Before establishing Aldo’s Restaurant in Warkworth, chef Aldo Franckin worked in some of the finest restaurants in the world. The royal family are among those who have enjoyed his cuisine. Little wonder then that his signature dishes – including chicken Marsala, calamari fritti and mascarpone tiramisu – have proved such a hit in Mahurangi. He spoke to James Addis about his culinary journey …
I was born in Newcastle, Australia, but my family comes from the Veneto region of northern Italy and our roots can be traced back there to the 13th century. I grew up in Australia but with extended family holidays in Italy. In Italy, I remember once we lived in a three-storey house in a small village. The bottom storey served as a barn, and at night the cows would be shepherded in there, the doors would be closed and the animals would heat the whole house.
My family had interests in all kinds of vineyards, food and hospitality businesses. Interest in food was very normal for us – we were immersed in it. There would be large family gatherings on Sundays or at weddings and at Easter, and we would all eat, drink, dance and sing. Everybody would bring their own special dishes and we children would take part in preparing the food, such as blistering capsicums on my Nana’s old wooden range stove.
Following the assassination of the former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro, my parents increasingly based themselves in Australia where they started up drive-in bottle shops and ran hotels and pubs. During my teenage years, I attended St Joseph’s College in Sydney as a boarder then went on to complete an apprenticeship as a diesel mechanic. Becoming a chef happened by mistake. My parents had bought a resort on Norfolk Island that was badly run down. They offered me a job maintaining the grounds, and for extra pocket money I would do waitering and helping out in the kitchen. One day, there was a huge fight between the executive chef and the sous chef that involved lots of screaming, pans being thrown around and the sous chef walking out. The executive chef was shouting “Who is going to help me now?” I told him, “I can do it. I have been doing this with my family forever.”
So, I began de-boning and stuffing the quails for him and wrapping them in prosciutto. The next thing I knew I was sent off to culinary school in Newcastle, and I’ve never looked back.
That was the beginning of a four-year apprenticeship working in different restaurants and going to college one week a month. Back in those days, kitchens were volatile and sometimes got violent. Pans were thrown around and there could be scuffles and fights. The work was demanding with long hours. There have always been high expectations on the executive chef to perform and a restaurant’s reputation can be won or lost very fast. Once as an apprentice when I was scrubbing down the benches, I completely lost it and tipped a bowl of soapy water all over my head chef. Of course, I was told to apologise and promise never to do it again. How did I keep my job? Well, the fact that my parents owned the restaurant probably had something to do with it.
After I finished my training, I began working at restaurants on different islands along the Great Barrier Reef. One place I worked at was Bedarra Island – a small, exclusive resort. One day a whole lot of military helicopters landed and all these marines got out. It turned out we were hosting the Duchess of York and a guest of hers, and they had booked out the whole place for themselves. The marines disappeared into the surrounding rainforest to maintain surveillance on the place, and we never saw them again for another seven days. I didn’t meet Fergie, but she did send back compliments to me and my fellow chef. Her favourite thing to eat was freshly poached coral trout with a light vinaigrette sauce with shallots and fresh vegetables. It was easy to do. We were well set up and would have flown anything special required from the mainland for her, but it never proved necessary.
After about two years at Bedarra, a colleague I had worked with in Sydney got in touch. He had moved to the UK to become head chef at Antonio Carluccio’s famed Neal Street Restaurant – one of the best Italian restaurants in London. It’s where Jamie Oliver worked in his early years and it was patronised by people like Prince Charles, Elton John and Nicole Kidman. My friend asked me to come over and become his sous chef and of course I said “yes”. It was a very serious position and you were not allowed to make any mistakes. Fresh ingredients would be flown in from around the world such as chanterelle mushrooms from Iran, Turkey or France depending on the season, and we would import enormously expensive white truffle oil from northern Italy. The restaurant was an official supplier to the royal family and we used to create antipasto dishes for the first courses at Buckingham Palace. We would also do the catering for the royal box at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Two detectives from the royal household would come down to the basement where the kitchen was and watch you cook. It was nerve-wracking, partly because normal service was still going on and the head chef and I would have to stop everything to attend to the royal duties. We would prepare things like fresh ravioli with spinach and ricotta cheese, pan-fried sole or salmon, chocolate baked tart, our own freshly made mascarpone and our freshly made Parmigiano gelato – which was quite radical for those days. The food would be plated and a detective would taste the finished dishes. Then they were sealed and placed in a large wicker basket for delivery by two assistants.
I was in London for a few years and then returned to Australia to set up an Italian restaurant with my brother and father in Terrigal, New South Wales. It was a lovely area, right on the beach. I was trained in French cuisine, which is a good base for learning other styles, but I always drifted back to Italian food. I find Italian cooking creates maximum flavour from minimal ingredients. I stayed at Almarco’s Restaurant in Terrigal for three and half years before moving to New Zealand to marry my wife, Susan. She had a good job working as director of the counselling service at the University of Auckland, and when I first settled here, she suggested I forget about working and take it easy for a bit. That was fine for a while, but eventually I got bored. One day I picked up the newspaper and saw that Antonio Crisci’s Toto Ristorante in Nelson Street was looking for a head chef. So, I went and had a chat to him and started the next day. We did some lovely food there and won a number of prestigious Metro Corbans restaurant awards.
Nevertheless, I was always looking for fresh challenges and after Toto’s I worked as a consultant establishing new restaurants and developing menus – notably when the wood-fired pizza trend took off in the early 2000s. Susan and I moved to Warkworth about 25 years ago and for a while we had our own restaurant in Snells Beach – Aldo’s Italian Cuisine – though mostly I continued to work in Auckland, either in other people’s restaurants or lecturing in cookery at a number of culinary schools. A few years ago, we decided we would like to set up our own restaurant again. Susan noticed there was a vacant space on Neville Street where the old Subway used to be and insisted I take a look. When I did, I loved the place. My wife and son Michael helped refurbish it. We even made our own tables from recycled kauri from the west coast.
Of all the restaurants I’ve worked in this one has a special place in my heart. It’s the most personal restaurant we have done. The food and recipes I use at the restaurant are the same as the ones we enjoy at home and at family gatherings – with as little complication as possible. Even our famous tiramisu, which for a long time Susan insisted was a special treat reserved for the family, is now something we happily serve at Aldo’s.