In the belly of the architect

by Brooke Turner
Australian Financial Review Magazine

After 25 years of resisting the temptation to expand, Melbourne institution Café Di Stasio is opening a second, million dollar venue. Its quixotic master builder ‘Ronnie’ Di Stasio tells Brook Turner – over lunch, naturally – why reinvention is at the heart of constancy.

I’ve felt fortunate at various stages of my life as a restaurateur, but I never realised until now how lucky I was to stick with one restaurant, and one that is an expression of me.” Rinaldo ‘Ronnie’ Di Stasio is sunk deep in a sofa, glass in hand, dog at his knee as he eyes with an habitual mix of satisfaction and anxiety his Yarra Valley principality, every inch of it an expression of the prince himself.

What passes for a light lunch has just finished: Cafe Di Stasio’s signature tomato and basil lasagna; dewy lamb shanks that dissolve on the tongue, leaving only an aftertaste of rosemary and fresh lemon; a delicately latticed berry tart; culminating in coffee and a coma.

It’s classic food, awe inspiringly simple, which is to say entirely of a piece with the surrounds: the long, low Allan Powell house, built like an old fashioned Italian masseria – half fortress, half farm – the neat rows of vines (two blocks of chardonnay, two of pinot noir) that score the hill to the right. A log fire cracks and spits in the hearth, the great empty galleria beyond lined with the huge Bill Hensons created expressly for it.

Ronnie likes Bill; likes the light and shade of his work, its classicism, edge. It reminds him of his countryman Caravaggio, he says. You suspect it also reminds him of himself.

Sitting on the sofa opposite is the woman who reads that chiaroscuro like the weather, the other half of the Melbourne dining institution that is Café Di Stasio, Mallory Wall, variously described as Ronnie’s muse, wife, sister, daughter, though fellow restauranteur Neil Perry, for one, baulks at the latter: “I wouldn’t be treating my daughter like that: ‘come sit on my knee!’ It’s more husband and wife, slightly tortured and twisted.” The subject under discussion around the fire on a chilly day at the tail end of winter is restaurants, why Di Stasio has, for a quarter of a century, resisted the temptation to which pretty well everyone – especially Perry but even the man Di Stasio calls his “brother” Tetsuya Wakuda – has succumbed: to go forth and multiply. How did a man renowned for his mercurial expansiveness turn out to be the tortoise in a culinary landscape packed with hares?

Implicit in that is another question often posed when Di Stasio comes up in conversation: how did all this come from just one 60seat restaurant sandwiched between St Kilda’s 7/11s and a café advertising $12 jugs of beer?

‘All this’ encompasses much more than just the restaurant, the house down the road packed with more Hensons (his collection is said to be the best in the country, and second only to Elton John’s overall), the estate next to Coldstream vineyards in the Yarra Valley – maitre d’ and chef stationed in the industrial kitchen – and the white Land Rovers that alternate with Di Stasio’s beloved grey blue Austin Healey.

It also includes his Italo-Australian passion projects: the push to replace the Philip Cox designed Venice Biennale Australian Pavilion, currently under the stewardship of Simon Mordant, but sparked by the 2008 ideas competition on which Di Stasio outlaid an estimated $200,000; or the “Renaissance” dinner he held at the Yarra Valley property as part of his patronage of the National Gallery of Australia’s major exhibition on the period earlier this year.

Then there are the accolades Café Di Stasio continues to garner, including Hottest Classic in John Lethlean’s 50 hottest restaurants, published in July, a list otherwise dominated by young up and comers.

To long-time patron and director of Melbourne’s Heide Museum of Modern Art, Jason Smith, the gong was more than deserved. “Café Di Stasio reassures you by its mere presence,” he says. “It’s almost as if nothing could ever happen to it, it’s so integral to the cultural landscape of St Kilda and Melbourne.”

