Getting to know Adriano Zumbo
Wednesday morning I shot out of bed much earlier than usual. I was buzzing and my mind was racing as this was the day that I was meeting Adriano Zumbo to have a chat for the blog. As I walked into the Melbourne store I had butterflies in my stomach and a slightly sick feeling, but this soon subsided as we sat down on one of the bright pink ice cream couches and started chatting. Dubbed in some circles as the Sweet Assassin, Patissier of Pain and the Dark Lord of the Pastry Kitchen, I was immediately struck by Adriano's quietly confident and humble demeanour.
I begin by asking Adriano what advice he has for aspiring pastry chefs and he tells me they must "have a passion and stay focused. Pastry is very much a thinking trade." He says that many aspiring pastry chefs make the mistake of tackling a recipe in one go, when really it is a step by step process. Successful pastry chefs are those who break down the steps and allow time for each element to set. He admits that you "need to have a thick skin, things are going to go wrong and its never going to be perfect, but the people who get through are those who don't let it affect them. I see it a lot...people who get too emotional and take the mistakes too personally."
We chat about the importance of having a good team around him, as with so many stores now it is impossible for Adriano to be everywhere. Adriano tells me he respects those who are down to earth and have a quiet confidence about them. It is really important to find people who "know exactly what the job is and don't mind working sixteen hour days or even washing dishes, regardless of whether they are the Head Chef." Humility is as important as great technique and understanding flavours and textures.
I ask Adriano who he admires in the hospitality industry and he says he gets most excited by entrepreneurial types like Justin Hemmes and George Calombaris who raise the bar and "create excitement and different concepts". Outside of the food industry Adriano admires the sportsmen and women who train hard for a goal such as the Olympics. He can see some parallels with the food industry which is extremely competitive and demands hard work to stay at the top of the game.
Eventually conversation turns to the humble macaron and I ask him to share some tips for success. For him there are three key elements; "a good meringue with lots of volume" to give structure, before knocking out the air and "getting the right consistency in the batter". Too thick and it's too difficult to pipe and too runny and "they will be like pancakes". Finally getting the skin on the surface before baking is crucial and very dependant on the humidity in the air. I discover even Adriano is challenged by them every so often as he tells me about a recent trip to Taiwan where he spent four or five hours preparing macarons, before throwing them all out as the humidity was ruining the consistency. Eventually the chef he was going to be working with told him to put them in a room with the air conditioner on until they dried.
I suggest that macarons were not as popular here until he brought them to the attention of most Australians and he admits that while there were people making macarons "they weren't very good." Many ended up stale as cafe's could not turn them around quick enough. His sweet creations are just as famous for their names and with names like Cherry Poppins and Escape from a Colombian Rainforest I ask Adriano which comes first, the name or the flavour? Most of the time he tells me it is the flavour, but "at other times it's the name and I'll write it down and make something of it."
With such inventive flavours I am eager to find out just how much testing goes into each creation. Adriano concedes "not as much as he would like" due to the Sydney stores being so busy and Melbourne just opening. "Eventually I'd love to have a dedicated research and development section. At the moment it is just me or one of the other head chefs doing a little testing when we have time."
To create the flavours Adriano says it is important to have an understanding of what it tastes like in the beginning. For example, his blueberry pancake macaron tastes exactly like a blueberry pancake because it has all the elements, the maple syrup, pancake batter and blueberry flavours.
Growing up in Coonamble, his parents owned a local supermarket. We chat briefly about his childhood love of sweets and he admits to eating everything and would often grab "five or six packets of lollies" every day. Among friends he was the go-to guy for anything sweet. He finds it hard to nominate a favourite and rattles off everything including curly wurly's, milo bars, cherry ripes, snickers, mars, bounty, clinkers and even iced vovos, shapes and packets of potato chips. No wonder his flavours are so inventive!
His first job in a bakery led him to find his calling in pastry and he soon left home and headed to the big smoke to begin an apprenticeship. Over the years his career has seen him work with many talented chefs including Pierre Hermé. I ask him how appearing on MasterChef helped his career and he tells me "the profile he gained from MasterChef was amazing". At the time, he had just opened his first business and "with only a few write ups the exposure proved invaluable". In the beginning though there were no guest chefs appearing on camera. Adriano was simply asked to be a consultant of sorts and drop a croquembouche tower at the studios for an upcoming challenge. Today MasterChef is as famous for its guest chefs as it is for Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris and Matt Preston. Adriano has become part of the MasterChef family and his challenges generally strike fear into the hearts of contestants.
I ask Adriano about the Melbourne store and what makes it different from Sydney. Apart from the store design, he tells me that many of the products are exclusive to Melbourne and the creations of his Head Chef Daniel Texter. I ask him about Daniel and he is full of quiet praise for his talent. Daniel has had a fairly illustrious career to date including working at Noma in Copenhagen as the head pastry chef for two years and recently at Les Amis, a French restaurant in Singapore. Adriano knows from personal experience how important it is to give a "creative chef the space to create" and it is something he fosters in all his patisseries.
