Giovanna Toppi

046TOP_4691_F1After fifty years at the forefront of Sydney dining, this Italian immigrant says good value, close staff and honest food keeps Machiavelli cooking.

“In my restaurant, people come to eat. You must give them value for money, because it’s expensive, you know? Going out is something special. You go to eat things you can’t make yourself or find anywhere else. I’m 72, and Machiavelli has been here for 20 years. There’s a reason for this. To me, nouveau cuisine is just not on—these tiny little portions. I think your business lasts longer if you feed people good portions as well as good food.

“It’s very important to keep the same staff. You must work with them, and when you do that, you create a family. Some people think the waiter is my husband, because he’s been working here so long. The way you keep people is to treat them right; you don’t just say, ‘I’m the boss’. Then they stay and everyone benefits—especially the customer. In all my years in the business, this has been a constant. And it’s truer now than ever.

“It was very hard in the early days, but still we managed to cook. The kind of ingredients we were used to in Italy were not always easy to get, but there was good meat, good chicken. We had to work harder to make what we wanted to make. Today it’s too easy and people take everything for granted. Being adaptable and flexible and working with what’s available is a necessary skill in this business. It makes you a better chef and it will show in your restaurant.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was 20. In Italy, people asked ‘why are you going to Australia?’ That was 56 years ago. I left Italy because there was no money after the war and no opportunity. I loved Sydney—it was so beautiful and the people were beautiful, too. This country was unbelievable—everyone was so genuine and nice. It has changed now, of course. The whole world has changed. But everything I love about it is still here; it’s what keeps me here. All this is reflected in the food we serve at Machiavelli. That’s one thing I’ve learnt—for a restaurant to last, it must be a reflection of the neighborhood and the people that it serves.

“When I arrived here, the restaurant business was full of professionals from Europe. There were many Hungarians running away from the Communists, and they were very skilled and experienced. Of course, there were also many Italians here, so the taste for Italian food came long before me. I had other restaurants before Machiavelli became a reality—now we serve the kids and grandkids of some of our original customers. It is a wonderful circle.

“In my mind and in my heart I have always been a cook. I put all my soul, all my body into cooking. I’m constantly thinking about what I’m going to cook tomorrow. In my mind, the cooking never really stops. It’s probably crazy, but it consumes me. I think that the day I don’t cook, or do something around cooking, is the day I die. Professionalism and business sense are also important, but if you don’t have a passion for what you do, it shows in the food.

“The restaurant business is tougher for a woman. But maybe everything is a bit tougher for a woman. I’ve passed Machiavelli on to my daughter now (Caterina Tarchi), and I think she has the benefit of my experience.

“There are many celebrity chefs out there, but a lot aren’t making any money—I don’t know why, because most are fine chefs and lovely people. It’s hard to get noticed, but competition makes you a better person. I love many of the chefs who have been recognised, like Neil Perry and Peter Doyle. It’s great when people with real talent and commitment get publicity and pass on their knowledge and love of culinary life.

“If you’re a good chef, you can cook with nothing—or at least very little. That’s always the test: what can you make with a few simple ingredients? That’s where creativity comes in. Australia has come such a long way from when I first arrived. Fifty years ago, we had nobody; now there are great chefs and wonderful apprentices. Many of them are girls—and sometimes they are better than the boys.

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