AN INTERVIEW WITH CHEF FRANCESCO BALESTRIERI OF JOE’S BAR

An Italian Chef reimagines bar food in the Nation’s Capital

How do traditional Italian food culture and cooking styles feature in your menu? How do you see your Italian influences merging with the food culture and cooking styles in Australia?

Everything about my country is represented in my menu – passion, colour and love. My menu is very authentically Italian with fresh ingredients prepared traditionally. Australians travel a lot these days and many have experienced authentic Italian cooking, so they know what to expect and Italian cooking is very accessible for Australians. I am a traditionalist though, so everything I cook is just how it is back in Italy.

Many people have an established idea about what traditional Italian food is. Do you feel that modern Italian cuisine is heading in new and exciting directions?

New technology in cooking sure helps, especially cutting preparation time but I believe in honouring tradition, with slow cooking, love and patience. I think that Italian cooking is more about doing the old things well rather than trying to make things new and different.

Where do you source your produce? How much of it is sourced locally in the Canberra region?

My mortadella and salami is from the Canberra region and the truffles are the best from around here, but I have a lot shipped from Sydney, where there are fantastic suppliers. The prosciuttos and the 24 month old parmagiana regana are coming from Italy but these days such great produce comes from Australia and Italy has some problems with regulation and food safety standards that we do not have here.

What is your view on the local food scene in Canberra, its evolution, direction and produce? What is unique to this region?

In the last five years, Canberra has exploded with food concepts. Canberrans now understand and appreciate great food and the bar has been lifted much higher. Five years ago this was like a small town but now is on a par with Melbourne or Sydney for food. It’s amazing the change.

How are you influenced by global food trends? What do you feel are the leading trends at the moment?

I try to keep away from food trends as I feel they stifle my creativity – why do what the others are doing? For me food is my art, so I want to create beautiful dishes that people will love and will know comes from my heart. I prefer old-school, technical methods with my own twist, rather than new trendy ones!

Can you tell me about yourself, your personality, and what inspires your cooking? Also about what you are interested in right now, what is inspiring you outside of the kitchen?

My true love is food and my inspiration is my family. I am really passionate about fresh produce and I’m constantly thinking of new and exciting ways to create. When I have time to myself I love to simplify – mow the grass, do little things around the house. My personality is fun and relaxed and I hope this comes through into my cooking. I try to keep my life simple and not too complicated and this is also true of my cooking.

What is your all time favourite Italian dish?

I love cannelloni baked in the oven with ricotta and spinach inside and gnocchi with a beautiful fresh tomato and basil sauce, or a slow cooked oxtail sauce– beautiful fresh pasta with great cheese grated over the top. The smell is incredible. When I was a boy, my mother would open the oven and the smell of the cannelloni would fill the house. Amazing. I think that smell made me want to be a chef.

Is there a region of Italy whose cuisine you most love?

I love Bologna. It’s the fresh pasta capital of the world and where I started my apprenticeship. I also love Tuscany, for the red wine and simple but complex food. Some of the best soups I have tasted are from Tuscany.

There is growing health and awareness in the general population and this is translating to the choices we make in terms of what we eat and drink.  How have you observed this evolution and how do you create healthy menus and options? What is your philosophy on this?

I have halved my portion sizes from when I had my restaurant back in Italy. I also try to use lean meat and only cook in extra virgin olive oil – no butter. My menu is as light as possible without sacrificing flavour. Italian food is obviously quite rich and has a lot of carbohydrates but the key is to just not eat too much!

What do you feel are some of the more popular menu items that are returned to time and again by guests?

Meatballs, slow cooked and served with tomato sauce. Customers LOVE them. They are perfect for sharing with a glass of wine. The lasagna is amazingly popular too – it is a lighter style, traditional Italian rather than the heavier, American influenced recipe. The pasta is very thin and it has less béchamel so you enjoy the flavour but don’t get too full. People love the cannoli too – with spinach and ricotta.

How do you cater to younger guests? We often see younger children being offered French fries etc.. as options but you seem to have a more European sensibility that encourages children to eat the same food as adults, whilst still ensuring there are options on the menu that will be more appealing to younger diners?