I ask him if he has been surprised by the way Melbourne has embraced the store and he admits that while he "knew it was going to be slightly busy from all the emails sent prior to opening" he didn't expect the queues that formed at 5am on opening morning and the people who drove as far as Adelaide and Echuca for a piece of Zumbo history. Since opening, many days the store has sold out before the official closing time of 7pm and many weekends there have been queues five deep. I ask Adriano if there has been one item that has been more popular than others, but he tells me that at the moment "everything is popular". He is hopeful that in coming weeks as the early rush subsides, they will be able to get a better picture of what is more popular. I'm intrigued to know how much butter and eggs the stores go through each week and he tells me he uses half a tonne of butter every week in Sydney alone and would order between sixty and eighty boxes of eggs each week. With each box containing fifteen dozen eggs that is a mind-boggling 10,000 eggs per week!
Adriano admits to not having a typical week as such, but generally he divides his time between the store in Melbourne and the rest of the week in Sydney. That is if he is not overseas. Adriano has recently returned from Paris where he was invited to judge the World Chocolate Masters. I ask him which countries did well and he tells me that Italy came first, Netherlands second, Australia an impressive third with Japan and the UK in fourth and fifth places respectively. I ask if he has ever competed in the World Chocolate Masters himself, and he says that while he tried out early in his career, he didn't have the time to devote to the training needed to produce the showpieces.
I am interested to discover where Adriano heads for good food in Melbourne, and he admits that he hasn't had a lot of time to eat out and tells me that mostly he has been ordering take away from Miss Chu on Toorak Road. He does nominate Top Paddock as a great place for breakfast and lunch and tells me he loves Attica in Ripponlea for a special dining experience.
I ask Adriano how he relaxes and he admits that he doesn't have a lot of time for relaxation at the moment, and generally relaxation comes in the form of sleep. Though he muses that even then he probably grinds his teeth. I get the sense that Adriano is very driven and focused and enjoys being busy. As well as overseeing his patisseries in Sydney and Melbourne, he has also recently launched his first purpose-built cooking school in Rozelle. At the moment he is offering macaron courses every Saturday. Such is his popularity, all the courses have sold out through to Christmas. The eventual plan is to offer a range of pastry and sweet courses. To be the first to find out about his cooking courses like his Facebook page here or sign up for the Zumbo Times newsletter here
Adriano tells me after a long day in the kitchen, "the last thing I want to do when I get home is something complicated". He favours simple Italian dishes and meat or fish with veggies or salad. His favourite snack is hommus with crackers. I ask Adriano what dessert he would make for a dinner party and he says it is usually something simple. He loves whipping up a chocolate fondant or a deconstructed apple crumble. His apple crumble is simple really, with cooked apples, caramel and crushed biscuits layered in a glass.
I ask him if he could only have one more sweet treat what would he choose. He looks at me incredulously and asks "only one?" before telling me it would be out of either a carton of custard, a good brownie for a chocolate hit or ice cream..."I love ice cream!"
We chat about whether he thinks macarons will continue to be popular and Adriano tells me "they might not be as popular as they were, but they won't go away." Unlike cupcakes which "don't have the legs to stay popular...and are just sugar and butter with the majority being either vanilla or chocolate with different coloured icing", he believes the texture of macarons is amazing and when done well their "flavours are true to what they are." He loves the fact that they are so small you can easily have six and not be full. For Adriano, macarons are the perfect accompaniment to coffee and make the perfect present. I ask how often they change the flavours around and generally it is every three to five months, although "at the moment we change a couple of flavours each month".
We chat about travel and Adriano tells me that while "going to New York is great...you don't relax as it is very fast paced and you are always going somewhere to eat." One of his favourite restaurants is Eataly and he was amazed and excited to discover they have opened a restaurant in Dubai during a recent visit. Generally though he loves to go to a resort that is quiet and talks fondly about his time at Qualia on Hamilton Island. I get the feeling that he prefers to keep a low profile when he is on holidays. He also mentions Calabria, where his parents are from and says it has some beautiful beaches and is not touristy at all. Mornington also rates highly for Adriano and he loves that just one hour from Melbourne he can escape to a place with "good beaches, vineyards and restaurants."
I ask Adriano for some recommendations of good patisseries in Paris and he admits that the standard has "dropped a lot in Paris." He is not sure whether they have gotten worse, but suspects Australia has actually gotten better. For him, the highest quality and standard can still be found at Pierre Hermé.
I finish our chat by asking about his support for Movember and why it is such an important cause. He says that "a lot of men are stubborn" and because they don't get regular health checks they "get sprung upon by surprise". For him the cause is close to his heart with members of his family having gone through treatment for prostate cancer. As well as growing a fine handlebar moustache, Adriano has also invented a pie and sauce macaron for all the boys and is donating all proceeds of the macaron to the cause. You can also make a donation to support Adriano's mo here
In short, I found Adriano to be accommodating and generous with his time and knowledge and I was so grateful to spend time with him finding out about the man behind the Zumbo hysteria.
You can try his Willy Wonka creations for yourself at
12 Claremont St
South Yarra VIC 3141
7am-7pm daily, or until sold out