What I've Learnt: from pizza to sushi to pickles, six experts tell us what they know

Jane Willson
25 February, 2015

Johnny Di Francesco, Matthew Bax, Shaun Presland, Richard Thomas, Tammi Jonas and Benjamin Cooper package some of their best advice in a nutshell.

Johnny DeFrancesco

Johnny Di Francesco, pizzaiolo, chef, restaurateur 400 Gradi, Melbourne

Johnny says he is the first Australian trained in Naples to the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana VPN rules. He likes to think of himself as Melbourne’s Mr Pizza.

The art of good pizza relies on …


Spend time making your dough just right. Don't add too much yeast and make sure it springs back to the touch. I'd also recommend using a quality Italian “OO” flour for the best results.


Less is more – instead of adding too many toppings and too much cheese, use the right amount of [quality] ingredients.

Thin bases

Go easy on the crust. Traditional pizza crusts are thin and light, not thick and stuffed with cheese. If you want an authentic experience, this is how you should be prepping your bases.

Matthew Bax 

Matthew Bax, bar owner, mixologist

Matthew created a name for himself – and Melbourne cocktails – when he opened Der Raum in Melbourne's Richmond in 2001.  After a few years in Munich (where Der Raum traded as Gamsei), he returned last year to open Bar Exuberante, a cocktail bar inside Bar Economico (also in Richmond).


What to order and where. So: beer in pubs and at the footy, wine in wine bars (Cumulus UpGeralds Bar / The Town Mouse – if you’re in Melbourne, that is), cocktails in cocktail bars (The Everleigh, The Beaufort, Bar Americano-Bar Exuberante-Bar Economico).

Drink matching: Beer goes with footy. Wine with cheese. Cocktails with pretty company.

Drink philosophy: Drink less, drink better.


Cocktails: How to Mix Them (Robert Vermeire); Recipes for Mixed Drinks (Hugo Ensslins); Artistry of Mixing Drinks (Frank Meiers – we sell it at Bar Americano :).


An Americano from Bar Americano, a Mojito from Bar Economico and an Airmail from Bar Exuberante. If that's too much of a Bax overload, head north to The Everleigh [Fitzroy] or The Beauforte [Carlton].

For the super fussy – or lazy (take your pick) – one of our take-home bottled cocktails. Bar Americano is launching its bottled Negroni and Americano during the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.

Get online and splurge at Cocktail Kingdom (the secret cave of all the fancy bar tools we use at Bar Americano).

Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas, master cheesemaker

Across more than three decades, Richard, a one-time dairy scientist, has built a reputation as one of Australia’s best regarded artisan cheesemakers. The renowned Gippsland Blue was but one of his early achievements.

Myth buster No.1: Milk more than 48 hours old, is no longer milk.

Many changes take place in milk over two days, including fat breaking down to fatty acids causing rancidity, proteins are denatured to make bitter flavours, bacteria of undesirable kinds multiply in massive numbers, often causing putrid flavours and odours.

Myth buster No. 2: There is no lactose in naturally made cheese.

That’s right, NO lactose. If a cheese or yoghurt is allowed to ferment naturally, the lactose will be converted to lactic acid by the starter bacteria. Cheeses such as Brie or Camembert (called stabilised) that are sold in delis or supermarkets have residual lactose. Traditional cheeses, however – such as Grana, Parmigiano, Roquefort, most natural cheddars, Gruyere, Pecorino etc – contain little or no lactose and are therefore easily digested.

Myth buster No. 3: Cheese is a health food and natural cheese is not fattening.

It is, however, mighty nutritious and a great source of fatty acids for brain function and energy. Amino acids are muscle-building blocks. The bacteria in these natural cheeses also aid in the digestion of other foods. But I stress that this applies only to natural cheese. Other foods that are produced by fermentation such as sauerkraut, olives, anchovies, salami and wine are likewise health foods.

Benjamin Cooper, executive chef for the Lucas Group’s Chin Chin and Kong

Benjamin has embraced fermenting in his work at Kong (in Melbourne’s Richmond), a home to Korean and Japanese-style cuisine. He says fermenting is a massive part of those two cultures.

An aspiring fermenter's checklist

First of all, know that it’s something that you enjoy. Sure, there are health benefits and sure, it’s a cool thing right now. But more than that, it’s bloody delicious. Assuming we’re agreed on that, you need to decide what type of pickling or fermentation you want to explore. European? Asian? South American? It’s not all the same.

