The “celebrity chef” who calls Mildura home now shares the prestigious title with the likes of Neil Perry and Philippe Mouchel.
Stefano originally pursued a career in politics and the public service, although he had always had a passion for food.
This passion was so strong, that it eventually led the enterprising Italian to reinvent himself in Mildura, becoming the face of Sunraysia with his restaurant Stefano’s Cantina and his television series A Gondola on the Murray.
The show was a celebration of the region’s produce and introduced the “zero-kilometre” concept which promotes local goods derived straight from the producer.
Born in Treviso and having migrated to Australia in 1974, Stefano attended Sydney Road Community School in Brunswick and went on to study at Melbourne University, where he graduated in politics and Italian.
The chef was destined for a life in politics, which began with him editing Nuovo Paese, an Italian fortnightly newspaper affiliated with the old Italian Communist Party (PCI), and taking on a number of roles within the Labor party.
However, his love of cooking led him to undertake some training in a professional environment, working in a restaurant run by a group of people which could today be considered “illuminated hipsters”.
He then moved into the Victorian Public Service, with roles such as private secretary to former minister Peter Spyker and advisor to a number of ethnic affairs ministers.
I’ve known Stefano since 1981, when we met at the office of Nuovo Paese.
For a good two decades after our first meeting, until he moved to Mildura, we saw each other often.
One night, we had him and Donata Carrazza (who would become his wife shortly after) over for dinner at our house.
When they left, I said to my wife: “I can’t imagine Stefano in Mildura.”
Many of our mutual friends saw him as the “lord of the manor”, with his hat, tweed jacket and galoshes, but I still thought that for a city boy born in Treviso and raised in Melbourne, Mildura would be a little “tight”.
I was wrong.
Maybe Melbourne was too big for Stefano and he was seeking a closer connection between producer and consumer like the one he left behind in Veneto.
Shortly after moving to Mildura, Stefano opened his restaurant in the town’s historic Grand Hotel.
It wasn’t long before Stefano’s Cantina received its first hats from The Age Good Food Guide, along with myriad other awards, including one for his hit television series.
In A Gondola on the Murray, Stefano travelled around the Sunraysia district on an old bike, introducing us to the local people, tasting their food and wine, and using the finest produce of the region in mouth-watering dishes.
Stefano’s ideal place for his perfect restaurant, showcasing local seasonal produce, has always been Mildura.
“It’s not easy to find an underground venue with a history and which is woven into the fabric of the town’s society and agriculture,” he says.
“You could find an underground venue in Melbourne, but it wouldn’t be a part of the regional context, where the product is often the main feature.”
Since the restaurant opened its doors to diners, its tables have been adorned with salt from the Murray River, freshly baked sourdough bread, locally-produced oil and water collected from the farming of carrots and tomatoes, which is then filtered in a special process and bottled.
“When you sit down you have four fundamental elements in front of you,” Stefano says.
“Now I’m making bespoke wines as well.”
Stefano entrusts the production of his wine to Bart, a local winemaker.
“The grapes are handpicked and Bart only produces a small amount of wine,” Stefano explains.
“We have Fiano, Greco, Ribolla and Sangiovese... a large variety of small amounts of unique wines.”
As a pioneer of the Sunraysia district, Stefano has spearheaded a bustling hospitality industry in the area: in Mildura alone, there are endless pizzerie and around 55 cafes.
While Stefano’s new title will surely mean good things for his already thriving business, it most importantly recognises his valuable contribution in celebrating local produce and where it comes from.