Generally in Italy we don’t have a separate menu for the kids. They eat what the adults eat, just a smaller serve. The lasagna and meatballs for example are light and healthy and the kids love them. Why should kids be made to eat fries and frozen stuff? Kids learn about good food from trying it and enjoying it. In a restaurant back in Italy often the mum will just give her kids some of what she is having – with lots of vegetables!

The European dining model is quite different to Australia, with more people dining alone in restaurants, bars and cafés regularly. This is also true for business travellers who are often dining solo. How do you feel the style, design and ambiance of Joe’s caters to this guest and provides a comfortable environment for solo dining?

I like to think that each guest is being invited into my home. It’s very relaxed and comfortable and for business travellers or politicians or just people having a quick dinner and some wine, we try to make it very easy and welcoming. Good food, good wine a nice grappa afterwards and relax! People who travel a lot love food that is like home cooking after all the food they have to eat on the run.

Also true of European dining, you see more large family groups dining together across generations. How do you cater to this dining style? What are the options at Joe’s for groups and what do you recommend for this kind of gathering?

For big families or groups I created the Feste Menu which is lots of shared dishes, with large antipasto and many dishes to taste. Almost like tapas, Italian style!

How does your menu influence your wine list? What are some of your favourite wines, regions etc.?

Food and wine dance together. That’s for sure. But I have to say I love the Barolo from Piemonte, it’s perfume is wonderful and when you couple that with steak and a fresh salsa verde, they dance together very well. With pasta I love the chilled Coffele Soave Classico Ca’Visco. Just perfection. With fried things such as polenta chips or the fried olives I love a Negroni for balance and the Martinez Passito di Pantelleria from Sicily is a fantastic wine with the dessert.

What is the process of cooking for you and what are you like in the kitchen?

The key is putting taste and ‘flower’ or aroma into everything. I love slow cooking – taking time to bring out the hidden flavour. This is like me – I am not fiery and stressed. I love cooking so I am happy. I have built a great team – when you don’t have the team, you don’t have the kitchen. Preparation is the key to everything and we are very well organised.

What are some of your favourite drinks/cocktails and why? What are some of the favourites for your clients?

I have a great love for the Negroni, both bitter and sweet, with the orange overtones. To me it is quintessentially Italian.

It seems Joe’s has built a vibrant and loyal following where business leaders, politicians, creatives, interstate and international guests and locals all gather seamlessly together to create a very authentic environment. Would you agree and how would you describe the Joe’s experience?

I love meeting people and we have such a variety of guests – of all ages and from all backgrounds. Some are guests of the Hotel and others walk in from the street, but everyone gets a nice greeting and can relax. If you are a politician finishing at 10pm and you want a relaxing drink and snack or a traveller just checked in, everyone feels comfortable. The lighting is very important – it’s not too bright. We have beautiful lamps and candles and it is warm, relaxing atmosphere. Joe’s has two lives – day and night. And it is all about the light – it sets the mood. Great food, great drinks, great atmosphere.

Please describe your journey as a chef, from the beginning until now? How did it happen that you transitioned from Italy to Canberra, Australia?

I started out a long time ago as a 16 year old apprentice in a small, underground kitchen in Rome. A lot of kitchens are underground in Rome– hot and dark, not beautiful and open like in Australia! Then I moved to an Italian restaurant in London. After that I worked on a private yacht in the US for 9 months, again for Italian people – all my life I have worked for Italians, no matter where! So then, as a 21 year old, I went back to Italy and I told my mother I wanted to visit Australia after I met an Aussie guy who told me how amazing it was– my plan was for a 7 day visit but I stayed 2 years. I came straight to Canberra – I thought it was going to be a seaside city but when I saw the small plane and the tiny airport as it was 7 years ago, I thought, where the heck am I? I worked at L’Unico in Kingston, which is where I met my wife, who is also an executive chef. After 2 years we went back to Italy and I started my own restaurant near Rome. After 4 years, my wife thought we should come back to Canberra for a bit, so we did and I worked at QT. Then one day I saw the ad for Joe’s Bar and I thought, ‘Why not !’ Canberra has changed so much since I first came here as a young man and now I am turning 30 and I just love it.

What music is on your playlist ?

I’m a huge Madonna fan! She is amazing to me. But I also like to have Oasis and Vasco from Italy. I like the old school pop music.

