‘A dream come true’: The Aussie expat in the finals of an Italian TV cooking competition

Wannabe chef Valter di Cecco, who moved from Sydney to Rome, tells The Local how he hopes to shake up Italy's food scene with his spicy, multicultural cuisine.

'A dream come true': The Aussie expat in the finals of an Italian TV cooking competition
Valter in the kitchen. Photo: Valter di Cecco

When Australian-born Valter applied to be a contestant on a new Italian TV cooking series, he thought he wouldn't even get past the first round.

But he's now in the final nine, whittled down from 3,000 entries from across Italy and beyond, on Rai 2's Il Ristorante degli Chef. On the show, aspiring chefs are judged by experts on their ability to run a kitchen, as well as on their cooking skills.

He says he got his chance to shine on Tuesday's episode when he was given rice to work with. “I was really excited,” he says. “A chicken biryani. I know how to cook it well.”

“I was hoping to bring out my multicultural side. This was my chance to show the judges how well I can use spices,” he says.

His other dishes included prawn dumplings, roasted pork cheeks, and “the star, my Vietnamese salad.”

“They were full of that spice and everything nice about food in Sydney. It’s diverse and full of flavour,” he says.

“Coming from a multicultural society like Australia I’ve experienced a lot of difference types of cuisine and Asian food is my all-time favourite.”

But 46-year-old Valter, who speaks Italian and was born to Italian parents, admits that his biggest strength lies in Italian food, which he learned to cook at a young age.

“I learnt how to make my first ragu at 10,” he says. “My parents both worked long hours. This meant that mum was time poor, So that dinner was ready on time she would get the ingredients ready and have them waiting for me when I got back from school. Then she’d call me and give me instructions on how to make things.”

“Even on my school holidays I would go through mum's recipe books and experiment,” he says. “I just loved cooking. It was a creative outlet and still is today.”

One of the highlights of the competition so far, he says, was when the judges appreciated his twist on the classic carbonara.

“I had to revisit the recipe so I made it with chorizo, cocoa and smoked paprika.”

Photo: Valter di Cecco

On this weeks' show, he was chosen as the first capo brigada or team leader, in charge of service for diners including local celebrities and food bloggers.

Valter, a graphic designer, says he's used to having his work criticised – but being judged is never easy.

“I was trying to stay cool, calm and collected but once the orders starting flowing in things started to get stressful,” he says. “Chef Berton [one of the judges] screaming in your face is challenging but I still remained composed. Deep down I was completely freaking out.”

“But being selected as the first team leader was such an achievement. Who would have thought?”

He will have been living in Italy for three years in December, after he came over for to celebrate New Year in 2015 and “just didn’t go back home.”

“I didn't decide to move to Italy. It just happened,” he explains. “I kept on prolonging my departure date. Then I found a job and decided to stay.”

Though coming to Italy always “felt like being home” he says getting used to life in Rome after living in modern, multicultural Sydney has been a challenge.

“I try to take the good with the bad. I know that my lifestyle here suits me much more than the one I had in Sydney,” he says, though he’s still very attached to Australia and does get the occasional urge to “pack up and leave”

“I miss the clean streets, the beaches. I miss how easy it is to get around and how much space we have in Australia. But most of all i miss my family and friends,” he says.

Photo: Valter di Cecco

“Everything about what I just said means I should go back home,” he says, but admits he has been seduced by the Italian capital.

“I compare Rome to a relationship. It’s that girlfriend or boyfriend that you know deep down inside isn't right for you, but you stay together because of the passion, the excitement.”

“I think I'm in love with Rome,” he jokes.

And the relationship is nowhere near over yet. After the cooking competition, Valter dreams of eventually opening up his own cooking school in Rome, or even opening a restaurant “with an Australian twist.”

“My dream is to become a food ambassador connecting Italy with Australia,” he says.

“I want people in Rome to see that we can change things up a bit in the food industry and show them that we too can cook in other countries.”

But he has a long road ahead of him, as he prepares for the next round of cooking challenges on Il Ristorante degli Chef in which two more contestants face elimination next week.

The pressure is mounting on Valter and the eight other remaining wannabe chefs, but so far his skill and enthusiasm seems to be winning the judges over.

“I hope I can win the competition but I'll take each day as it comes,” he says. “I can't wait for the next challenge. I'm pumped and ready to go.”

You can see Valter and his fellow contestants in action on Tuesdays at 9.20pm on Rai 2.



Eat like a Bavarian: How to cook a five course meal of southern goodness

Beer gardens and restaurants Bavaria (and the rest of the Bundesrepublik) may be closed for sit-in dining, but here's how you can cook traditional comfort food to enjoy in your own home.

Eat like a Bavarian: How to cook a five course meal of southern goodness
A traditional Bavarian-style 'Brotzeitplatte'. Photo: DPA

Recreate Biergarten comfort

If you live in Bavaria, or have ever spent a holiday there, you know the drill: a sunny day = time to go to der Biergarten.

One of the many things that make Biergarten just so fun is die Brotzeitplatte, a big plate of typically Bavarian appetizers, like Obazder and thinly sliced Emmentaler cheese. Usually shared with friends or family, and accompanied by a cool Bier (beer) or Radler (beer with lemonade).

