Sunday March 17, 2013
Life is sweet
By ANN MARIE CHANDY
Aussie chef Adriano Zumbo works hard and counts his blessings, while looking to whip up tasty new delights.
IF you’re a couch potato and you especially love watching cookery programmes on telly, chances are you’ve come upon Adriano Zumbo’s mug more than once. The 31-year-old Sydneysider, a household name in Australia – thanks to his incredible croquembouche, macaron and cake creations popularised on reality programme MasterChef – was in Kuala Lumpur not so long ago to share some of his knowledge and know-how with local pastry chefs.
It’s not every day one gets to interview someone whose goal is to “caramelise the nation” (Australia, that is) and so it was with a happy heart and ravenous stomach that this writer turned up at the Academy of Pastry Arts in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, one morning to watch Zumbo at work, and hopefully bag an interview (... and, fingers crossed, a couple of macarons, too).
The popular pâtissier, who’s been hailed as a “modern day Willy Wonka” and the “King of the croquembouche”, was visibly tired from having travelled around the region as ambassador for French cocoa and chocolate producer Cacao Barry, but spent the entire morning perfecting his creations for the chocolate-tasting event organised by Pastry Academy Malaysia, Aeroshield and Cacao Barry.
Apart from his signature macarons (called Zumbarons for effect; with chocolate donut as well as raspberry rose chilli ganache), Zumbo also showcased a range of tempting patisseries and moulded chocolates (not your everyday flavours either, Zumbo’s were made of passionfruit and vanilla, and raspberry and olives). There was much sweetness to savour, including Millefeuille (Biscuit Hazelnut and Lime, Gianduja Chantilly, Peanut Caramel) and St Honore (Pistachio and Mint Chantilly, as well as Saffron Compote).
Indeed, every recipe featured that day seemed to veer on the side of experimentation, as if to satiate Zumbo’s own penchant for crazy flavours.
“I am always looking to do new stuff,” he shared in a private interview after the tasting session, when he also revealed that he found “pressure” inspiring. “It’s good for generating ideas.”
The unassuming Australian of Italian descent said that he gets ideas all the time, regardless of where he is.
“Whether I am travelling, or at home, at the supermarket, with other people ... you know, someone could say something and that sparks a thought or an inspiration for a name, or a collection of cakes.”
Zumbo said that in Malaysia he was especially taken by the traditional sweets. “You know, the salty rice with the pandan? I want to use those flavours in some of my creations,” he revealed. “I really enjoyed that. I am always thinking about how to incorporate flavours I encounter into my own baking.”
Zumbo admitted that “always thinking” is sometimes a problem because he never stops to enjoy the food. The celebrity chef (though he baulks at that term) said that every day is challenging when it comes to creating. “We change our menu every three months, so it’s always challenging for me, and I still think I haven’t hit my best yet.”
He said that almost every week there is something happening, whether it’s celebrations like Valentine’s Day last month, or the upcoming Easter festival. And there’s always a demand for new recipes, which makes his work “creating under pressure” really.
“Because it is so fast paced, many ideas get lost in the process, so I can’t wait for the day when I get to sit down and take it all down slowly.”
Zumbo has started to record some of his recipes, and already has two books to his name, Zumbo Book (Adriano Zumbo’s Fantastical Kitchen Of Other Worldly Delights) and Zumbarons (A Fantasy Land Of Macarons).
“I never thought I’d have a book to my name. It’s pretty good to have two books! Hopefully, I’ll do a third this year,” he beamed, but went on to share that the first book was no walk in the park.
“I had no idea how difficult the book would be. It was created for the domestic market and I am used to a more professional audience (pastry chefs and pâtissiers). I have to tone it down so that it would read more like you were cooking at home, and that was difficult.”
How did the young man become a pâtissier, of all things, and when exactly did he heed this calling of sorts?
“Probably when I was about 14 or 15,” he said. “Both my parents and my elder sister owned a supermarket. And I used to work there after school. My sister’s was newer and they put in a small bakery with premixed cakes and frozen stuff,” Zumbo related about his growing up years in the small country town of Coonamble in New South Wales. “There were no fresh bakeries there at the time.”
