“Loaf is all you knead!”. A smiley-face pun, which Head Chef Federico Carnevale claims he’s well-known for quoting.
Federico, who heads up a small team at the Attria wine bar restaurant in Richmond, Melbourne, has been baking bread “for a very long time”. And travelled around the world, exploring different food cultures and ingredients. But growing up in Italy, his relationship with food was not always so positive.
“I was born in Rome and grew up in a small countryside cottage. My journey as a chef only began when I was 21. However, it completely changed my entire outlook. When I was much younger, the connection I felt with food was not always good. I was overweight from eating snacks and unhealthy food. Bad eating habits were my ‘friend’ for long time. It wasn’t until I become a teenager, I decided to approach food in a different way”.
Time-honoured Italian ‘cooking ‘bibles’
Federico’s journey started modestly – as a kitchen hand in a small restaurant in his local area. At the same time, the aspiring chef attended cooking school. “I was also busy studying at home the time-honoured Italian ‘cooking ‘bibles’, says Federico, such as ‘Il Talismano Della Felicita’ (Talisman of Happiness), ‘Cucchiaio D’argento’ (The Silver Spoon), ‘Larousse Gastronomique’ (Encyclopaedia of Gastronomy), etc”.
After formal school education was completed, Federico began his chef’s apprenticeship in a prestigious restaurant in Rome. Two years later, he gained the position as senior chef de partie.
Great new learning experience for me
Just like many a young chef at this early stage in their career, Federico decided it was time to explore culinary pastures new. He packed his chef’s whites and headed down under… to Sydney, Australia. “My first kitchen was at Baccomatto Osteria”– a one-hatted, upmarket Italian cuisine & cocktails venue in the heart of Surry Hills.
“I worked under the guidance of Head chef, Valerio Boncompagni, known for his signature Roman ragu mixed with rice and mozzarella. He introduced me to Italian-Australian culture and cuisine, which is far removed from the pure Italian cooking I had always known. It was great new learning experience for me”.
Nevertheless, a young chef is often restless to be on the move from kitchen to kitchen, and exploring the world of cooking. So it was for Federico, too.
“After a few months I moved to Melbourne where I worked in a variety of venues, from breakfast eateries to bistros and fine dining. I was hungry to expand my knowledge of Australian culinary culture as much as possible – and achieve the position of head chef!”
Great mentors and travelling the world
Federico has already mentioned the importance of a first mentor in his young chef’s journey. There would be more. And just like the many chefs we interview at Life on The Pass, a good and positive influence can open up a whole new world of cooking possibilities.
“Along the way I was lucky enough to work with some great mentors”, say Federico. “I have to mention “Francois Bouvier (Cosi Restaurant, South Yarra Melbourne), Noah Crowcroft (Red Spice Road & Rice Paper Scissors, Melbourne), Telina Menzies (Australian Venue Co.) and Hayden McMillan (Neptune, Melbourne)”.
Federico was not always working in Melbourne throughout this period. “For some 12 years, I also did a lot of travelling outside of Australia, so I could learn and explore different food cultures and ingredients.
I was fortunate in that I was able to sample so many wide-ranging traditional cooking methods and techniques – from Africa to Norway! They have heavily influenced my understanding and knowledge of cooking ever since”.
Which naturally brings us to Federico’s own cooking philosophy today.
Aroma of bread just out of the oven gives me mental calmness
We discover that his early boyhood struggles with food, and even a period of suffering anorexia early in his career, were key to first helping him form a positive attitude. “Slowly I started to develop an equilibrium between my work, my life and my relationship with food”, says Federico. It would hold him in good stead when managing the stress and pressures of life on the pass, which we discuss later in this interview.
Federico is keen to share his “long time, real deep love of baking bread and “constantly researching and experimenting with new combinations of flavours”. His ‘loaf is all you knead’ pun mentioned earlier, is no coincidence. “In the bread, there is a magic that I cannot describe, says Federico, but that aroma – when it just comes out of the oven – it gives me mental calmness”.
