Harry Lilai has been cooking for 27 years and is the co-owner of the Town Hall Hotel in Fitzroy. One of the members on the Taste of Harmony chef ambassador team, Harry loves hospitality; saying hello, greeting people, giving good food. He describes that as the “inner touch”.
How would you describe your food?
My cooking has evolved over the years in the sense of it being who I am and what I am and what I’ve got to. For me it’s all about hospitality. That’s what I love about cooking and what has influenced me.
Your style tends to be Italian?
I’ve got an Italian background. My mother’s Italian, my father’s Albanian. There’s a real mix of cultures within my family. That has influenced my cookery. After the formal training; 5 years of apprenticeship, back in 1985. It was all French cookery. It still is. The basis of real cooking in an apprenticeship is French and it’s world-renowned. You can walk into any kitchen in the world and talk about mise en place and brunoise and chiffonnade and they’re all French terminologies that are still used to this day in cooking. But the influence now after all these years for me is Italian.
What’s the difference between what you learned then and what you do now?
It’s a feel. It’s a passion driven thing. Italian cookery is about give. It’s about sharing and giving and that’s what I offer. It’s not so much about it being an Italian dish… True Italian cooking is regional. Someone from Bari will cook orecchiette with prawns. Or someone from Calabrese will do eggplant, whereas the northerners will do polenta dishes. They’re very regional and they keep to that region. But because I’m in Australia and I’ve been exposed to so much cookery, it’s not so much about regional cooking to me. It’s about the give. What I experienced as a boy growing up and having family dinner, that’s come into the professional side of my cookery and this has developed over the years.
Being in a place like this where I’m the publican and there’s an Australian feel, but I have a wog background, I like coming out and saying hello, what can I get for you, I’ve got this fish special coming out…that to me is hospitality and that’s what I love about this job.
Do people get that? Do they understand the feeling that you want to create?
Absolutely. It’s a slow burn. I don’t push a lot of media. I’ve been around for a long time. I ran Cecconis, a big 2 hat restaurant, I’ve had a lot of media exposure, but at the end of the day, it’s not what I’m chasing. That doesn’t make me happy. What makes me happy is talking to my customers and cooking in the kitchen. I’m still in my chef’s uniform cooking in the kitchen with young chefs, teaching them. I’m still learning and playing after all these years. I feel as though I have only just scratched the surface.
How often do you change your menu?
I change it seasonally, so four times a year, although sometimes it ends up as three times a year if I stretch it out a little. The ideas come from 27 years of handling food. So many ideas. But it’s also a reflection of the kitchen; it’s a team environment. I have a young chef who just joined me again. He has travelled through Europe and worked in London so his ideas become a little bit my ideas and that’s how the dishes evolve. There are a lot of dishes on the menu that are stable, that I’ve created over the years and they will always stay with me. But I don’t want to get bored of a dish. Once you get sick of a dish, and you don’t enjoy cooking it, it will never taste the same. You cook that dish 25 times a day, 7 days a week. If you enjoy cooking it, every time you put it up, you think, wow, that’s beautiful. And that keeps it going. If I lose that, I take it off the menu.
What’s your role in A Taste of Harmony?
I love the idea of the multi-cultural aspect in the workplace. Food breaks down barriers because food is common sense. I’ve been to dinner parties where there are people from different walks of life but everyone has common ground over food. A Taste of Harmony is all about that for me; encouraging people to share culture and food in the workplace. It’s wonderful.
166 Johnston Street, Fitzroy
Mon – Sun 11am – 1am