MiNDFOOD sits down exclusively with chef Nicola Coccia, of Bistro Officina to discuss his new book, ‘Farm to Flame’.
By Carla Grossetti
You have cooked your way around Europe and Sydney to Quay, Ormeggio, QT and Biota Dining. How does it feel being the headline act? It’s nice, but to be honest I’m a bit tired. This weekend is the first weekend I have been away with my kids. They haven’t seen me for three years. The restaurant is always busy but since the book came out, we’ve had even more reservations.
How has the book, Farm to Flame – Cooking without Rules in the Bistro Officina Kitchen, been received? We have people coming in and asking if we can cook the recipe on page eight, 10 or 20. I don’t follow recipes in the kitchen and they are using the book as if it’s a menu [laughs]. If they give me notice and it is a group booking of 10 or more, I try and accommodate them.
Your menu is always changing as you say you never cook the same thing twice. Why not? It’s because you look like a machine. When you cook the same thing every time you don’t cook with love. You don’t buy someone the same present every day. It’s the same with food.
Your children are nine, four and one. Are they good eaters? They are very good eaters. They are not fussy. I just leave the food in front of them and they eat what we eat. I cook for them exactly the same as what we eat.
You have received one hat in the Good Food Guide two years running. What is your philosophy around wine, food and service? All my staff are really well trained. They know the regulars and know what they like to order to drink and have it to them soon after they are sitting down. Most of my regular customers know the staff and our customers believe in us. It feels like family.
Why did you settle in the Southern Highlands? I was tired from living in the city. Always I say, I do this job for passion and for love and the passion and love never stayed in the same spot in Sydney. We came for the weekend and we stopped in Bowral and now we’ve been here five or six years. I’m from Naples, which is near to the coast, but the Southern Highlands looks like Puglia, where my father comes from, with hills and farms, so I felt more at home.
How do you want Bistro Officina to be remembered? I would love to think it’s the kind of place where a farmer can come in and sit at the bar with dirt on his hands and order something to eat. I want the farmer to sit beside the person who has gone out and bought a new dress for the occasion. I want it to be real and for people to feel comfortable.
How is the current season of summer celebrated on the menu? I always cook whatever is good at the time. At the moment, the eggplant and friggitello is going really well. What is good on the farm will be on the menu. This week we will have rocket, garlic, rainbow chard, French carrots, beetroot and three types of cucumbers, red and green chicory and these beautiful red onions from the south of Italy.
What’s your No. 1 bit of food advice for the readers of Farm to Flame? You don’t need to push the food. Keep it simple. Give me a piece of bread with cheese and I will be the happiest person in the world.
What Christmas dish from your childhood best evokes this special day? On Christmas Day we have zuppa de nonnas, which is in the book. We also do a whole Redleaf Farm suckling pig roasted over the fire and vegetables followed by lobster, oysters, and a marinated seafood grill.
What’s the most amazing meal you’ve eaten this year? My dining highlight was pizza at Pizza Bombini on the Central Coast. It’s one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had. The chef is Australian [chef Cameron Cansdell] and it’s a restaurant on the Central Coast, which is a long way from Naples. I went on a Wednesday with my kids and we were so impressed we went back three days in a row. The pizza had a cucumber spritz. We ate it three nights in a row with prosciutto, rocket and buffalo mozzarella.
We’re coming to Bistro Officina. What can’t we leave without trying? The bread and the butter –100 per cent. And the veal gnocchi. I can’t ever take it off the menu: my customers would kill me. The tiramisu is also amazing.
There’s a quote in the book: “When you cook, you should always be thinking of someone otherwise you’re just preparing a meal. Name three dishes you love to cook and who you think of when you cook them (and why).” Most of the time I’m thinking about my family. It changes all the time. When I cook pasta I think about my wife because when I met her I was cooking pasta at Otto and someone told her it was the best pasta they’d ever had. That’s how we met.
What are the Italian food traditions you want to preserve for your own children? Since the grandparents died, there’s been a bit of a split in the family. Usually, we’d have 14 or 15 people on one table. But it’s been a bit split since my grandmother passed away. This is unfortunate.
What are you most proud of with your Italian heritage? I’m most proud of the love. Love for what I do and respect for others. My grandmother taught me is if you don’t love something, just don’t do it. Never do something just to please someone else.
Guilty food secret? I don’t have one. I think what people might find most surprising is that I’m happy with a cherry tomato and a piece of bread. I like to keep things simple.
Farm to Flame – Cooking without Rules in the Bistro Officina Kitchen. Published by Quicksand Food, RRP $59.95.