“The food is terrific, but it’s the whole experience that makes it remarkable,” adds Perry. “It’s Ronnie’s sense of hospitality and generosity. And he doesn’t even have to be there; the staff are so in tune with what he wants, it’s almost like a hand gesture – a pure expression of Ronnie.” Indeed American chef and author Anthony Bourdain nominated a lunch at Ronnie’s Yarra Valley spread as the best he’d ever had in Melbourne. It was “ridiculous”, he told The Age in April. “It’s not reproducible…I was sitting up at Ronnie Di Stasio’s above the hills and there were a bunch of other chefs there. We’d eaten a dinner, after which TetsuyaWakuda took the leftovers and made a polpette and threw together a pasta meal.”

That singularity is also why he has – until now at least – never expanded. “My bookkeeper once askedwhy Iwas so careful and I said ‘because I want to keep it going’,”Di Stasio says. “It’s not to build up a stack, it’s basic husbandry; you take care of it and it takes care of you.”Or, as MalloryWall puts it: “There haven’t been the usual openings and closings, other cities, starting again, bad decisions and bankruptcies. Even among our circle of friends, there tends to be a boom and bust cycle where one day they have three restaurants and the next day none and then

they’re back to square one. Whereas steady, steady, not making huge money but not losing money actually works.”

That cautiousness stems from Di Stasio’s habitual anxiety, an instinct he says that has always kept him focused, out of trouble, close to home, earning while the earning was good, which is to say before the last five years. “Once upon a time there was a lot of money in the restaurant business, right up until 2008 and the GFC, and then it stopped,” he says. “Today, there’s too much competition, the margins are worse, the cost of produce and staff have gone up and it’s hard to get good staff. Why would you want to run more than one? And if you’re not enjoying it, it shows. You can’t fake it.

“If you start running from one state to another or one suburb to another, you’re actually not making money. I can tell you, if you make money in one you lose in another. Because everything with a successful restaurant is manual, bespoke, manmade and the reactions are visible on the floor. As it is, I’m not wasting time thinking I’m going to brand a sauce and sell f—ing chickens

for Woolworths and do MoVida one, two, three, four.”

No one knows those headaches of empire better than Perry. So does the man who sits atop nine restaurants ever envy his friend? Especially given it emerges shortly after he speaks to the AFR Magazine that negotiations have just broken down between Perry’s billionaire US backer David Doyle and James Packer over the purchase of Doyle’s stake in the empire. “Are you kidding?” Perry says. “Every day! It’s hard out here doing this. It costs $450,000 a week just to open this business.”

All of which makes the reason for our lunch – the reason for which Di Stasio has allowed a rare public glimpse of his house – that much more interesting. Because, after 25 years, RonnieDi Stasio is breaking his golden rule. In November, he will open the new 35seat Bar Di Stasio on the right flank of his beloved St Kilda premises after a seven month, $1millionplus renovation, into the toughest restaurant climate in years. As that money suggests, it’s a big deal.

The new space is the work of young Melbourne architect Robert Simeoni, Ronnie’s new Allan Powell (who also did the Café Di Stasio interior). When the AFR Magazine visits, a lifesize photo by Melbourne artist Callum Morton of the demolished interior fills the front of the former Japanese takeaway, backlit at night like a light box. That installation will be replaced in the finished restaurant by another work by Morton –Ronnie’s new Bill Henson –who will also ‘frame’ the pattern left on the wall by the underpainting and tiles that have been removed. There’s an 8metre marble bar, a 20seat private dining room featuring the work of his favourite furry Kathy Temin, dry cleaned after its stint beside the Yarra Valley fire.

So why is a man so careful even his accountant calls him on it lashing out at a time like this? Because, he says, care must alternate with liberality. Dark with light. “It takes balls to confront the one place all the time,” he says. “What saves me is I know I can reinvent myself. It’s like a sideshow – I learnt that at the Melbourne Show was a kid: all you need is a curtain, a tent and a few topless girls and that’s that done.”

Di Stasio’s started out in a very different St Kilda. “There were the hookers, but there was also a dry cleaner and banks and a grocer. It was a thriving little community,” says Wall, who arrived five years in and, she says, forgot to leave. “Time goes quickly with a gin and tonic in one hand and restaurant hours,” she only half jokes. “Days blur.” Asked to name the love of his life, Di Stasio bypasses the restaurant, the winery, Wall – who lives 500 metres from the restaurant in the opposite direction – even her labradoodle Rosco, whom he has effectively dognapped and who rides in a specially adapted basket on the back of his motorcycle on the farm and sleeps on

the pillow beside him most nights.