Chef Francesco Balestrieri of Joe’s Bar – Tasting Notes

 Olive Ascolane

Crunchy breaded Mount Zero green olives, stuffed with pork and veal with toasted fennel seeds and fresh rosemary.

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Originating in the Italian region of Marche in the 1800’s, this traditional starter is usually reserved for special occasions, or in most Italian houses, this means Sunday. To make Olive Ascolane, olives need to be pipped, big, juicy and straight out of salt water. The filling is a mixture of pork and veal mince and, most importantly, toasted fennel. Using pork gives the veal much needed fat and flavor. For the biggest crunch use fine bread crumbs.

Carpaccio

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Carpaccio is a dish of honest simplicity. You need great quality beef fillet. My preference is grain-fed as it has great marbling. This Carpaccio is then rolled in pink peppercorns and a mix of hard herbs. To complete this dish I top it with crispy capers and rocket to add salt and texture. A drizzle of Guava vinaigrette lends a touch of bitter sweetness. 24 month matured Grano Padano is thinly shaved on top. Every mouthful is a perfect balance of flavor and texture.

Gnocchi

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In the city of Rome, gnocchi is the traditional dish of Thursday. Why? Because that is the way it always been. Friday is fish, Saturday trippa (tripe) etc. Gnocchi has been rolled across Italy since the 1700’s. When I was growing up my mum never missed Thursday’s gnocchi on the family table.

The most important thing I look for in gnocchi is a firm outside layer and soft centre so the flavor bursts in your mouth when you eat it. This month at Joe’s my gnocchi is innocently served with crispy pancetta, micro zucchini and a touch of saffron to give colour and an overall unique taste.

Semi freddo

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I first learned to make semi freddo in a tiny underground kitchen in the centre of Rome. Underground kitchens are difficult for pastry work and particularly semi freddo as they tend to have a warmer temperature. This style of kitchen are ancient and hundreds of years old. It took four attempts to get a perfect semi freddo.

A good semi freddo does not contain ice crystals and melts away in your mouth. People confuse ice cream and semi freddo. The biggest difference is ice cream needs constant movement whilst chilling and semi freddo is best left alone.

I am serving my vanilla bean semi freddo with a spiced hot chocolate sauce to give contrast and to have four elements on my plate, hot and cold wit

CHEF FRANCESCO BALESTRIERI IS AT THE HELM AT JOE’S BAR.

 

JOE’S BAR – A SMALL BAR CELEBRATING BIG THINGS.

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Joe’s Bar, a curious and beautifully designed meeting place to enjoy a curated wine list, classic cocktails and contemporary Italian fare, opens in Canberra.

In August 2015, Canberra welcomed another player into the landscape of chic bars that are rapidly transforming the nations capital into the epicenter of cool. Located on the ground floor of East Hotel, Canberra’s leading lifestyle hotel, Joe’s Bar is a small bar with a grand vision.

Joe’s Bar is the brainchild of siblings Dan and Dion Bisa, who set out to create a space that resonated with their own Italian roots and love of modern design, as well as complementing East Hotel, owned and operated by family business Bisa Hotels. From the outset, the Bisa’s wanted to create a place that they would actually want to sink into with their friends – rather than just simply a concept bar attached to the very sleek hotel. Indeed, the bar is named for their father, Joe Bisa, a first-generation Italian-Australian. As such a personal project, it was clear from the outset that the design of the bar would have to be both intimate and evocative.

“We wanted to take all the inspiration we have gathered from the glamour and sophistication of the truly stunning bars we have enjoyed in Italy and create something that melds these qualities with the vibrant energy of the bar and restaurant scene in Australia,” said Dan Bisa, Director of Bisa Property. “From the beginning it was about the detail, from the artisans that Kelly Ross engaged to create the elements of the interior, to each and every wine that we have included on the menu and the curated Italian cuisine. We are promoting a style of dining that is sociable and inclusive, whether its a local dropping in, a visitor to Canberra for business or leisure or a guest at EAST. Joe’s is part of the vision we have dreamt of for EAST, creating a genuine hospitality precinct.”

Designed by Kelly Ross, creative director of the highly-lauded design collective The Gentry, the space sings with her signature bravery; big, bold statement details that draw the eye, creating a sense of time and place that is akin to architectural storytelling. A concrete curtain seems perfectly at home in the intimate space, the juxtaposition of its severity a surprisingly good fit within a room that took its original inspiration from the Bisa family’s northern Italian heritage.

“From the very first conversation I had with Dan and Dion, I just knew that a concrete curtain was going to be woven into the details. I saw it so clearly: a heavy, grounded element that cleverly imitated something which is usually so light and ephemeral,” said Ross. “Getting it made was a convoluted process though … not simple at all! I was very lucky to have a brilliant props maker, Alex Rosemount, who is also a master problem solver. In fact, our entire team of craftsmen and artisans are all insanely gifted in very unique ways. Ruth Allen, who is a glass sculptor based right here in Canberra, is another stand-out local talent who has brought something special into the finished result with her work.”

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Venetian cultural and aesthetic cues are constantly interwoven into the design of the space with the metaphorical characteristics of elements such as fine Murano glass weaving their way through the visual narrative, with results that are simultaneously raw and refined. Joe’s Bar is an immersive experience that creates curiosity; a desire to sit, order a drink and explore the details. A quirky rope installation, an unforgettable bright pinot-hued pink wall and low hanging lights make you look twice, reveling in the constant contradictions between soft and hard, old and new. The rich colour palette for the bar was brought to life by seeing it in terms of wine terminology, drawing on qualities of clarity, brilliance, tone and depth. The candy-toned pink wall is underpinned by deeper slate and mineral neutrals, adding depth that gives the subdued lighting a spectrum.

“To be honest… the pink for that wall chose me,” laughs Ross. “I don’t usually gravitate towards pink. I carried that swatch around for a month, to see if I still liked it. It really is like swishing around in a jewel-coloured glass of pinot.”

The bar itself, an enormous monolith of leather-finished granite, anchors what is a relatively tiny hideaway-type space of just 110 square meters. The honest feel of natural, oiled timbers offer warmth alongside the cool finish of polished stone.

“Dan is the one with the design vision, who saw this project as an opportunity to create a superb and beautiful space and I am the link to the hotel, extending the hotels hospitality to our guests alongside our General Manager, Todd Handy,” said Dion Bisa, Assistant General Manager of East Hotel. “We make a great team – a brother and sister that actually get along, like each other and create cool stuff together! Joe’s Bar is the culmination of many people’s dreams and hard work and we are enormously proud of what we have created. ”  

The wine list at Joe’s is a veritable who’s who of the very finest Italian wines from Piedmont to Tuscany alongside some of the best wines from the Canberra district. The list is the culmination of an exhaustive selection process that has brought together a peerless selection with some true classics.

“It was important for us to have representation on our wine list from not only some of the classic Italian wine producing districts, but from the Canberra region as well,” said Dan Bisa, Director of Bisa Property. “We feel that the combination of the fantastic product we now see coming out of the local region and amazing Italian imports gives our guests a selection that really wants for nothing. My vision was to have the best wines possible available to enjoy in an inspirational and stunning space – a multisensory experience.

The beverage selection also includes an enviable cocktail list, coupling Joe’s take on the standards with a unique selection of Italian classics. A wide range of imported and local beer is also available.

An important feature of Joe’s Bar is it’s authentic Italian dining options. At Joe’s the underlying principle is that produce is best served in season and as fresh as possible. The menu, designed by Italian-born chef, Francesco Balestrieri, has been specifically created to share and to complement the amazing wine selection with family and friends with offerings ranging from crunchy breaded green olives, stuffed with pork and veal with toasted fennel seeds and fresh rosemary and a stunning range of Antipasto options through to more substantial dishes like Tagliata di Manzo con Salsa Verde – grain-fed scotch fillet, served with salsa verde and sweet potato; handmade gnocchi and a memorably authentic Italian lasagne. Those with a sweeter inclination have not been ignored with specialties such as the chef’s spectacular Semi Freddo with spiced hot chocolate sauce. A customised version of the menu is available for in-room dining at East, redefining the concept of room service. The food at Joe’s Bar is made in-house, by hand, using nothing but the best & freshest ingredients. The mandate at Joe’s is to buy local and cook with an Italian heart.

 

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