Regular readers of my blog know that I am crazy about the man but like a lot of Sydney, and the rest of the world, we don't know a lot about him, apart from the fact that he makes some of the most stunningly masterful creations known to humankind which if anything, gives us a fleeting glimpse into his soul. He's shy and if I recall back to the first time I met him, nothing like I expected him to look like (I don't know why but I expected either a portly older gentleman or a skinny ponytailed Franck Eggelhoffer).
To meet the man in the flesh is a surprise. He's young, modest, agreeable, quite shy and down to earth and possessed with broodingly Brando-esque looks. Nothing like the tortured aesthetically crazed genius that I expected. And he makes the girls go crazy like nothing we've seen. A friend of mine, when I told her about meeting him said "Maybe just lick him for me or something" (I didn't dear reader, although I suspect he might taste of cake, nor did I inquire of her what the 'or something' meant). Married or attached friends of mine would profess their outright lust for the man. It seems that a man that creates these beauties can do no wrong with the womenfolk.
I wanted to delve a bit more into the man himself, what fueled his passion and his artistry and so I did what the curious do, I asked for an interview and he was happy to oblige. We talked about his history, growing up, how he comes up with his collections, what he does in his downtime, his thoughts on bloggers, Pierre Hermé and of course the question that everyone wanted to know, whether he is single or not.
It's a Sunday afternoon when I meet him at his cafe in Balmain, just a few doors down from the shop. He's late by about 5-10 minutes but calls to let me know. When he arrives he's sporting a "I love Betty" t shirt (Betty being the Beresford pub), a few day's worth of stubble and a New York Jets cap. And of course his eyebrow piercing, arm tattoo ("Im a bit superstitious," he has a tattoo of a scarab beetle for luck and his favourite numbers) and shy demeanor. I place my voice recorder down and he straight away asks if I want the music (Come On Eileen currently playing) turned down and I agree with visions of hours of tape of recorded music instead of speech in my head.
The Young(er) Zumbo
Being quite comfortable in Balmain (Zumbo lives here and has both his shop and cafe here) I first enquire about where and how he grew up. He was brought up in Coonamble, near Dubbo, where his parents owned supermarkets, one having a bakery in which he played around after school. He also remembers fondly the other perks of having supermarket owning parents. "I grew up on junkfood. I ate crumbed chicken, Vegemite (which probably explains why his "Zumbo the Kid" cake has Vegemite in it), peanut butter, hot chips with chicken salt, ham panini and pasta with no sauce, only olive oil. I wouldnt touch sauce, that was yucky and all red with tomatoes."
I am a tad surprised, assuming that he grew up on all sorts of exotic, fanciful French or Italian concoctions but no. "I ate all sorts of Allens lollies, Arnotts Shapes, Ice Vovos, Potato chips. I was eating Top Taste lamingtons because my parents owned supermarkets so every day before school Id get a lift with them to school and Id have to sit around the supermarket for an hour and a half before I went to school so Id fill my school bag up with Top Taste lamingtons. I didnt grow up eating the greatest food but Im glad I did because I know my lollies like the back of my hand."
A young Zumbo feeding everyone cake. Photo from the Zumbo family.
Moving out of Coonamble at age 15, where it was a choice of either playing sport professionally or finding another career path, he chose Sydney and stayed with his sister who was already living there (a Histologist at a Morgue - her job providing inspiration for the syringe dessert "The Younger Years"). His first job was at Dobinson's Cakes, a well known traditional cake and pastry maker of the lamington and madeira cake variety. His first job was icing cupcakes, long before they became a fashion accessory, and he and the other apprentice would compete to see who could ice cupcakes the fastest. He saw cupcakes in 4 different flavours every single day for 6 months and this was where he learnt his basic skills, if not the place that fired his imagination for whatever fanciful creations he experimented with, none would make it to the shop floor.