Instead he opts for St Kilda. Back when he started out there, artists like Henson, Juan Davila, Jenny Watson, Peter Booth – whose works people the walls of the Yarra Valley house – all passed through his doors. But, over the years, St Kilda has gentrified, food with it, until it is almost a national religion; Di Stasio’s one of its fine dining chapels – almost despite Ronnie’s best efforts. He first called it a café, after all, to dial back the expectations, lull customers, then over-deliver. He’s certainly waged what Sydney Morning Herald restaurant critic Terry Durack has described as a “one man crusade against dull, polite, one-dimensional dining” ever since.

The stories are legion. The time he locked a patron in the office for declining to pay corkage; the time a naked patron on a dare walked into the bar at the front of the restaurant dressed only in high heels and was served a glass of champagne without a hair turned. Or the time one of Ronnie’s dates’ underwear ended up decorating the tree outside the restaurant – during service. “He is the world’s most gorgeous nut job,” says Perry. “It’s quite possible for him to lock someone in the toilet or throw them out. And I still piss myself hearing him tell the stories because I can imagine just how cross hewould have been.”

A lot of that comes down, too, to a very Latin sensibility to disrespect. It’s there in the handles on Café Di Stasio’s double front door – the owner’s hands sculpted in bronze, one each side in a gesture that is at once welcoming and cautionary. Or, as Di Stasio expresses it: “Don’t think you’re going to come in here without playing by the rules. And once you know there are rules, there are no rules.” “Very Italian,” adds Wall, who has learnt not only fluent Italian but Di Stasio’s Neapolitan dialect as a private language to work in. “It’s two millennia of theRoman/Medici/Caesarmentality.”

Bar Di Stasio is Ronnie’s attempt to return to his earlier, racier St Kilda self, to be both Ronnie and Rinaldo, the Italian principe, the name he has come to prefer. The need was vital, as he saw it. “What worried me wasn’t doing it; it was not doing it,” he says. “This place needs an injection.”

He has staged a rejuvenation every seven years – from the Yarra Valley property and Venice to the Renaissance dinner, though never quite on this scale,which involves a new kitchen, garden, premises. “It’s a rebirth, a renewal, a renascimento,” he says with his usual ebullience. “Next door is going to be the hub for artists getting together, architects, creative people. It’ll be a $1.50 espresso standing up, amartini for 18 bucks, or the most exquisite little bowl of al dente pasta, roast duck at the bar or a spiced pigeon cherry pie.

“We had to do it. These days the new generation don’t want a la carte three courses. They don’t want the marriage commitment, they want casual sex; they want to drop in, have a Tom Collins, study the form, decide if they’re going to stay the night, or go back out into the meat market.”

The collegimento or ‘collective’ is the term Di Stasio uses to refer to the design team he has formed around Bar Di Stasio, which also includes his long-time graphic artist David Pidgeon, and Jason Smith. It’s what he has always done, from the Yarra Valley house that he and Powell worked on intensely seven years ago, or the Henson installation that came after a similar collaboration, to the Venice Pavilion competition, where he worked with Pidgeon, Morton and Smith (the results showed at Heide).

“Strength in numbers is what Ronnie is all about,” says Smith. “He is used to calling the shots but he knows that he can’t call all the shots, which is why he always gathers people around him, particularly artists – he loves the focus, the vocation, the passion of art, because it precisely mirrors his own vocation. Ronnie’s social network is incredibly diverse; it’s everyone from Janet Holmes à Court to Callum Morton and Bill Henson – and it actually works to support him.”

Di Stasio says as much himself when the conversation turns to star Sydney chef Mark Best. “He is lucky; he was able to express himself through food,” Di Stasio says. “I always knew there was a little bit of creativity in me and a bit of business, and I knew I’d need the business to express the creativity. It’s seamless, my work and my life; the restaurant is a way of me expressing who I am. It was this or the priesthood.”