Zumbo confessed that one of the reasons he ended up in the business of making sweets and desserts was because he wasn’t a high achiever in school.
“I wasn’t good at school because I couldn’t focus,” he said. “I didn’t pay any attention in class. There were some classes like Geography, for instance, in which I did well because I was interested in the world and wanted to travel someday. But things like Maths and Science?” he shrugged his shoulders. “Most of the time, I just didn’t have any interest. I knew I wasn’t going to do anything like that academically.”
Thankfully for Zumbo, he found that he really enjoyed working with pastries and bread dough. “I left school at 15, not because I knew I wanted to be a pastry chef but because I knew I didn’t want to be at school, and because at that time, I really enjoyed doing this (working at the supermarket bakery).”
Zumbo detailed how it was a bit of a risk then because he had to move out and live in Sydney and begin his apprenticeship. His parents were apprehensive at first because he was still only a young teenager.
“I was very lucky because I enjoyed it straight away. After a few weeks, I used to stay back after work, and play around ... I’d do little sculptures and stuff with the pastry. It was really enjoyable. I loved to go to work and I loved using my hands to create things.”
Zumbo believes that people are sometimes born with the mind and hands for a certain skill. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a mechanic or plumber. That depends on what you want to do. But I do believe a person is born with a certain mentality – that I want to be a creative person, or I want to use my hands.”
Though he had humble beginnings at the local TAFE (technical and further education) in Sydney, Zumbo went on to train and work in Australia and France with Australian culinary greats such as Neil Perry and international heavyweights Ramon Morato and Pierre Hermé.
Craving to create
Australians first discovered his scrumptious treats when he opened his first pâtisserie in a suburb in the inner-west of Sydney called Balmain in 2007. His subsequent appearances on reality programme MasterChef Australia earned him an international following. Zumbo also has his own self-titled television series (six observational documentary-style episodes following Zumbo at his Balmain kitchen business) and has since opened another four shops, all in New South Wales – the cafe at Rozelle, as well as pâtisseries at Manly, Pyrmont and Waverley.
Zumbo also has a bake-at-home range inspired by some of his store best-sellers, such as salted caramel macarons and choc mud cake (which, sadly, are only available in Australia at the moment, but the chef is working on getting a distributor in this neck of the woods, yay!).
When asked if he had a sweet tooth while growing up, Zumbo rattled off a string of candy bar names. “I pretty much liked them all – Mars Bars, Cherry Ripes, Summer Rolls, Curly Wurlies ... you name it, Snickers, Picnic, Chokitos, Pollywaffle.”
He said that his taste for sweets has changed totally now, however. “I can only take a bite of a chocolate bar these days, the commercial ones. That’s enough for me, because they are very sweet. My taste has become more focused on fresh fruity flavours. And even with chocolate, I like to get the base flavour to taste as natural and fresh as possible. When I eat something I want to feel it, rather than it just being something very sweet.”
Zumbo said that his childhood memories have, however, influenced him a fair bit. “All those chocolate bars? I now make cakes and desserts based on those chocolate bars but I make my own version, using all those textures – you know, the Rice Krispies, the Crunchies, all these things you don’t really think about when you’re eating the candy bar. But obviously the candy bar companies have invested a lot of money on R&D to figure out what appeals to customers. You’ve got to be able to take something from that; you’ve got to realise that these are textures that millions of people in the world eat and savour every day.”
The young chef is happy to take it one day at a time, trying out new things, raising the profile of his online store (adrianozumbo.com) and giving classes.
“It’s been a lot of hard work to get where I am today, but it’s been a lot of luck as well – just being in the right place, at the right time. With things like MasterChef, it can be hard work but I was very lucky to get a break on that. That helped my business and profile a lot. But one has to have the skill to back up a lucky break like that.”
Does he enjoy being in the public eye?
“There’s times when I don’t because I’m just so busy, busy, busy or when something doesn’t go quite right,” he admitted. “But most of the time, I love it. I enjoy meeting people, seeing different things. New experiences always push me to create new things.”