Tasmania's Massimo Mele Comes Home To Cook


Publishedon 10/08/2015 - 07:31 pm

Massimo Mele picked up a bunch of spinach and couldn’t believe his eyes. Nor could he believe its refrigerated state a couple of days after buying it from Hobart’s Farm Gate Market: still so green, so alive. While he can’t credit his entire move to Tasmania to spinach, the chef admits it’s an example of the emerging food scene that lured him back. 

Massimo Mele in the kitchenAfter 20 years of cooking in some of the country’s busiest, best kitchens and alongside the famed chefs who owned them, as well as running his own renowned operation, extensive travel, TV appearances, accolades and playing brand ambassador; Mele has returned to put his stamp on Tasmania. It hasn’t been all beer and skittles; he ‘s had to start from the bottom a few times and admits to losing his way. But it seems the man who recoils from the hackneyed term, ‘celebrity chef’ has found his station and we’re about to be all the better fed for it.  

Mele’s father immigrated from Italy to Australia in the 1950s, met his mother Maria and the couple had three sons. Massimo would spend his early years in Naples, the southern city of Italy under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. The family moved back to Tasmania when Mele was 8. He’d spend a somewhat standard childhood in Hobart, albeit helping out at his family’s restaurant in the northern suburbs, listening intently to his uncles’ stories and watching them cook.

At home, Maria was every image an Italian mother conjures up: bubbly, full of love and one hell of a cook.

“We call her a walking hug,” says Mele, fresh from his parents’ house where Maria insisted Massimo, despite having just eaten, try her homegrown roasted capsicums.

While food played an integral part in Mele’s younger life – he affectionately refers to Sunday gatherings as the weekly Wog Bash – there wasn’t a passion, a curiosity, to make something from it. It would take a job in Melbourne to light that fire.  

Massimo Mele Casual

Mele graduated from Guilford Young College, worked as a dishy at Salamanca’s Zum then began an apprenticeship two wharves over at T42. After a couple of years, on his usual Tuesday paper trawl, Mele spotted a job going at Donovans’, a two hatted St Kilda eating institution. Mele borrowed a dodgy suit, aced the interview and started the new gig within two weeks. He says he dropped a few places in the pecking order, basically beginning his apprenticeship again, but it would be here he’d realize his passion for good food.  A passion confirmed one day when Stephanie Alexander said, “Bloody beautiful food, Massimo!”

From here Mele would work back in his home state at Launceston’s Mud Bar Restaurant, be recognized in the then infant Appetite for Excellence Awards and tour the world for a while, having fun and working on the Amalfi Coast.

Mele struggled to find solid work when he returned to Sydney but eventually made his way to Executive Chef in the famed Hugos Group. Hundreds of covers every day meant life was exciting and busy but it was about here Mele admits his romance for cooking faded.   

It reignited upon opening La Scala on Jersey in Sydney and beginning a catering company and pop up dinners called, Tutti a Tavola (Italian for “everyone to the table”). All these culinary ventures would become a successful attempt to celebrate the food, ways and lost recipes of his forebears. 

This tribute to good, honest Italian culture is where we find Mele today. They have sold La Scala, and despite planning to open a new restaurant in Sydney early next year with Haritos Hotels, is continuing to build his catering company Catering by Massimo Mele and has based himself in Hobart where it seems, he’s a pig in mud and determined to fly the flag for the Apple Isle. 

Besides bunches of spinach, Mele has fallen for Tasmanian protein. He says Pennicott Tours introduced him to the most magnificent abalone, crayfish, and scallops he’s ever seen and there’s no beating beef from the northwest. Mele raves about the vegetables, the wine, the cheese and truffles.

Massimo Mele Plate EarsOf course, there’s more to Mele’s return to Tasmania than food: his partner Kristy Stewart is a local and of course, his parents are still here. He’s looking forward to more cooking with Maria, the woman who Mele confesses can make everything other than gnocchi better than him.

Over the coming months he’ll bring all of the above plus more to a site near you: he’s continuing Tutti a Tavola, planning street feasts and specialty dinners across the country. Just this week he’ll serve up Sicilian octopus salad and slow roasted lamb for a feast at Stefano Lubiana in Tasmania’s Derwent Valley.

Mele isn’t out to reinvent the food wheel, rather wants to deliver dishes we’ve come to recognise with produce grown in our backyard with a big glass of red and bit of a giggle. Mele’s relaxed approach and genuine attitude should impress those suspicious of a high-flying chef who’s done a tree change to Tassie.

His schedule is packed and there’s set to be a lot more travel, particularly as ambassador for Electrolux and Carnival Cruises, but Mele insists he’s home.

He’s even bought a puffer jacket.