To be perfectly honest, I felt a little uncomfortable. I was sitting with Salvatore Pepe, one of the founders of and the chef behind Adelaide’s hugely successful chain of coffee shops, Cibo Espresso, and had just been offered a coffee. I knew this moment was coming and would be unavoidable but that fore-knowledge did very little to mitigate my awkwardness as I sheepishly admitted that I don’t actually drink coffee. At all. With only the very slightest of eyebrow-raising Salvatore graciously provided me with a glass of cold water and, putting the delicate moment behind us, we settled in to talk about a subject that we both wholeheartedly agreed upon – food.
Australia has a massive coffee and café culture due, in no small part, to our history of European immigration but the success of Adelaide’s Cibo franchise chain owes almost as much to their reputation for top quality, fresh, seasonal food as it does to their reputation for excellent coffee, and chef Salvatore is the man behind that food. Calabrian born and Tuscany trained, Salvatore came to Australia at 26 years of age but maintains close ties with his Italian heritage and returns annually.
Growing up in Calabria, Salvatore was exposed to the remarkable diversity of fresh produce enjoyed there. The local and regional markets boasted an enormous variety of vegetables and it was not uncommon to see up to 30 varieties of zucchini, 12 different strains of eggplant and up to 200 variations on capsicum available at different times during the growing seasons. Given the richness of his previous fresh food experiences, the paucity of fresh food variety available in Australian shops and supermarkets came as a colossal shock to Salvatore. As a result, he has become an impassioned champion of the movement to diversify our fresh produce supply and ensure future food security. He spoke recently with another local regional food legend, Zannie Flanagan, at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas and he was glad to elaborate on some of the opinions he expressed at that discussion in an effort to spread his message.
Salvatore believes that fresh produce supplies in Australia are largely controlled by the buyers and would like to see that changed. He is gravely concerned about our reliance here in Australia on big business to produce our food, without a solid and supportive undergrowth of small producers and artisans to fall back on. He sees the future of food as farmers markets and artisan producers where the middle man is cut out of the equation and the prices charged are more realistically reflective of the cost of production. Such is his concern about food prices that he feels they should be investigated. He asserts that much of our fresh produce is vastly over-priced with the producers paid nothing even remotely close to the asking price at points of sale like major stores and supermarkets.
Consumers, too, need to take more responsibility for their buying habits. Embracing the regionality and seasonality of fresh food creates a demand for the same, thus not only helping the producers, but helping to grow local economies. Salvatore believes we should tolerate more inconsistency in our fresh produce, rather than expect each individual piece of fruit or vegetable to be picture perfect. We all need to encourage diversity in our food crops and take the chance to try something a little different if presented with the opportunity. Farmers and growers will not be interested in growing unfamiliar varieties if there is no market for them.
Another problem which Salvatore sees confronting fresh food producers is the public passion for food celebrities. He feels that the flood of glossy celebrity cookbooks and television shows which focus on food are creating unrealistic demands upon food producers and encouraging home cooks to approach culinary goals in an up-side-down fashion. His best advice to the home cook is to shop first and then check out the cooking shows and glossy cookbooks once they are home with their shopping. It is preferable and far more sustainable to purchase the best of the local, seasonally fresh produce and then find a recipe to show it off, rather than tackling the urge to create the other way around.
Salvatore doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks it too and all of the food that he produces for the Cibo cafés is an expression of this. Changing his menu twice a year (which realistically reflects Australian growing conditions), only a very few of his special ingredients are imported from Italy, with the vast majority of fresh products sourced very locally. He uses locally grown fruit and vegetables in his traditional recipes, sees no reason in the world to import Italian olive oil when we have our own fantastic product right here on our doorstep and uses local flours from Laucke Flour Mills and cheeses from La Casa del Formaggio. I was pleased to note that this philosophy also extends to his line of ready made meals for, while I am lazy, I still like to know exactly where my food has come from. I will feel not one jot of guilt as I occasionally zap one of these to feed the troops when I just can’t be bothered to put the effort in myself. (Oh, did I say that out loud?!)