Naturally, it’s no coincidence that Federico’s cooking approach is “is mostly European with Italian-French techniques combined with influences from around the world. One of my favourite sauces is a “salsa Verde” that I learned during one of my travels in Africa”.
I try to develop good, friendly relationships with all my suppliers
At the same time, and like nearly all of the chefs we interview, the big focus is on sourcing local ingredients wherever possible. Federico says he tries to “include what Australian small producers can offer in combination with particular products imported from all over the world”. It’s a way of cooking that Federico particularly loves since the Attria Wine Bar & Restaurant became “home” some two years ago.
“I try to develop good, friendly relationships with all my suppliers, and we talk daily to have updates on what is available on the market. One of our dearest friends are “Toolunka Estate”, South Australia, where I source premium olives, and I also work in close relationship with suppliers of small foraged items. Our bread and baking are produced daily using small suppliers for flour, and using my levain sourdough starter – Levito Madre – which is 92 years old”.
I let the ingredients drive my creativity
Federico says he was first attracted by a “simple, clean concept of cooking” at a time when it was not really yet popular for the industry. My menu at Attria is mainly seasonal where I let the ingredients drive my creativity. I like to challenge myself studying, testing and tasting ingredients not often used, and create new combinations of flavours.”
“I like to let the ingredients express themselves without too much manipulation, especially the vegetables”, adding, “at the same time I love techniques like slow infusion and pickling to develop new combinations of flavours or maximising the original flavours of the ingredients, themselves. I’m a huge fan of vinegars, and I love to infuse them with different flowers and native herbs. I’m also a fan of peppercorns and mustards. In one of my current dishes, I use a Cubeb pepper from Afghanistan or handmade tarragon mustard for our main course”.
Working together for a goal, and encouraging open dialogue
Federico agrees that life on the pass, and managing mental wellbeing in a high pressure environment is most important.
“Working in a kitchen and finding ‘simple ways’ to cope may not always be so easy. My work ethic is really strong but I try to have my team working max 42 hrs per week with daily breaks so they can release the pressure.
I try to create connections that we all develop between staff for working together for a goal, and encourage open dialogue and honest confrontation.
During the epidemic, we all worked all together as a team to survive the multiple lockdowns and let the business grew up in a tough period. I also involve my team in the creative process of menu development with special dishes to let them express themselves too.
I’m the first one to remember my hunger for developing myself and showing my idea of cuisine when I was a chef de partie or sous chef. So I believe it’s only right to let my team express their ideas”.
Even away from the pass, loves to cook and bake
Away from the challenges of the kitchen, Federico says he, “loves going off-road” with his mountain bike, or “a drive in the country combined with picnic or wine tasting”. I love contemporary art too, so I attend a lot of events and exhibitions”. Typically, even away from the pass, Federico also loves to cook and bake at home – a lot!
“Usually one of my weekly days off starts at the market where I meet my suppliers, buy some ingredients and play around with them at home – in a relaxing environment for a change – with some good rock playing in the background”.
Federico also maintains his lifelong passion for travelling. “Every 18-24 months, I try to take some time off from the kitchen to travel around the world to continue my journey of discovery”.
Don’t be in a rush to reach the top of the mountain
Which neatly brings us to the advice Federico would offer young chefs at the start of their journey of discovery.
According to the well travelled Federico, “Don’t be in a rush to reach the top of the mountain – enjoy the journey and try to collect as much experience as possible. Early on in my career, a wise chef once told me ‘this is not a sprint, it’s a marathon’. Yes – the hunger to learn and develop is really important, but also we need to learn our limits and accept them”.
Many a chef we interview endlessly praise all the wise chefs and work colleagues that are so important in supporting their career. Federico pays tribute to “all my mentors that made me grow as a chef, and a person, to make me become the person I am today.
Last but not least, of course, I would like to say a massive thank you to all my colleagues that work with me everyday at work – and Paul Butera, owner of Attria, for his endless help and support in the last 2 years in supporting our growth and development”.