Beppi Polese, 81

Beppi Polese, seated, with Norma: “You must live the game.”

Beppi Polese, seated, with Norma: “You must live the game.”

Owner, Beppi’s and Mezzaluna, Sydney, and named a Lifetime Achiever by R&CA in 2006.

“Trying to modernise Italian food is impossible because Italian food is founded on regional food and every region has its own dishes. People cooked the things they’d grown themselves. You can’t cook what you can’t grow.

“Why has this place been such a success? It has to do with being born in the game, being dedicated and loving it. You learn because you pick things up in life. When I worked in Milan and Florence, we’d play cards and drink lambrusco after service, and the arguments between chefs and waiters would only be about food. Then we’d do the same thing at home, always talking about food. You live the game.

“Three or four times in the past business has slowed down. They go away for two or three months. But they always come back. We forget one important thing. The way human beings are made. When you eat something it’s a sensation for the palate, you must taste it. Flavour is the thing. That’s what it’s all about. And that’s why they keep coming back.

“At night, sometimes I can’t sleep, and I think about my past—my village, the life we had—it’s impossible to realise the hard times. I was 10 years old before my mother could buy me a second-hand pair of shoes. But we accepted our situation. We didn’t know any better, and hadn’t been anywhere different.

“Today, if you go into business you already know what’s happening, how much you spend, and you have a plan. Then, in Sydney in 1956, I had no idea. I saw an advertisement saying a café was for sale, so I borrowed some money from my flatmate and some from a moneylender. I was just hoping to make enough to cover my instalments on the loan. I was prepared to work to survive.

“Norma and I would go out in a rubber dinghy to pick mussels. You have to pick the mussels on the low tide because when the tide is high, the surface of the water is always a bit dirty and the mussels absorb this. So no matter what time the low tide was—it could be two in the morning—we would go and collect mussels, first from the Spit Bridge, and then, when they pulled it down to build a new one, from under the pier at Luna Park.

“The Wine and Food Society people would come every Friday and say to me, ‘Cook what you want’. There were painters who came with them, like William Dobell and Sidney Nolan. At the time I wasn’t interested in painting—I was interested in money to pay my debts. Once, Russell Drysdale drew a cheque for £150 on a napkin—I said sorry I can’t accept that, I need cash to pay off my loan. If only I’d known, I could have sold that cheque.

“The profit in a restaurant starts in the kitchen. It has to. Italian food is the cuisine of opportunity, born out of poverty. The people working the land kept only the worst and cheapest parts of the food they grew and raised. They either sold the best or kept it for festivals. They had no choice but to produce food with flavour using the worst ingredients, that’s what happened.

“A waiter must be fast, gentle, patient and above all, attentive. The worst offence for a waiter is to leave a customer waiting for anything. If you have to wave your arm to attract attention, that’s bad.

“Chefs work under tremendous pressure, and sometimes they don’t behave like normal people.

“I’m not a person who goes around to customers and asks them how they liked the food—if I’m not confident, they’re not. But it’s up to me to look at the dishes and if something is left, to find out that way.”

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