The hunting chef
Matt Fowles introduces us to Riccardo Momesso, a chef who has worked in some of Melbourne's finest restaurants but who first gained a love and respect for wild food while being carried on his father's shoulders on weekend hunting trips.
Every weekend of Riccardo Momesso's childhood involved hunting for rabbit, hare, duck and, particularly, quail.
He was learning the southern Italian traditions brought to Australia by his father.
“Before we were born Dad worked at the Ford factory and they used to go out the back after work and come home with a bag of quail,” Riccardo explains.
“At 14 I had a single-barrel Boito; on Sundays in winter we'd go and pick wild mushrooms first and then we'd walk and shoot half-a-dozen rabbits and come back.”
Back home with wild meat, mushrooms and artichokes, Riccardo would watch his mum and aunties go to work in the kitchen.
“It would turn into a feast,” he says.
It begs the question: what was the biggest influence on Riccardo gaining a passion for food that led to a career as a chef?
“Definitely the respect came from Dad and the preparation and cooking side of it came from Mum, but the respect for where food comes from, I got from Dad,” he says.
“As an example, Dad raises pigs for salami and he has a dedicated vegie patch just for the pigs; he treats them like they are his pets.”
In the Momesso household, everything hunted was for a purpose and nothing was ever wasted. Riccardo recalls family time around the kitchen table with his father on the plucking machine and the children (like a well-oiled assembly line) trimming and dressing ducks.
He can't imagine his own children doing the same and seeing it as a normal part of daily life.
“Now we have ipads,” he laughs.
“With the new generation you have to ease them into it; I've tried to ease my children into it.”
His own children share his love of quail, something Riccardo admits is a bit of an obsession.
School and Riccardo were not a good match and at 14, the day after he quit school, he was given an ultimatum — come up with a plan for a career by dinnertime or start work the next day at the family service station.
“After dinner he said, ‘Have you made up your mind?' and I told him I wanted to cook, to become a chef,” Riccardo says.
“The next day I was in the kitchen washing dishes at Spaghetti Graffiti.”
At 16 he was apprenticed at Café E Cucina, Il Bacaro and finally, Est Est Est. After five years working in Italy and France, the roll call of dining excellence continued at Circa and Il Bacaro in Melbourne before Riccardo became co-owner of acclaimed Italian bistro, Sarti, in Melbourne's CBD.
After selling his share in Sarti, he is now executive chef at the 400 Gradi restaurant, which showcases the food of Naples.
A signature throughout his career has been dishes featuring wild game.
“Nobody did game, still they don't,” he says.
“I was the only guy in Melbourne who would have hare on the menu; wild horse, wild camel — I'd give anything a go.
“It is OK to buy your meat from the supermarket but it also OK to shoot it; you shouldn't be judged for it. I am not a shooter, I am a hunter — there is a big difference.
“I've seen the billboards with celebrities saying duck hunting isn't a sport — they are damn right; it is not a sport, it is a lifestyle and you respect the duck and the food it provides.”
Riccardo has never had the opportunity to hunt Magpie geese but a friend who retired up north introduced him to it.
His friend was hunting a lot and needed a recipe to cook the legs successfully.
“I think the wild mushroom risotto is a nice fit with the seared magpie goose breast,” Riccardo says.
“I think the trick is not to get the skillet too hot, just sear both sides and then into the oven for a few minutes; it can be medium to rare with a bit of pink through the meat and just a drizzle of aged balsamic — beautiful.”
He's not the only chef to take a liking to Magpie goose. One of the world's finest, Marco Pierre White, was recently asked about his best discovery.
“The meat was so fine it was as good as the finest roe deer, the finest hare, the finest pigeon d' Brest, the finest challans duck — it was that good,” he told Good Food Guide.