastien Le Cornu, 29
While his peers were eating two-minute noodles at age 19, Sebastien Le Cornu was attempting a slightly more noble pursuit – mastering Italian cuisine.
South Korean by blood with a French mother and an Australian father, Le Cornu is what some may call a mixed bag culturally, but it was always Italian food that offered the strongest pull.
“When I started cooking for myself, I leant towards Italian,” he says. “I obviously really liked the cuisine, but I also realised how simple and technique-focused it can be. I started researching, reading and watching videos, and I discovered what the platform of Italian food is – simple food done really well. You can’t hide behind anything, if something’s not good, you can taste it.”
Cornu’s key to authentic cooking? “The first thing to do is to look for the best produce and products,” he says. “Finding a good olive oil is a crucial step, as it’s the first thing you put in the pan. It’s the beginning of the story you’re telling”. Another pearl of advice: Don’t overcomplicate things. “Learn the basics, the traditional components of Italian cooking, and then build your flavours from there. Once you’ve got that platform, you can play around with flavours and shapes.”
"You can’t hide behind anything, if something’s not good, you can taste it."
For Le Cornu, The Chefs’ Line is a chance to develop a strong personal brand of Italian food – one that doesn’t necessarily fit neatly inside the boundary lines. Drawing on a thorough knowledge and respect for fine produce, Le Cornu has carved out his own distinct style of cooking. “My style is a bit more modern than traditional,” he says. “I’ll do a charcoal brisket ragù with handmade agnolotti and a butter and thyme sauce. I definitely don’t hold back, I try to push the flavours out. That’s everything my food represents.”
The Recipe Renegade: Ivano Del Pio, 58
Lock Ivano Del Pio in a kitchen full of home-grown, organic produce, good quality olive oil (“the lifeblood of Italian cooking”, as he calls it) and a few hours to spare and watch the magic unfold; just don’t expect him to stick to a recipe.
“Learn to cook with feel,” he says, from his home in Tasmania. Italian cooking to Del Pio is about attention to detail, honing time-worn family traditions and respect for ingredients. He talks about bonding with his Veneto-based extended family through the vehicle of food – a common language that transcends age and distance.
“I like the time involved in cooking Italian food,” he says. “It’s important. It needs attention and care because (and I get emotional when I talk about it) if there’s more attention paid, there’s more thought and more of yourself in the food. Elements of love and care put into the food affect how it’s expressed. Ingredients are ideally home grown, or from somebody you trust. That way, it’s more than just the food – it’s the whole experience.”
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Have we got your attention and your tastebuds? The Chefs’ Line premieres Monday 6 August, 6pm weeknights, on SBS followed by an encore screening at 9.30pm on SBS Food Network. Episodes will be available after broadcast via SBS On Demand. Join the conversation #TheChefsLine on Instagram @sbsfood, Facebook @SBSFood and Twitter @SBS_Food. Check out sbs.com.au/thechefsline for episode guides, cuisine lowdowns, recipes and more!