Good news is: Preparing a plate like that is quite easy and you don’t even need to turn on the oven. Just go to the market of you choice and get some: 

  • Thinly-sliced Emmentaler cheese, topped with some ground black pepper. 
  • Pickled cucumbers 
  • Some thinly-sliced ham. The best option is to buy Wacholderschinken from your local butcher. (Trust me, it’s so much tastier than normal supermarket ham)
  • Some nice Wurst (sausage), like Leberwurst (liver sausage) or Blutwurst (black pudding)
  • Thinly sliced Radi (white reddish), traditionally sliced in a spiral form with a special peeler. If you don’t own one, don’t worry, thin slices will do. 
  • Brezen (Pretzels) — because it wouldn’t be Bavarian without them 
  • Obazder, store-bought or homemade, whichever you prefer. If you would like to make some yourself, here’s a quick and proven recipe: 100g Camembert, 100g Brie, 100g cream cheese, 25g butter, a small diced onion, red pepper powder, a sip of beer, cut parsley, salt and pepper to taste. Mix everything well and take out of the fridge 30 minutes before mealtime!
Typically Bavarian ‘Brezen’ at a bakery in Munich. Photo: DPA

Nothing like a good soup

A hearty good Brühe (broth) used to be the pride of every Bavarian housewife (or house-husband). Usually boiled for hours and made from fresh meat, bones and vegetables, broth has become a convenience product. (Think little cubes of dried broth!)

Thankfully, today most bigger stores like REWE also sell liquid broth in glasses or cans. It is much more hearty than the dried version, and even German grandparents would probably approve. 

So to make a delicious Bavarian Hochzeitssuppe (“wedding soup“, but actually a soup for all occasions) you only need:

  • A big glass of broth (preferably vegetable or beef)
  • Griessnockerl: Ready-made ones are available at bigger supermarkets, but making them yourself if actually pretty easy. You just need one egg, 20g butter, 60g Gries (semolina), finely cut chives, muscat and pepper to taste. Beat the butter until it becomes yellow and fluffy, mix in the egg and beat again until the mixture gets foamy. Then stir in semolina and spices and leave to rest for about one hour. Then, with the help of two spoons, create little oval dumplings and directly slip them into the simmering broth. 
  • Dried pancake strips: Yes, you read that right. Leftover pancakes from your last brunch? Just place them in the oven on a big plate, let them dry until they’re crunchy and store in an airtight container. Whenever you feel like Flädlesuppe (broth with pancake strips) just heat some broth and throw them in. 
  • Some finely diced veggies to taste, like carrots or parsnips
  • Chives and parsley as a topping

Heat everything together and done!

A veggie-friendly allrounder: Käsespätzle (Cheesy pasta)

This dish really is an all time classic, not just in Bavaria, but also in Baden-Württemberg, Austria and even in the Alsace in France.

It is very easy to make, especially if you just buy your Spätzle. One might think that the combination of pasta and cheese really can’t be that special, but wait! The secret is in the cheese!

        Traditional Käsespätzle. Photo: DPA

Choosing the right mix of cheese for Käsespätzle is crucial. Depending on region, the recipe might vary a bit, but the general secret is: a mix of mild (preferably Emmentaler) and savory (preferably Bergkäse) cheese. And: lots of fried onions and parsley to top it with. 

The recipe is incredibly easy: Heat some oil and butter, throw in your cut onions, stir-fry and set aside. If you like it crunchy, sprinkle them with some flour before frying. Then, put the Spätzle in the same pan, heat and stir well. Then add your cheese mix, and again, stir well until the cheese has melted. Top it of with your onions and some fresh cut parsley and you’re ready to go!

READ ALSO: The 10 heartiest German dishes to get you through winter

There’s nothing like a heavenly creamy dessert

A bit lesser known than Kaiserschmarrn (shredded pancakes), but a creamy piece of heaven: Bayrisch Creme (Bavarian cream).

This recipe is a bit longer, but still easy. 

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All you need is: 

  • 2 vanilla beans
  • 300 ml full fat milk
  • 1 teaspoon (or as advised on packaging) Agar-Agar (a vegetarian replacement for gelatin) 
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 100 g powdered sugar
  • 250 ml cream 

Cut open your vanilla beans, scratch out all that black goodness and put it in the milk. Heat the mixture until it begins to boil. Then, pull the pot off the plate. Get a second pot, put in your egg yolks and sift in your powdered sugar. Then get a third pot (sorry, but it really is worth it!), and heat some water.

Place the second pot in the third pot, but don’t let any water run into your egg yolk mix. Slowly, under constant stirring, add the milk-mix. Then, take a whisk and beat the mixture until foamy. Take the pot of the plate, and let it cool down. Then beat the liquid cream until it’s stiff and mix it with rest. Put it into the fridge for a couple of hours until the mixture is quite firm. 

Bayrisch Creme is best served with seasonal fruits or fruit sauce.

Late night snack: A Bavarian cheese platter

It’s one of those nights, where you’re just having too much fun around the table to go home. Thankfully, there’s an excellent way to satisfy late night savoury cravings: a Bavarian cheese platter. You need:

  • Any local cheese you like, for example: Emmentaler, Bergkäse, Bavaria Blu, Alpenkräuterkäse, Tilsiter, …
  • Some cream cheese
  • Butter 
  • Blue and white grapes
  • Brezen

Enjoy! Or as the Bavarians say: Guad’n.

By Lisa Schneider