Adriano Zumbo reveals the wisdom of staying in control even while his brand (fuelled by a certain TV show) grows rapidly
It may surprise people to know that Adriano Zumbo contemplated being a truck driver when he left school. “It was that or rugby league,” the celebrity patisserie chef says. “I had no desire to go to university.”
While it might surprise some to see the macaron magician behind the wheels of a big semi, upon interviewing it is easy to see that Zumbo is his own man.
Short and stocky, Zumbo was a former rugby league player at school who played representative football in the under-14s and under-16s, firstly at fullback and then in the centres.
“I scored 48 tries in the under-14s,” he says proudly. That is no mean feat no matter what your age or competition. It gains even more credibility when he states that he played soccer up until under-12s and only changed to rugby league upon changing schools.
“All my mates played rugby league so I thought, ‘Why not?’” he says. “I loved it.”
Rugby league wasn’t his only passion. Eating lollies was right up there too. “I used to eat five, six, seven packets of lollies a day,” says this Sydney-based chef. “I was a dentist’s dream.”
Surprisingly, the 29-year-old has good teeth, though it remains to be seen how long that lasts for.
Zumbo’s love of lollies developed through spending 90 minutes a day at his parents’ Coonamble supermarket, in Central-Western NSW, the area in which he was born.
“I had to kill time after school so often I would just sit around eating lollies,” Zumbo says. “From hanging around supermarkets I began to distinctly like and dislike certain smells and that developed even further as I got older. There was no doubt I was an eccentric kid.”
That trait has carried on today to make Zumbo a household name in Australia.
His appearances on the highly popular MasterChef, his own self-titled cooking show on SBS and his three shops in Balmain, Rozelle and Manly combined with his new book to be released this year, show that Zumbo has reached heights far beyond anyone’s expectations.
“Coming from the country has kept me grounded,” he says. “I am quite a chilled guy and level headed. Master- Chef has created a profile for me that has helped me develop my business and that is great. To be honest I never wanted to be famous and that has just come about. I feel honoured to be on TV.”
Upon approaching Zumbo’s cafe in the inner-west suburb of Rozelle there is already a crowd of people wandering around outside in the normally quiet street. They seem unsure of whether it is the right shop due to the small size, but gain assurance because of the people inside happily eating away. There is not much space on the ground floor and you can see the kitchen staff hard at work. The small counter displays a vast amount of freshly flavoured patisseries that in some cases look too good to eat.
After introducing myself to the staff, I am shown upstairs walking up a very narrow staircase. There is an even narrower small waiting area outside Zumbo’s office and more staff running around.
“I used to eat five, six, seven packets of lollies a day. I was a dentist’s dream.” Adriano Zumbo
When Zumbo comes out of his office he has a friendly smile and firm handshake. He is dressed very casually in a T-shirt and jeans. The most noticeable thing about him, besides his bald head, is his tattoos, of which he is proud.
“I am superstitious,” he says. “I have a scorpion tattoo because I am a Scorpio star sign; the scarab beetle is for good luck with the numbers six and 11 that represent my birthday.
“The rooster tattoo is because I am a Year of the Rooster in Chinese birth years and the Willy Wonka tattoo is because he created the dream. That is the fantasy we all live in.
“If you don’t have a dream you can’t achieve and you can’t set that benchmark.”
Zumbo’s first foray into working in food resulted from a job ad in the newspaper after moving to Sydney to live with his sister who had started an IGA supermarket.
“I was very keen to move out of home and I did when I was 15,” he says. “There were always curfews and that didn’t suit me.” Zumbo’s first job was at Dobinson’s Cakes in Rose Bay. Here he iced cupcakes and got to experiment a bit with icing flavours. A short stint at Georges restaurant in Double Bay followed before an opportunity presented itself at Neil Perry’s Rockpool. “That was life changing working there,” he says. “I had come from places that were pre-mix to an environment where everything used was natural. It was great.”
Zumbo spent five years working at Victorie Bakerie in Balmain doing the pastries, where he was given a lot of freedom.
“I could do whatever I wanted,” he says happily, “as long as it was good. It was great because there was no one above me and I had no mentor.”
This was Zumbo’s last stint before opening his now three stores in Balmain, Rozelle and Manly.
In-between he spent a year in France where he entered the World Cup of Pastry in 2003, but didn’t win. While he enjoyed living there, he realised that Australia was his home.
“I actually loved living there and the lifestyle but I then realised I was better off starting my own business at home.”
Which is exactly what he did—working from home and selling his patisseries.
“I was just using a normal oven and supplying one place,” he says. “I was looking for a shop and I found both places in Balmain and Rozelle that I really liked. To be honest I was worried about Balmain.”
He opened his Balmain store in April 2007, Rozelle was next and then Manly in December 2010.
Zumbo prides himself on the fact that his products are different. “I like to experiment with flavours and I like to get a few people to taste it to get their reaction,” he says. “You can always tell from the tone of their voice whether they like it or not. But in the end you should always trust your gut feel. That should guide you with any decision.”
Zumbo’s macaron flavours vary from satay, pandan, kaffir lime and ginger to chocolate right through to salted butter caramel. There are also tartes, cakes, pastry, quiches and loaves and batards on the menu.
“Retail is now our main business,” explains Zumbo. “I got out of wholesale because it was too difficult and I just want to focus on retail. That way if something goes wrong you can take responsibility because you are selling direct to the customer. The key is not to become too big. You want to have a certain amount of shops in the east, north,
west and south of Sydney. The bigger you get the more it becomes about mass production and that is not what I want. When it’s mass-produced it is harder to keep consistency and harder to keep staff.
“I envisage a slow roll-out of shops and ideally would like to have one in each state. But you have to be realistic and do it properly. I want quality stores.”
Zumbo’s major influence has been books. He loves perusing international cookbooks and has a stack of them near his bed.
“I just love flicking through and reading pastry books and they have played a big part in my life,” he says. “I am surrounded by them at home.”
As for shows like MasterChef, he will keep coming back as long as he is asked. “That all came about by accident,” he says. “I knew George Calmobaris from back in 2003 when we entered a competition together.
“The great thing about TV is that it has helped create a profile and people now understand what we do,” he says. “It would be great to get a
bit of Europe into Australia when it comes
to patisseries. Australia needs good quality pastry chefs.”
There is no doubt that Zumbo has a strong determination about him. He stares hard, analyses situations and looks as though he is running a million things through his mind when you talk to him. Ultimately, Zumbo has been a success and there is no doubt that he can continue to expand his brand firstly around Australia and then the world.
But deep down Zumbo still has the kid in him who wants to eat delectable sweets.
While that still possesses him, it will drive his passion to experiment with patisseries and his fans will love him for it.