"I am sick and tired of finding beautifully presented dishes - then you eat them and you cannot taste anything, I want a bit of guts".
Armando Percuoco is described as a taste maker amongst the Sydney food scene. He is often around town at lunch, checking on the latest restaurant and/or chefs on the scene. If he approves, and he likes to talk, the place will go well for as long as it stays hot, though in Sydney, the restaurant climate is variable.
Armando is a man of strong opinions and good taste. He has been running restaurants successfully in Sydney for more than 20 years, first at Pulcinella and now at Buon Ricordo in Paddington. The room is cosy, the welcome warm. Upstairs is a spacious room often used for parties. All of this is served from one small kitchen with an old Garland range and limited equipment. Half-a-dozen staff huddle round waiting for the action early in the evening. "It all comes at once", complains Armando. There are many things he complains about, talking so quickly that he can barely draw breath. It's because he hates mediocrity and has a passionate opinion about just about everything - food, art, wine, women, taxes, quarantine restrictions...
Armando Percuoco has worked in restaurants since the age of 14. His family were restaurateurs in Naples and made him work for others "who kicked me and I hated them but I learnt, and loved my father because he did that to me. In the restaurant business you have to suffer". He came to Australia in 1972 and joined his father, Mario, at Arriverderci restaurant in east Sydney. For four years he worked as head waiter and day manager at Chianti before he and his father opened Pulcinella Restaurant in Kings Cross in 1979. In 1986 he published his first cookbook, re-published in 1992 as Modern Italian Cooking in Australia, and the following year opened the award winning Buon Ricordo. In 1994 came his second book La Cucina Italian, the four seasons of Italian cooking and the planting of extensive olive groves.
As with the growing of olives, patience is required with staff, says Armando. "It takes a long time to get the staff that you want and that is why I always say to them that three to six months is not enough, you have to come for a little bit longer. I like people that follow me, but they have to pay attention, then I'll put them at the head of the class, if they don't follow me, they go to the back of the class." And the good pupils might get sent to Italy to familiarise themselves more fully with Italian cuisine. Armando explained that he will have staff who eat and absorb what is in his kitchen but then go out and eat other foods. Here he shuddered at the sort of things they eat outside his world. "But when they are in Italy they have the total environment, the smell in the air, everything. I want the kids to absorb it all, the philosophy, the traditions, but they have to live and breathe it."
I was surprised to learn that Armando did not then want these chefs back in his kitchen. "It is wrong to take them back, they have to find their own space, become their own chefs. Because they are Australia's future and they have to develop their own ideas." And Armando's ideas have developed too. "My food has changed rather a lot, if we don't change we become stale." But he is concerned that some of the changes are forcing out all the old (Italian) ways and is worried that "we are going to lose our culture. It's too hard to achieve simplicity in this country so we need to cut back to the original. Italian food is losing its identity in this country and that is what I am angry about. Good young chefs from Italy don't come here, because they are looked after extremely well. The wages are huge there for chefs that have gone through the proper training, but we need those sort of chefs over here, to pick up the authenticity of the cuisine. Forget about me, but how many Italian chefs are here that are really authentic? Who can continually pass their skills on to the young person? So in 10 years time we will have lost our identity completely. I will retire then so I am now trying to train these boys in order to maintain it."
With regard to other styles of food, Armando has equally strong opinions, "to really create a dish with a modern identity here you have to be a master of what you do. And I get told by young chefs that they want to be half Italian and half like Tetsuya , and fancy they can be a master at both. To understand the logic in putting together a dish you need to understand the culture. How can you do that with a whole lot of different cultures? Life doesn't work like that".... Read more.