Originally from Auckland, Harry Tahana loves cooking French food and isn’t allowed a big barbecue at home. Perfect really, given Casa Ciuccio embraces Mediterranean cuisine and a lot of the menu centres around the massive charcoal barbecue out the back.
What made you become a chef?
What made me become a chef? Cooking cakes for the girls at school. Pretty much.
So, that was a winner?
Well, not really. But I started cooking cakes in Form Two (Australian Year Seven) in Home Ec and I just thought, people love my food and I kept cooking and realised it could become a thing.
Ok, so how did you make it become a thing? You did an apprenticeship?
Yeah, I went through the Navy back home. That was the only place offering the London City and Guild back then. I did about two years with them. Then I got out and it was the first America’s Cup we were hosting, so I got a job in the Viaduct (Auckland) and got onto the boats with Prada.
What do you think were the most valuable things you learned? Either in the Navy or perhaps you learned more once you were out?
I did learn more after. The Navy gave me the skills, but you don’t have much creativity; you’re cooking slops of food for the multitude.
So where do you think the creativity comes from? Do you think you have to have it already or can it be something you cultivate?
It’s great if you have it already. But it grows on you. I’ve been doing it for 20 odd years now. And of course you study under people so you’re doing their stuff. Then you get to a point where you’re sick of doing other peoples’ food, so you start thinking about it more and about different styles of food, I guess.
What would be your favourite style of food?
Um. French. I was trained in French food. That’s what I love. Here we do Mediterranean with French influences. It’s a learning curve. I’ve never worked with a big barbecue for service. I’ve got one of those out the back. My missus won’t let me have one at home so … (laughs)
That’s great. (laughs) You were mentioning learning from the people you work under. Who would be the standouts for you; the people you learned the most from?
Michael James back home, he is a Welsh guy. Rex Morgans, I worked for him up north. Then I worked for some really bad chefs.
Maybe we won’t mention them…they taught you what not to do. So, what do you reckon the key is to having an efficient and harmonious kitchen? You’re fully on show here at Casa Ciuccio. How do you make that work?
Well, having the right people, for starters. I got blasted on social media, saying I was too condescending to one of my junior chefs.
Ah, ok, would your junior chef have agreed with that?
No. We sat down and read it together and he said, “no, this person doesn’t know what they are talking about, I don’t know as much as you do, that’s the way you were taught and I want to learn from you.” But I did have to cut that out and if I get really mad, it’s, “Outside.”
You’re under a lot of pressure, it’s hot, you’re working with knives…and the public. It must get intense.
It does, but it’s a vocation and you’ve got to have a sense of humour. If something goes wrong, it’s better if we can make fun of the situation, so the customers get a sense that he did wrong and he’s getting told off, but we’re enjoying it because we’re making fun of ‘us’.
It’s all learning, isn’t it? It must be a different world for chefs coming through now as opposed to when you were going through.
Oh it is. They have to have their ‘safe room’ these days. They’re just too soft.
I wonder whether they think it’s going to come easy. There are so many cooking shows and hype and idolising of chefs and food, do you think that’s breeding a particular type of chef?
Definitely. These kids, they see MasterChef and they see these cooks from home jump on the show, win $10, 000, a book deal and a job at Vue de Monde, they think, oh yeah, I could do that, I make a good cake.
What do they need to know about being a chef then?
With all these shows on the go and all the top chefs at the moment using chemicals and whatnot, I’ve noticed that these kids want to lean all that before the learn the basics. Some of them are great at it but they don’t know how to braise a cut of beef for six hours. They just haven’t done it before, they’ve played with nitrous and stuff like that.
Ok. And do you still love it?
There’s nothing you’d rather be doing?
No. I thought about it once but then I thought, nah, cooking is me. There’s nothing else. Most chefs say the same thing, it’s a big rush, the dinner service; it’s an addiction. Which it is. You know, you have that perfect service where you’ve done a hundred and something people and everything’s gone perfectly and for those two, three hours, it’s good and at the end of it, you think, ah that was great, the team worked well. I couldn’t get that sitting in an office or doing something else.
Where do you get your ideas from, I mean, this is Mediterranean, so there are certain constraints, but how do you go about putting a menu together?
When I took this job I did a lot of reading. He (Fabio Candolo) didn’t want to do the normal Mediterranean; Italian, Greek, and because it’s such a big area, I took it upon myself to focus on North Africa and the South of France; those foods, those flavours, so I read up heaps on that and started tinkering away with what I read.
It’s interesting you’ve gone for the South of France. I lived for a year in a small village near Avignon and my friends were always cooking up feasts; there were always 20 people around the table. People always think that French food is butter and cream, but that making the most of the seasons and simmering low and slow and just the flavours are so incredible down there.
Yeah and it’s so easy to do that here, just go down to the markets and you can find whatever you need or want.
And when you came across to Melbourne was it easy to make the transition form New Zealand?
The transition was from Queensland actually. I went from Auckland to Queensland chasing the money. I went up to the mines and was earning stupid amounts of dollars. But I got sick of cooking parmas. So I came down here on a mission and thought Melbourne is where it’s at, I have to go.
How long ago was that?
Four years. My missus was saying go get your hat then we can have a kid, so that’s been another motivation. But it wasn’t too hard.
Great. And what do you want for people coming to Casa Ciuccio?
I just want them to live in the moment of whatever they’re eating. It’s all about memories. Food brings memories. If you don’t have those special, good memories, there’s no point going out really. You don’t want to go out and have a bad memory.
15 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy