Although one of the newest kids on the block, Maroochydore’s Market Bistro is full of seasoned specialists in all areas of operations. Deb Caruso grills Head Chef Harry Lilai.
How/Why did you become a chef?
To me cooking was easy, I kind of fell into it. I was 16 and finished year 11 but school wasn’t for me. I enrolled in a Tafe cookery course thinking I’d get Dad off my back and have a free feed! The funny thing was that it was very easy, I really shone in the kitchen. We were a big Italian family so I think it’s just part of my culture – although for me it was all about the eating side of it. Being in the kitchen was fun, crazy chefs, yelling, drinking, partying, I just loved it. I loved the whole buzz and it turned out I was good at it, cooking that is.
What do you love about being a chef?
The freedom of being yourself and not being tied down to a corporate life. It’s real and it keeps everybody real – the hours, the tension, the fights, the laughs. Working with young people is a highlight, it keeps the energy going.
The thing about being a chef is that you’re always learning, sometimes I
feel like I’ve just started in the industry.
You continuously tweak the same dishes all the time, it never ends. Moving to the Sunshine Coast, I’m experimenting with ingredients, such as seafood, that I’ve never worked with before. That is magic, it keeps the spark going.
What are your career highlights?
I teamed up with Ian Curley (French Saloon) and we were running a great couple of restaurants in Melbourne and they were all getting great reviews. I was getting my name out there as part of the Melbourne crew, so my career was kicking right off. Things really took off when I took on Cecconi’s, a high-end restaurant at Crown Casino in Melbourne. It took us three years to get our heads around it and get the numbers right but we scored one and two hats and it just took off like a rocket. We used to have the politicians down one side of the restaurant, the public in the middle; and gangsters on the other side! I was a partner in that for a decade and set up more restaurants in Melbourne and Hong Kong. It gave me insight into what it takes to run successful restaurants.
What is your approach to food?
My approach to food is simplicity with complex backings. There is a lot of thought that goes into food to make it look simple, but there is also a lot of depth. That comes from experience and while it may look and taste simple, it can be quite complex. From having the perfect stock to making sure the skin is prepared properly. It involves all the senses – sight, touch, feel and so on. I’m going back to basics and French training to take a fresh look at old recipes.
What do you love about local produce?
I’ve been hitting a lot of markets, talking to local growers, which is really exciting. It ignites the spark for cookery again. Talking to other chefs such as Tony Kelly (co-owner of Market Bistro) has introduced me to many local producers such as Fraser Isle Spanner Crab. I’m loving the local seafood, it’s so different to Melbourne.
Do you cook at home?
Here and there but my wife Michelle does all the cooking. We keep it very simple at home. If we have people over then yes, we’ll make roast or schnitzel or I’ll spend all day making pasta; but it’s Michelle’s kitchen.
Who is your inspiration?
I really admire Australian chefs and I find inspiration with my own chefs in the kitchen, bouncing ideas off each other, bantering; that’s what I love.
Any advice for young chefs?
Stay focused, push on, don’t get caught up with chasing media; focus on your cooking and don’t push up on the ranks too fast. Take your time, it’s easy to get caught up but practice, take things home and get to know your ingredients and what to do with them.
Who would you love to cook for?
I love music and playing guitar is my hobby so it would be The Rolling Stones.
What is your favourite dish to cook?
I always go back to pasta. Pasta is what drives me. Anything from straight pasta to filled pasta, I love it all. I love working with fresh produce, especially fish – but pasta is where my heart lays.
What’s the key to cooking good pasta?
Patience and feel, knowing when to stop, knowing when it’s sticking, when to use more flour. Simple, but complex.
What is your favourite kitchen tool?
Absolutely my pasta maker. I’ve had it for 20 years. It’s been serviced a few times but yeah that’s the machine.
What is your favourite ingredient?
Flour. But also olive oil, butt05er and salt – can’t live without them, they are the start of a good dish.
For extra tasty bits including Harry’s vision for Market Bistro and what he is like in the kitchen, visit our website