After a stint at Georges restaurant in Double Bay that he says was "boring, you didnt get to do anything, just put it on a plate and there were people screaming at you that theyd been waiting more than 20 minutes" he then landed at Neil Perry's Wokpool, a place that fired his imagination with its emphasis on fresh ingredients and camaraderie between chefs. "It changed the way I thought. All of the guys were fantastic, so passionate but could still have a joke and it was a good team." Getting out before it closed, he had a brief spell at Aqua Dining, a job that was the one and only time he was fired. "I was working 80 hours a week and just got sick of getting up and having to work at night. We used to start at 7am and end at 1am. We had a break in the afternoon so it was like a split shift but I went out one night and didn't go into work and my boss rang my sisters house to talk to me but I had rung up before and told him I was sick."
He studied in Paris and entered the World Cup of Pastry and whilst was tempted to stay there, realised that jobs at the top flight patissiers such as Pierre Hermé, Sadaharu Aoki, Pierre Marcolini, Jean-Paul Hévin or Gérard Mulot were few and far between. "Eventually you would get in there but it would take a while and then youd have to work for free so youd have to support yourself and its a very expensive city. Im sure you could find a job that pays but it wouldnt be at Pierre Hermé."
After some time at a Cairns resort hotel, being passed up for Senior Chef de Partie when his boss left, and prompted by the lack of creative freedom given to him by his replacement, he said goodbye to the world of repetitively dull mud cakes, meringues and brownies. Supported financially by his parents, he started his own patisserie. The range from the beginning was different to how it looks now. "It was hard, Ive got no background in bread and I had only done pastry so it was a big learning curve and was reading books and book and books". Starting with a couple of tarts, cakes, biscuits, quiches and simpler cakes than the ones we see today, it grew. "It took a while to build it up, the first day we did about ¼ of what we do now on a Saturday."
I ask him whether he finds it hard to reconcile the business side with the artistic side "Yes its hard to do both. I dont like doing the other side, I just do invoicing and pay bills and the rest my sister does the rest. Shes got a friend who helps out. I dont have to worry about entering invoices. I couldnt stand it."
The Seasonal Collections
Each biannual collection of cakes and macarons takes a few weeks to conjure up based on his sketchings and notes collated in a book from the past 6 months. His picks from the current collection are Dr Apple, Charles Du Jour and the UZC, the last one reminding him of corn on the cob. "I got inspired from that one from eating at Tetsuyas, that was the first dish we had. Its a vanilla and saffron gelato with a sweetcorn puree."
As for the whimsically named cakes, I wanted to know more about who chooses the names. "Me. Thats the hardest part. I get lots of requests, usually 'Can you name a cake after me?' but not actual name suggestions. Ive had a few but theyre way off. Long term staff will end up getting one probably. I try to match things up to the person. Like Charles (after whom the Charles Du Jour cake below is named), hes a basic, simple sort of guy, an every day sort of guy. Hes not pretentious, hes a dude in his shorts and a tshirt. So hes vanilla."
Not surprisingly, given his background he is more comfortable with macarons, chocolate and cakes over pastries but what surprises me is that when I ask him which of the three he prefers, he answers "Thats a very hard choice Id probably go chocolate, as much as I love making macarons, you can do more with chocolate. Therell come a day where Ill exhaust every macaron flavour... Ive got a girl, Phoebe, that only does macarons all week, 5 days from 6 in the morning til 3 in the afternoon til she goes. I give her the flavours and tell her what I want. Every season when we change the cakes, we change the macarons but this season Id like to bring in some special edition ones. They wont be up for long, 6 months is a long time to eat the same macarons."
With seasonal collections much like a couture house, is he influenced by fashion? "I used to (be into fashion), when I was young but now I barely buy myself new clothes. Not because I dont want to but because I spend the money on what I do and eating. I like to look through magazines like Vogue if theyre around and I do like looking at the colours in fashion". As for upcoming pastry trends, he cites "Decorations, a lot of colour, bolds, in your face colour. Passionfruit is yellow or blue, its not a pastel pale, it's all very bold."