Are you pickling vegetables, fruits or meats? Once these decisions are made, move on to the basics: what to pickle in? [i.e. what vessel are you going to store the pickle in?]; what vinegar to use? [if pickling] and if fermenting, what salt and sugar you will use?; what spices to add?; what are any danger signs that it may have gone wrong?; how should you store the pickle?; how long will it last?


I was fortunate enough to do Sandor Katz's masterclass on fermentation last year. It was an amazing weekend, packed with insights and tips. Luckily, if you missed it, his book The Art of Fermentation is the bible on the subject. His first book, Wild Fermentation, is worth a read, too.

Others include: The Preservation Kitchen (Paul Levant); Smoke and Pickles (Edward Lee); Preserving, the Italian Way (Pietro Demaio); Salt Sugar Smoke (Diana Henry); The Kimchi Chronicles (in fact, all good Korean books will have a section on pickling and fermentation); Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art.

The toolkit

Buy quality base ingredients [vinegar, salt and sugar]. The pickle will only taste as good as the base allows.

Get yourself some great storage vessels. Pickling not only tastes great, but it looks good, too. If you have somewhere cool to store it, it can be a fun conversation point.

Pickle in season for out. So buy a case of peaches and put them down for winter, buy foods that are great now and preserve them for the time of year when they are not. Plant a garden and grow your own veg, if you are lucky a bumper crop will ensue and you will have enough to eat now as well as preserve some for later.

Do your research and then go crazy - you may invest in a vegetable shredder, or some amazing earthenware jars or a pickle press. Seriously, once you start, the world is your oyster (smoked and pickled, of course).

Sean Presland

Shaun Presland, executive chef Sake Restaurant & Bar, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney

Sean has more than 20 years experience in Japanese cuisine, seven of them dedicated exclusively to sushi. He thinks of sushi as the ultimate fusion of land and sea.

Rice matters

Rice has been the foundation of sushi since 300BC and it’s super important to use a short-grain rice.  Sunrise, grown in Australia, do a “Koshihikari” Japanese-style rice that is delicious and affordable – a plump, short grain will absorb more water in nature, and this corresponds to how much flavour (seasoning) is absorbed after it’s cooked.

It’s so important to wash rice before cooking to rid the grains of dust, dirt and little creature doo-doo – polish the rice surfaces by scrubbing the grains against each other gently in water and then rinse – do this three times, then let the rice rest in a sieve.

Fresh fish, raw fish

The Japanese believe that if a fish is fresh enough to be eaten raw, then it should be.  Stick to marine life that has come from salt water as this will greatly reduce the chance of parasites being in your catch and ending up in your tummy.

Fresh fish have clear eyes, firm skin (not slimy), bright red gills, and are definitely not smelly.  If you can tick these boxes, handle your fish with kid gloves and respect.  Their flesh and bodies have come from a zero gravity environment and if thrown around or dropped, the flesh with split and break – not cool when slicing.

Step away from the fridge

Once you’ve decided to make sushi at home, be prepared to devote a day to it.  The dry stores can be bought well in advance – rice, soy, ginger and vinegar (a nice mayonnaise and chilli sauce for rolls) and seafood is best bought on the day you use it.

Once the rice is made, the fish has been prepared, garnishes and vegetables cut, plates and soy dishes found and washed.  Only then can you start making sushi as it is best served as freshly made as possible. Never, ever put it in the fridge because the rice will harden. And taste terrible.

Tammi Jonas

Tammi Jonas, pig farmer, meatsmith

Tammi, along with husband Stuart and their three children, farms Large Black pigs and a small herd of Lowline cattle on their property at Eganstown just outside Daylesford. Tammi does all the farm’s butchering in a converted, refrigerated shipping container. She lives her hero US farmer Joel Salatin’s philosophy that animals should only have one bad day. And she’s a former vegetarian who wants more people to eat meat mindfully.

Understand what you’re eating

When you understand the muscles of four-legged animals – textured, strong muscle meat mostly in the shoulder, tender primes through the loin and tenderloin in the middle, and medium tender/medium flavour in the arse – you can cook any cut properly. Learn where the cuts come from and cook accordingly!

Taste the difference

The nitrites used in bacon and ham are primarily colour preservatives as these are very safe cured meats, but they're often described as what provides “the distinctive flavour of bacon and ham”. Personally, I prefer the distinctive flavour of ethically-raised meat.

Crack the code

Once you crack the code of curing (salt and time), you can cure anything.

Learn more in hour-long Essentials sessions (some are sold out) as part of the upcoming Melbourne Food and Wine Festival


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