Like Best, whose three decade push to the top of his profession was driven by the mindless boredom of rural Australia growing up, Di Stasio’s professional life has been an attempt to culture a cultured life for himself a few kilometres and a million miles from the time and place he grew up in, Thornbury in Melbourne’s northern suburbs at the beginning of the ’60s, the younger of two children born to Italian immigrants Pasqualina and Priscio, bored and almost existentially lonely, not least as the kid born here. “It’s trendy now, but let me tell you it wasn’t then,” he says of Thornbury. “The roads seemed huge when I was five, you could hear a car coming from Preston; you could hear the train coming two kilometres away. It’s like when I opened [Café Di Stasio] – if a car pulled up, they were coming here.”

That gives a hint to the essential Ronnie. As another old friend, Country Road founder and DrizaBone creative director Steve Bennett, says: “A lot of people talk about the margins with Ronnie, not the core and there is a very solid core; you see it clearly at Di Stasio’s. What he has created there is a brand and, when I think of it, I think of more than Ronnie. I think of a style, I think of a standard and an experience.”

Di Stasio has been endlessly diagnosed, including his own anxiety diagnosis. Is he depressive, does he think? “Well, yes, I’ve certainly been depressed,” he says, as Wall stage whispers “Asperger’s, Asperger’s” from behind her hand. “Or Stendalhism,” Di Stasio adds. “Like when I’m in Italy, it just takes over: the art, the feeling, the architecture and the history – it does my head in – the overwhelming beauty of it.” It is in that context that his food, his hospitality, the wellspring of his life and fortunes, belongs. Food for him is never an end in itself. He hates the chef as god cult currently sweeping the world. For him a meal is always an essentially cultural act. “The culture he has promoted started with food and an appreciation of that fundamental act of sharing a meal,” says Jason Smith. “You extrapolate out from that to all the other things he does – from the Venice Pavilion competition to the new space and that’s what drives him. He is himself a cultural entity, a cultural entrepreneur.”

In it all, Wall is his most constant partner in crime. “I don’t make this on my own,” Di Stasio says. “There’s very much two parts: Di Stasio’s is equally Mallory Wall.” But even she can’t accompany him when the day is done. “I need to get home to my own space to get away from it,” he says. “Only the dog’s allowed to be with me 24 hours a day because he doesn’t talk.” Not that that was always the case. When Wall bought Rosco three years ago, it sent Di Stasio into a prolonged decline. “He’d never had a dog before but I grew up with them,” says Wall. “Dogs are great de-stressers so I just went and bought it and Ronnie went nuts for two weeks.”

Wall recalls his reaction: “It was ‘you got a dog; are you f—ing insane?! There’s a financial crisis and she buys a dog.’” His response was, Di Stasio admits, much along the lines of some husbands when their wife brings the baby home. “Worse,” he says. “I don’t like change.” Slowly though, fury has turned into an almost pathetic adoration. “We were having dinner a few months ago and Ronnie said ‘have some wine; I’ve got something I have to ask you,’” says Wall. “Well, he looked so uncomfortable that I said ‘just spit it out’. So he did. ‘I’ll give you $50,000 for Rosco,’ he blurts out.”

Di Stasio: “I love him; I just love him.”

Wall: “I’m hanging out for a better offer but he’s spending three quarters of his time with Ronnie. Like everything, it’s a matter of daily negotiation.”

Di Stasio is, though, he admits, happier than he has ever been as the new expandedDi Stasio empire moves into its 25th year in 2013, with new growth on its right flank. Is this a new ‘Zen’ Ronnie? “I would say more Rinaldo now,” he suggests.

“I’ve really embraced my roots, I feel very, very comfortable with them, both Thornbury and Italy, my village outside Naples. I feel comfortable with who I am, appreciative of the things I’ve got, how luxurious is it to own one restaurant that has been there 25 years; that you’re still in love with and you like going to work in, to eat in, to live in, and people come and visit you. That’s my meeting place.”

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