Like most people whose mandatory monthly magazine is Gourmet Traveller or Cuisine, I have my own mental list of Great Restaurants To Dine In Before I Die. It rarely changes from year to year – and no, El Bulli has never been on it, nor has Noma, allegedly the world’s greatest. Hovering around the top is the River Cafe in London. As famous for its seasonal Italian menus and its fabulously expensive simplicity is the fact it has spawned a number of high-profile chefs like Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Tobie Puttock. It’s on the bank of the Thames in an old oil-storage facility and earned a Michelin star in 1997. It would be hard to find a chef who would not love to include a stint there on his or her resumé.
Enter Robert Costanzo, 26-year-old dreadlocked boy with a Sicilian background, originally hailing from Queensland’s Stanthorpe. We first met at the apple stall he and sister Michelle were running at the Mullum Farmers Market: he sliced off a cheek of apple for me and my taste buds sang as the tart sweetness flooded my mouth. Weeks and weeks later we are sitting in the garden of a cafe so he can tell me what it was like to work in one of my dream restaurants. Amazing and brilliant are words that keep popping up.
Robert too had long had the River Cafe on his list. He wound up in London with a cousin at the tail-end of a backpacking trip that had started in Rome; moved down to the ancestral home in Sicily where he cooked in a Taormina restaurant for six months (he had completed his apprenticeship in Brisbane after finishing school); and wintered through Malta, Scandinavia, Ireland and France. He was cleaning houses in London but promised himself two restaurant experiences while he was there, which included lunch at the River Cafe. He loved every single aspect of it – its casual layout, its atmosphere; the menu changed twice every day; the absolute emphasis on integrity of ingredients. Freshness and seasonality, in short. He spoke to the floor manager about the possibility of working there gratis for a few days – but it wasn’t until he had done another summer stint in Sicily before the opportunity presented itself. The few days turned into two and a half years.
He tells me that one of the joys lay in the beautiful ingredients – often flown over from Italy – they had to work with, the seasons being the driving force that determined what they all cooked. There was no division between kitchen and floor staff; everyone helped everyone else out and it was all like one big family. The only reason he left was because, a country-town boy, he missed the outdoors. (‘London is amazing, but it eats you up,’ he tells me.)
And now what he is doing is cooking his gorgeous food at the New Brighton and Mullum Farmers Markets together with Michelle, herself an excellent cook, at a stall whose name will probably be the Nomadic Kitchen. Robert has a passion for markets and street food and so you might find cauliflower fritters or ribollita or cannoli or apple tatin at the stall. I suggest you skip breakfast at home and seek out the dreadlocked nomad.