Adriano Zumbo, Australia’s answer to Willy Wonka, is building his candy-hued brand one delicious layer after another with more stores, new product lines and an addictive TV show. DAN STOCK reports
Adriano Zumbo’s sweet dreams.
He might be known as the sweet assassin and the patissier of pain for his sugar-coated TV challenges, but Adriano Zumbo is not impervious to criticism. Still, the man who popularised the croquembouche handles it with astonishing aplomb. Two years ago, while building a macaron kiosk at Emporium Melbourne, the mischievous dessert maestro took the unusual step of emblazoning the hoarding with scathing online reviews – of his work. “Considering how he prances around like he invented all this stuff, it was a little underwhelming,” fumed one. “I honestly hate your macarons and all that other rubbish stuff you create. By the way get some hair while you’re at it,” seethed another, in a childish reference to the bald-headed dynamo. And this: “Overpriced, overrated and outrageous.” The most offensive words were even highlighted in his signature fluorescent pink. The move was daring and irreverent – and totally Zumbo. “I’m serious about what I want to do, but I don’t take myself seriously,” he says. “If someone wants to take the piss, who cares?” The unflappable chef-entrepreneur is now the pivot of a new show, Zumbo’s Just
Desserts, in which he dispenses sage advice to 12 amateur cooks competing to re-create his most fantastical cakes. As you can imagine, their meringue is a mess, their flan has flopped and their choux is unchewable. But Zumbo, ever-composed for a man who has a delirious Willy Wonka tattoo, says the contestants rise to his “challenging challenges”.
“You want people who push themselves – that’s what this industry is all about,” he says. “Even me, you’ve got to keep pushing yourself. Pushing, evolving, trying new things, taking in criticism from people, and thinking about it and growing.”
Life as a super-star chef is worlds away from the fidgety 15-year-old who “couldn’t wait to get out of school”.
As a teenager Zumbo struggled academically but found his calling working in the bakery of his sister’s supermarket in Coonamble, in central-west NSW.
“I started getting into it, colouring the sponge, frosting it. I’d take them to school and everyone would love them. My teacher said, ‘Amazing, you should keep this up.’ Everything else I did, I’d get in trouble. “So I started to feel good,” he says. Though discouraged by his Italian parents who ran the other supermarket in town – “They wanted me to stay at school and take over the family business” – Zumbo moved to Sydney and began an apprenticeship at a cake store.
“In my head, I always wanted to open my own shop, filled with my own creations,” he says.
A decade later, after stints as a chef and working holidays in Paris learning from such luminaries as Pierre Hermé, that became a reality. In 2007 he opened his first patisserie in Balmain, selling what has become one of his calling cards, the macaron (or Zumbaron as they’re known in his candy-coloured universe).
That one store has grown to seven across two states, with two more opening by year’s end – Circular Quay in Sydney in September and Doncaster in Melbourne in December.
Next up are Zumbo-branded Sunbeam appliances and an app where players build their own pastry shop. Take that Pokemon.
Not surprisingly, the 12-hour days required for filming the new series proved tricky.
Zumbo credits the “fantastic cast and crew” which includes British chef Rachel Khoo, last seen on My Kitchen Rules, who joins Zumbo as a judge, along with Gigi Falanga, his chef assistant.
Khoo says it was a great opportunity to work alongside Zumbo, who was generous with his knowledge and experience and “didn’t mind me asking a million geeky pastry questions”.
“I was blown away every time Adriano revealed one of his creations,” she says. “We shared a lot of pastry experiences and tips.
“I think the most helpful was how to eat gracefully in front of the camera. Adriano loves his desserts and just goes for it.”
Yet devouring desserts is something people are doing increasingly less, with refined white sugar replacing fat as dietary demon number
“Sweets are a delicacy… that little bit of naughtiness”
one. Zumbo, however, is untroubled by such things as the I Quit Sugar movement.
“It doesn’t affect me,” he says with a shrug. “It’s not a load of crap, but there’s sugar in everything. Whether it’s refined sugar or coconut sugar, it’s still sugar. For me, sweets are a delicacy. It’s something you need in your life, that little bit of naughtiness. You need sugar – it’s like happiness.”
Treating people is what drives the 34-year-old chef. In fact, he is so focused on work and pleasing others that he is currently single. Eventually he wants a wife and a family, but he doesn’t feel pressured to settle down. Not yet anyway.
In the meantime, Zumbo is spinning many other plates.
“I want everyone to be able to enjoy what we do,” he says.
His reach extends from packet mixes to smart phone apps, festival appearances to his own show.
And with so much on the go, Zumbo shows no signs of slowing down. Maybe it’s all that sugar. Zumbo’s Just Desserts, 7.30pm, Monday and Tuesday, Channel 7