Working 6 days a week, his factory is operational for 19 out of the 24 hours with most staff starting at 3am and leaving at 2pm or 3pm (later now because of Christmas). "Im there til the end of the day. The business needs to run without me but in the start up phase I have to be there. But I dont want to be there all the time otherwise Ill burn out." It's also one of those things that also helps him stay fit when I ask him why he isn't fat. "It's a long day, Im not as skinny as I used to be. I used to be skinny. I dont eat a whole cake, I try it, Ill cut it up and everyone gets a piece."
And what of any spare time if he has it? "I have a little bit of spare time. If I get any time I tend to read pastry books." I laugh and say "Youre hopeless" and he concurs "Yeah Im hopeless, I pull all the books out and read them. Next to my bed is a stack of books. When I sleep by myself theres books all over the bed. I love to eat, I love eating out." One of his most memorable meals was for his recent November 6th birthday at Tetsuya's which he describes as "Flawless, unbelievable... they knew who I was and I got a free bottle of champagne on arrival courtesy of Mr Tetsuya". He's chuffed over the three complimentary dishes, a roast duck dish on the savoury side and then a complimentary dessert and a cake. "They found out it was my birthday two dishes before they brought it out and they organised something for me."
Eating out, he likes Japanese as "Its light, easy and good flavours. Samurai here is good. I love Wafu (Surry Hills), thats one of my favourites and Raw Bar (Bondi). Its really fresh, I love sashimi, tuna tataki, spicy wakame seaweeed salad. I eat so much of it." And as for a Death Row Meal, I ask him "If you were going to die tomorrow and you could have anything that you wanted to eat what would you eat?" and after some considered thought he answers "I dont know maybe macarons. Either that or seaweed salad. Id definitely take some of that with me. Thats one of the most enjoyable meals for me. Spicy seaweed salad for sure". And what flavour macaron? "It would have to be...it depends on the collection. Its hard, it changes. I think Id take an assorted bag, a box of 20."
With the business taking so much time and energy, travel is a luxury for Zumbo. This year he's tossing up between Tahiti and Japan, two vastly different types of holidays and at the moment he is in France. "Tahiti will be more of a holiday. I wouldnt be able to relax in Japan... Ive been to Tokyo for a stopover and I had 12 hours and caught the train in and looked around and it was the hardest thing. I couldnt use an auto teller and I couldnt find a garbage bin. And the ATMs would all talk to you and everyone sleeps on the train but theyre not asleep. The carriage was full and all of a sudden theyre awake when it stops and then all of the sudden theyre asleep again. If they werent doing that they were playing on their phones."
We discuss how good the Japanese pastry chefs are nowadays (Sadaharu Aoki being one of the most well known). "Skillwise the Japanese are Number 1. They all train in Paris and then come home. You should see the world championships of pastry, its unbelievable the Japanese stuff. Cake wise Id stay with France in terms of texture and taste but I think Japanese do great stuff with pastries, jelly and mousses. When I go to Pierre Hermé I go to the Jardins de Luxembourg and I annihilate it. I take my photos and just annihilate it."
And to ask the question that everyone wants to know, yes ladies, the man is single. That doesn't mean he hasn't gotten his share of attention in the past. "Some of the girls are pretty upfront sometimes. What they say about cakes and things and what it makes them do" with one amorous fan declaring to him "Your passionfruit tarts, they make me cream in my pants. "Its crazy," he says shaking his head but still chuckling at the memory.
