Chef Massimo Mele discovers Tasmanian produce ahead of new restaurant opening

After working on the mainland and overseas, renowned chef Massimo Mele has returned to his home state of Tasmania.

He will take up the role of food director for the soon-to-be opened Grain Restaurant at Peppers’ Silo Hotel.

Mele said he finds it important to build up a good relationship between restaurants and producers.

In an effort to begin fostering such a relationship between hotel staff and Northern Tasmanian producers, Mele took head chef Peter Twitchett, restaurant manager Jesse Train, owner Errol Stewart, and general manager Shannon Exelby on a trip to meet the faces behind the farms.

“I feel I’ve reached a point in my career where I’ve come back to Tassie, and it’s almost like going back to basics,” Mele said.

“I mean, 15 years ago when I opened Mudbar in Launceston, I would never have asked where the beef was from, or what kind of potatoes we were using.

“But, 15 years on, I’m asking the question, and more than that, the consumers are asking the question.

“So, we need to be educated. I like to be more educated in where our food comes from and how much work goes into that.

“Sometimes when you’re running restaurants you’re so focused on business and squeezing so many people around you because you’re trying to get your bottom line, but something I realised [on the farm tour] was that so much hard work goes into it.

“I think we need to find a way to work together to find a way to make sure everyone gets something out of it.”

Mele said he was impressed by the work and skill that goes into growing produce.

“A lot of hard work goes into it. They’re making the cheese, they’re up at 3am milking the cows, making the beer, growing the hops,” he said.

“It’s a real labour of love.

“[The producers] have all got their own different stories before they got to that point.

“For some it’s a real hobby, and they turn it into a business.

“Some people just really enjoy growing pigs on a farm, and from that Oliver [Stocker] went and built some smokers and now he smokes his own pork.”

Mele said Mr Stocker learned how to make English-style bacon in Suffolk, and co-owner of Langdale Farm at Glengarry.

“And, people like John Healey from Pyengana Dairy. He’s a fourth-generation cheesemaker.”

The Healey family has been making traditional clothbound cheddar for more than 130 years in heritage vats.

“I think for me, personally, coming back to Tassie, it’s almost like I’m in a great position to give these people credit where credit is due.”

Mele said that as he’s become known through his cooking and through the media, he’s grateful to be able to show the hard work of producers to the world.

“I’m lucky to have a voice so it’s a real feel good situation for me, it’s really nice to be able to do that.”

Tasmanian produce is “pure”, Mele says.

“Everywhere has great produce, but I think the great thing about us is that we’re on an island,” he said.

“So, it’s kind of like it’s untouched still. 

“It’s just wild, it’s just the wilderness.

“I wouldn’t say that Tasmania produce is better … it’s not as accessible, because we do have that big chunk of ocean between us.

“I have that kind of Italian background where if you go to my mother’s house you’ll see tomatoes, you’ll see beans, you’ll see eggplant. 

“She cooks with the seasons, and I think in Tassie, we do that as well.

“We don’t have tomatoes in summertime, but we have other really delicious produce instead.”

Mele said the farm trip was beneficial for both the farmers and the hotel and restaurant team.

“We had a real mixture of small farms and slightly larger ones, so I think we got a really good insight into how both sides of the tracks work,” Mele said.

“I think the best part of the tour was not only the farms and the producers, but it was also a great team building exercises as well.

“Three of them are basically new to the state. “So what a great way to start the job, with a food and wine tour of Tasmania.”

As part of his role as food director, Mele said it was his job to connect the team with Tasmania’s farming community.

The farmers “really embraced it”, he said.

“It took a lot of organising, but I knew [the producers] all personally,” Mele said.

“I met most of those guys on my last tour of Tasmania. My job was really to introduce them to our team.”

Mele and the team visited Seven Sheds Brewery at Railton, Shima Wasabi and Ghost Rock Vineyard at Northdown, Robur Farm Dairy and Nichols Chicken at Sassafras on day one of the farm tour.

On day two, they visited Langdale Farm at Glengarry and Pyengana Dairy at Pyengana.

Mele said there was a lot more that went into picking producers than people may think.

“It’s not as easy as just saying, yep, we’re going to order this from you It’s about understanding how we can all work together to achieve the best results for all parties.”

He said the team enjoyed their time getting to know where their food came from.

“I think it was a success. Even the owner, Errol [Stewart], was in the cheese farms, he was milking goats, he was really getting into it. 

“I made sure everyone was getting their hands dirty.”

Mele said it was also great getting out and seeing so much of the state.

“We did a big chunk of the state in a small amount of time,” he said.

“Ghost Rock Vineyard was a real highlight. We sat there, had lunch, and got some insight into the history of the silos from Errol [Stewart].

“We learned about when it was built, what they were used for, the industry it was designed for.

“We learned all of these things that are really hard to Google.

“So we drank some nice wine and really captured those moments.”

Grain Restaurant is expected to open alongside Peppers Silo Hotel in late May.