By Aimee Knight
In 2009, when André Ursini appeared on the debut season of the TV show MasterChef Australia, he’d worked in sales and retail. The closest he’d come to managing a restaurant was running meal service at the Hilton.
His time on the show confirmed his passion for hospitality, and a year later, though he still had minimal industry experience, he opened his eponymous restaurant. Seven years on, André’s Cucina & Polenta Bar is a fixture of Adelaide’s fine dining scene, thanks to three simple principles.
“It all revolves around generosity, quality and customer service,” André says. “It’s shared food, and seven years ago there weren’t a lot of shared menus. Around the Italian table, it must all be about generosity, and it must all be quality and fresh.
“If customers aren’t going to look at a menu, just trust you, you need to make sure you back up their trust and deliver a delicious meal of quality and quantity. It’s one of the rules of Italian cuisine, especially our style.
“Customer service as well – I had a lot of customer service experience in my prior jobs. We try to please all customers, and I believe that you can’t please everyone, but you can please a large proportion of them, if you’re willing to release your ego into the ether,” he laughs.
Congenial and candid, André is also something of a rule breaker in his industry, only attaining his Advanced Diploma of Hospitality Management after he’d opened his restaurant.
“It allowed us to look at things with fresh, unique eyes,” he says. “I wasn’t conditioned to the rules. It could have failed miserably, but it didn’t! We got through it.
“A lot of people with experience in the industry told me that they could see that I cared, that we cared. If you care, and you make some mistakes, people generally will forgive you. I cared about what we were doing, where we were heading, and I had a goal to achieve.
“I took on critical feedback constantly. I was on the front-of-house staff and I would listen to people’s feedback and make changes immediately.”
There’s been a smorgasbord of changes for André over the past seven years. His days are now spent mostly at head office in Prospect, in Adelaide’s north, “trying to navigate through a myriad of different business models,” such as André’s Specialty Wholesale, which delivers Italian pastries, breads, stuffed panini and pasta to local cafés and restaurants. Then there’s his catering business, Mangia, Mangia!, which pops up everywhere from music festivals and wineries to weddings and remote mining projects.
Seemingly insatiable, the team is also working on a wedding venue, opening a cooking school in the Adelaide Hills, and launching a new Adelaide city centre eatery by the end of 2017.
“We’re working towards establishing some serious market gardens in the Adelaide Hills, and having the chefs involved in what we’re growing,” André says. “The new restaurant will be heavily geared toward whatever we’re growing on that property, and the menu will be changing constantly due to that.”
André raves about South Australian olive oil – “The McLaren Vale olive oil is it for me – 100 per cent” – but it’s more than the quality of the local produce that makes him passionate about his home state.
“My family has deep roots in South Australia. Half my family came over on a boat from Italy and I feel like I have been undeniably embedded into the state. I’ve been brought up with the belief that I have an obligation to contribute to South Australia, and to continue to support the state. There are some huge opportunities here.
“I had the opportunity to go anywhere after MasterChef. I had offers from interstate opening up but there was such a significant hole in the hospitality scene here. We’ve been open for seven years now, and we’ve seen a huge evolution in South Australian dining. Huge, huge.
“I dearly love what the guys at Pizzateca [in McLaren Vale] are doing. It’s interesting, it’s idiosyncratic, it’s honest hospitality. For me, it honours a cultural path that resonates through my Italian childhood. They live and die by the sword of their product, it’s brilliant.
“For brunch, I go to Paddy’s Lantern on Gilbert Street every weekday. When they’re not open I go to Fairweather. The coffee is excellent.
Though he can find himself hard pressed for spare time, André takes every opportunity to get back in the kitchen. “I cook a lot at home and I’m constantly around recipes,” says the self-described “gnocchi fiend”.
“In the future, maybe when I retire, I’ll get back to the coalface. I’m trying to get everything sorted by the time I’m 40.” By all appearances, he’s well on his way.
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