However, this is also the man that created the infamous Cameltoe chocolate. "Yeah its one of those things you just look at it and you see it. I dont know Ive got a bit of a sexual mind, I just always have. Im a Scorpio and I always joke around, not in a harassing way but I make jokes about it. It was just sitting in front of me." "Its a common mould isnt it (as in, not a adult shop mould)?" I ask him. "Yeah and I stuck it together and then Ohhhh the first thing that came into my head was that and they were like Naaww you cant! and Im like Well you know . By now my mind is reeling at the thought so I say "If you do a Cametoe cake, now that would be interesting" and he ponders it for a second "Haha that would be I dont think I could get away with that "
So for Zumbo, is it Ginger or Maryann? Girl next door or glamourpuss? "Girl next door I think is much more fun. I love glamour girls but depends if they werent just for show. I like someone whos a bit more fun and down to earth. Taste wise Id go with a glamour girl but with the personality of the girl next door. I like people that are passionate that you can bounce things off and get what you do."
Current and future plans
Right now he is the country boy made good with appearances in "The Land" newspaper and WIN TV knocking on his door, writeups in all of the major food publications, as well as the legions of food bloggers that adore his whimsically delicious cakes, macarons and chocolates. I ask him what he thinks of food bloggers. "I love bloggers. Ive got a lot of respect of respect for bloggers" he says firmly. But, I ask, are we ever a nuisance (thinking back to only a few weeks ago where we took over the better part of his cafe)? "No, never. I read a lot of blogs when I was looking for Pierre Hermés stuff before he had his website. Id get all these American bloggers that would go there. Bloggers make it better for the industry. Too many people are scared of taking photos and people copying them but I can go into the shop and take a photo in my head. If someone does copy it if there's a photo taken of it, its more obvious that its been copied. Everything comes from somewhere. There are only people like Ferran Adria and that who are actually creating new techniques who are 6 months a year experimenting in a lab which (he pauses) Id love to get into eventually."
He did recently see Ferran Adria on his Australian visit and marvels at the mind of the famous Catalonian visionary and proponent of molecular gastronomy and was particularly taken with his "Nature" series in which Adria, who got the idea while flying over Australia, made a silicon mould from a real strawberry which looks just like a real strawberry and fills it up with sorbet.
I ask him who he admires, either in the world of food or just life in general. After a little pause he says "Pierre Hermé" which is not surprising as many of us see him as the Australian version of Pierre Hermé. Has he ever met the famous French purveyor of macarons? Excitedly he says "No but hes been in my shop! I didnt know that. Not long after I opened he did the consulting for Lindt for the chocolate cafes. The girl that was on that day said that they (Hermé and his people) filled up the shop and bought one of everything. Someone that worked for him left their card on the counter and I was like Oh god no way!. I was talking to my mate from Lindt and he said 'No_ he's_ been in your shop, him and his team, nine of them.' The verdict from Hermé himself? "My mate said 'He said that you were the only decent place in Sydney'... Its quite a good feeling, just quietly inside yourself." And in a full circle moment, Zumbo recently received a CV from someone in Hermé's kitchen overseas asking him for employment.
And for who else he admires in the cooking arena? "I also like Heston Blumenthal. I like what he does, he get the flavours and changes them and gives them different textures to what youre used to."
As for people like sporting figures, "I like the achievement side of it, when they achieve their dreams. Its hard to watch the Olympics because I start crying. Especially when these guys win these gold medals. You can see what theyve gone through, theyve set their goals. I admire sports stars for that."
And of the future? "I want to be creating, classes, school, a book, tv sort of at the back (although thats not at the forefront), and start a club with pastry chefs just to establish a better culture in the industry. We could do demos for each other and see how we can improve the industry as its a growing industry. Id like to (go International) but only if its needed. If its called upon Ill do it. I dont want to jump into something Im not meant for."
Lastly, I ask him what are his immediate ideas and he answers "I want to do a water cake with water mousse and water." I'm puzzled so I ask "What would it taste like?" and he answers with a smile "Just like water, like drinking a glass of water."
Adriano Zumbo Café Chocolat
308 Darling St, Balmain (inside Balmain Mall)
Open 7 days from 7am-6pm
Adriano Zumbo Patissier
296 Darling St, Balmain
Open 7 days
Current collection above available from Saturday 22nd of November 2008 to Friday 22nd of May, 2009.