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Dirty ‘chai’ and other stories with chef Adriano Zumbo

Australian patissier and chef Adriano Zumbo on his lifelong love affair with pastry

The Dirty Chai dessert in a milk chocolate cup.
The Dirty Chai dessert in a milk chocolate cup.

I eat cake every day," declares Adriano Zumbo, his face breaking into a smile. It’s hard to believe that given his wiry frame, but his passion for pastry is evident. Zumbo was in Mumbai recently as part of World On A Plate, a food festival that included masterclasses by internationally reputed chefs. This was the second time the festival was being organized in the city and this year’s edition featured masterclasses from the likes of MasterChef Australia judge Gary Mehigan, Singapore’s pastry chef extraordinaire Janice Wong, Indian celebrity chef Ranveer Brar, MasterChef Australia 2016 winner Elena Duggan, and, of course, Zumbo.

Zumbo’s love for all things sweet began at a young age. “When I was a kid, my parents ran a supermarket; I grew up in there and everything was free, it was like a wonderland. There were lollies and biscuits and chips, and I used to eat more of that than vegetables," laughs Zumbo. He found his focus and relaxation in food. He admits to not being very academic in school. “I couldn’t focus, my mind was always elsewhere purely because I was bored", he says.

He moved to Sydney in 1997, began his pastry chef apprenticeship at age 15, and went on to train in France at institutions such as L’École, LeNôtre and Bellouet Conseil. He opened his first pastry shop in 2007 in Balmain in suburban Sydney, and since then his empire has grown to 10 locations, three books, and several TV shows. Speaking of the latter, it was Zumbo’s appearance on the first season of MasterChef Australia, with his towering croquembouche made with choux pastry, a technically difficult challenge for the participants, which made him a household name (not just in Australia but also in India, where the series has a devoted audience). He came to be called “Patissier of Pain" and “The Dark Lord of the Pastry Kitchen", given his penchant for seemingly impossible pastry masterpieces that contestants on the show had to recreate.

Complex desserts aside, Zumbo is known throughout Australia for his macarons, or “zumbarons" as they are known, which come in pop colours and flavours ranging from salted butter popcorn to malted milkshake, as well as toasted marshmallow, salted butter caramel on toast, and many more. He also occasionally organizes a “Zumbaron Day", unleashing his creativity with Willy Wonka-esque macaron flavours with delightful names like “lolly gobble bliss bombs" and fairy bread, not to mention some alcohol-based flavours like G+T, espresso martini and the like. It was this element of fun and creativity that drew Zumbo to pastry. “Savoury is creative too but it’s different, and not that colourful and fun and nostalgic as pastry," he says.

When asked where he gets his inspiration from, Zumbo has a one-word response—life. “Inspiration is everywhere—life, travel, childhood, nature—it depends on how you see it, how you can absorb the inspiration, and it depends on how your mind thinks. It could be a pattern on the floor that may be the next pattern I put on a cake, it just depends upon how you take it, when you’re seeing it and what you’re looking for," he says.

Chef Adriano Zumbo. Courtesy Adriano Zumbo
Chef Adriano Zumbo. Courtesy Adriano Zumbo

Zumbo looks up to culinary idols such as Pierre Hermé, the much revered French pastry chef and chocolatier. “I was really inspired by him from a young age, with what he did for pastry in the early days and still does. He changed the industry with his contemporary style in pastry. And then there’s Ramon Morató, who is a Spanish pastry chef. I spent a bit of time with him and he’s just a lovely guy, so helpful; just the way he thinks about inspiration and creativity is different, (especially) the way he looks at buildings and shapes and movements. He taught me to look at those sort of things differently, and how you can absorb a lot from architecture and modern art, it’s really interesting," says Zumbo.

For his masterclass at World On A Plate, Zumbo demonstrated a dessert he called Dirty Chai. “In Australian cafés, we have this drink called Dirty Chai, which is masala chai with a shot of coffee, and my dessert is based on that. The inspiration comes from the fact that masala chai is Indian; we have a different version of it in Australia, so I’m bringing a bit of Australia into the traditional Indian flavour", he says.

It was Zumbo’s first trip to India but he hasn’t had a chance to explore Indian food. “I have just been in hotels and restaurants since I got here," he says ruefully. His dessert, however, does full justice to the Indo-Aussie fusion flavours—a chai and honey date cake, raspberry jelly, and Dirty Chai cremeux, topped with Dirty Chai foam, which is served in a milk chocolate cup with Dirty Chai ice cream on the side.

All that sugar can’t possibly be good, can it? “I think it’s all about living a balanced lifestyle; you should eat the right foods, exercise a little bit, and you can still eat the bad foods. I think you need to have a day or two when you treat yourself, because it brings happiness, it stimulates your mind. If you starve yourself from all that you lead quite a boring life," he declares. Zumbo’s daily diet (apart from the aforementioned cake) includes high-fibre cereal for breakfast, salads, sushi, eggs, avocado, etc., for lunch, and a simple dinner of vegetables and some protein, of course, accompanied by regular exercise. “But two days a week I will have my cheat days when I’ll eat pizza," he says.

So what’s the next big thing in pastry, we wonder. “It has pretty much been the same for the past two years, to be honest. I haven’t seen anything new. Macarons, doughnuts, freak shakes, and ice creams are still hanging around. In Australia, nostalgic flavours like red velvet, apple pie, cookies and cream, and milo are still very strong. Last year, croissants were very big; filled croissants and different-coloured croissants were very popular. I don’t see anything new coming up in the next couple of years, everything is really about mixing two things together."

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