Ask Giovanni Pilu what he draws on for inspiration each time he creates a new menu and the answer is instant: local, seasonal produce. “If you work with what’s around you and what’s in season, you can create amazing cuisine anywhere in the world.”
Growing up in a tiny village of 300 people on the Italian island of Sardinia, Giovanni could not have imagined the success he would achieve in Sydney’s fiercely competitive restaurant scene. Moving permanently to Australia in 1993, Giovanni and his wife Marilyn opened their first restaurant, Cala Luna, in Sydney in 1997. Seven years later, they bid arrivederci to Cala Luna and made the move to the beachside suburb of Freshwater, opening their eponymous restaurant Pilu.
12 years on, Pilu has become a must-visit Sydney restaurant, winning a swag of awards along the way, including Best New Restaurant in 2005 and Wine List of the Year in 2010 and 2011. Awarded two Chef’s Hats by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide every year since 2005, it’s no surprise that Giovanni has cemented his reputation as one of Australia’s most esteemed chefs.
Reflecting on his success, Giovanni says the move to Freshwater was a massive undertaking. “Pilu was a much bigger operation than we were used to. We went from employing six staff to the 35 we have now, and up to 40 in summer. It was such a huge switch. It was no longer just about cooking, food and wine. It was about managing people and the media. It was great fun, but full on – I was in shock!”
Despite the hard work, there are no regrets for Giovanni and Marilyn. As he gazes at the waves breaking just beyond the charming heritage-listed beach house that the restaurant calls home, Giovanni remarks fondly, “Where else would you want to be? We love it here. We thought if we’re going to make this restaurant our life, where better place to do it?”
Macadamias meet Sardinian cuisine
Growing up in Sardinia, Giovanni says almonds, walnuts and chestnuts were common ingredients. However it wasn’t until he came to Australia as a 20-something young chef that he first tried a macadamia. It was love at first bite.
“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like nuts. But to me macadamias are something truly amazing – so tasty and rich, that unique crunch. I absolutely love them. Over the years I’ve become increasingly familiar with macadamias and I love using them on our menu in all kinds of dishes – sweet, savoury, meat…whatever!”
Although macadamias are native to Australia, Giovanni says they fit perfectly with his Sardinian approach to food. “Sardinia is a region that’s so different to the rest of Italy and Sardinian cooking is not Italian as such. Being an island that’s a fair distance from the mainland, it’s been infiltrated by many different cultures – a bit like Australia – so all these different cuisines and dialects have come together and made it really complex. But the philosophy that lies at the heart of Sardinian cooking is the use of produce that is both local and in season. So while macadamias aren’t Italian, when I use them on our menu, it’s still in line with the Sardinian approach to cooking because I’ve sourced them locally.”
Locavore: celebrating local produce
In addition to Pilu’s regular and degustation menus, Giovanni and his team have created a six-dish menu concept called ‘Locavore’, meaning ‘local’. A showcase of fresh produce sourced within New South Wales, each menu is designed around three key local ingredients, with the most recent featuring macadamias grown in the Byron Bay region.
Demonstrating the versatility of macadamias, the menu included a main course of slow roasted lamb shoulder topped with crushed macadamias, while for dessert, diners could enjoy macadamia semi-freddo or an incredible sticky date and macadamia pudding.
While Giovanni is a huge fan of the quality of local ingredients, he’s just as passionate about the people behind them.
“Over 90% of our menu is prepared using Australian produce and I’m a passionate supporter of Australian farmers. Without them, we can’t work. It’s not easy being a farmer and we have to make sure we’re behind them all the time. It’s something I feel really strongly about. That’s part of the reason I’ve worked so hard to create a culture in my restaurant that’s all about seasonal cooking,” he says.
Feel-good fine dining
In a city like Sydney where restaurants come and go, long term success is no small achievement. When Giovanni started the restaurant, he was confident he had what it took to deliver an amazing Sardinian menu. But he and Marilyn knew that alone would not be enough to secure the repeat business they needed, even with stunning beach views and a stellar wine list.
“People aren’t going to come back if you don’t offer an amazing experience,” says Giovanni. “We wanted to put our restaurant on the map and we knew we could only fulfil that vision if we offered the whole package, because it doesn’t matter how good your food, wine list or view is, if people don’t feel good while they’re in your restaurant, they won’t be back.”
It’s this mission that underpins Giovanni’s unwavering commitment to service. “We train our staff every day to welcome, attend to and farewell our guests the right way. We run a staff briefing before every single meal service. It’s like a soccer team – you can have the best players in your team, but if you don’t tell them what to do and what position they’re playing before every game, it will all fall apart. In a kitchen, there are always things that can go wrong. But if a customer has experienced amazing service, they’re far more forgiving,” he says.
“We want to give people an experience they will never forget. It’s something we work on every day.”
A macadamia moment with Giovanni Pilu
What’s the one ingredient you can’t live without?
Olive oil. The only thing I don’t put it in is coffee! It is such a great ingredient and now Australia is producing fantastic olive oil at a good price. We’ve started making our own blend in collaboration with an olive grower near Mudgee.
Which ingredients are you loving right now?
Citrus, especially blood oranges, nashi pears and root vegetables like golden beets, red beets and baby carrots. These are all fantastic right now.
How closely do you follow food trends?
It’s important to keep trends in mind, because people look for them and it’s an exciting part of the job, particularly for my younger chefs. My role is to encourage that, but guide them as necessary because the focus must always be on local produce. I think some trends can go too far. For example the molecular gastronomy trend went a bit too far in recent years – too many powders, purees and foams. In moderation that’s fine, but it’s important not to stray too far from what we do best.
What’s your favourite way to enjoy macadamias?
Roasted and tossed in salt. I can’t stay away from them!
Where is your favourite place to eat, anywhere in the world?
My home. There is nothing like finishing the week on a Sunday night, when I’ve done a massive lunch service, and picking up some fresh ingredients on the way home. I’ll throw some prawns and cherry tomatoes through some beautiful paccheri (a large tube pasta produced near Naples), make a tomato and burrata salad, steal some focaccia from the restaurant and make a Negroni with blood orange and Campari. For me there’s nothing better! Marilyn complains that I never want to go out, I always want to stay home. But I love my home!
Do you still visit Sardinia?
Yes we go back once or twice a year to visit my parents and see what’s happening on the food scene there.
What do you like to cook at home?
Last night we had lamb shoulder, salad with radicchio and Brussels sprouts.
What’s your favourite TV show or movie right now?
I really liked Eddie the Eagle – I was in tears at the end!
If you were an ice cream what flavour would you be?
Definitely chocolate – no question! Chocolate is the best thing in the world, isn’t it!?