How I Melbourne: Dr Sandro Demaio

Published on August 21 2019.

Photo: Dr Sandro Demaio

Dr Sandro Demaio trained and worked as a medical doctor at The Alfred Hospital before going on to promote good health and nutrition through roles at the World Health Organization and the not-for-profit EAT, as well as on television, at festivals and via a cookbook. The incoming CEO of VicHealth, Demaio also appears on weekly TV show Ask the Doctor, an exploratory factual medical series available in Australia and around the world on Netflix. He’s speaking next month at our sister event Global Table in two sessions: food as medicine, and the role of alternative proteins in feeding a global population of 10 billion in 2050.

I know I’m in Melbourne when I’m enjoying the best coffee in the world, watching all four seasons (and a tram or two) roll past.

My first defining food moment in Melbourne was spending very early summer mornings at the Dromana Pier as a four- or five-year-old. I would follow my dad to buy fresh fish direct off the boats returning from the Bay. The smells and sounds of the ocean, combined with the anticipation of knowing we would soon have a tasty lunch made from the day’s catch, was so exciting. Memorable favourites were fresh pasta with mussels or stuffed calamari.

The best new thing I’ve found is Melbourne’s many incredible inner-city gardens from Edinburgh to Carlton to Treasury. They’re the forgotten gems of our capital — and perfect for a springtime picnic with family or friends.

When I want to push the boat out on a meal, I love to invite a large group of close friends to our home for a slow-cooked dinner. The day starts at the Preston Market and then moves to my kitchen where I'll be making fresh pasta, baking focaccia, slow-roasting sustainable Victorian meat, and preparing loads of vegetables. My cooking is heavily influenced by my Italian ancestry (particularly my nonna and my folks), so dinner will usually start with a Spritz and some antipasti, then egg tagliatelle, before a long course of seasonal veg, salads, roasted roots, local seafood and more. To me, there is nothing more decadent or rewarding than taking a day to prepare a lavish meal for those I love.

There’s no better value in Melbourne than the fresh, tasty and incredibly healthy food of Victoria Street’s Vietnamese community. I love the flavours of coriander, mint, lime and fish sauce. In winter, I’m all about pho while come summer, I order fresh rice paper rolls and noodle salads.

And when I want to dazzle friends from out of town, I like to book a table at Source Dining in Kyneton. From their farm to my fork, the experience embodies everything that is delicious, diverse and incredibly high quality about our state's produce.

In the mornings you’ll find me at my local favourite cafe in Clifton Hill with my partner, Liv, enjoying a flat white and catching up on the world's news from overnight.

If you looked in my fridge, you might be surprised to find home-bottled tomato passata from my family’s farm. Every summer we get the entire extended Demaio clan (and a few extras) to help harvest the last of the season's tomatoes. Across four generations, we chop, crush, bottle and preserve them, throwing in garlic and a sprig of fresh basil. My fridge is never without a jar or two. It’s truly the taste of summer.

My local is Smith Street Alimentari because it reminds me of my last decade living in Europe. It's such an incredible and delicious celebration of the rich culture and influence of Victoria’s European migrant communities. The food is unpretentious but sophisticated, the coffee is always on point and in summer I love to sit in their courtyard. Try the daily salads, always packed with whole grains, seasonal veg and fresh herbs.

If I could change one thing about eating and drinking here it would be to see more chefs and restaurants getting excited by the opportunity to use their skills and influence to shape important conversations in society. While food is the building block of life, and something we all love, poor nutrition and our food systems are the leading threat to the health of Australians, and our natural environment. Chefs and restaurants can do so much to reshape norms, get us eating more sustainably and inspire us to eat more seasonal, Victorian vegetables.

But the one thing I hope never changes in Melbourne is the way food brings us all to one shared table. I often refer to food as the universal language in an increasingly divided world. Great food is one thing we can all agree on, and no matter our background we all love the diverse flavours, spices and experiences of Melbourne’s many food cultures. I’m proud to be from a migrant family and part of the rich cultural tapestry that Melbourne’s food represents. Let’s celebrate and protect the diversity in our societies, just as we celebrate and protect it in our food. I’d like to see us using food to connect, include and empower all communities.

Keep up with what Sandro is cooking and the latest on health and nutrition by following him on Twitter and Instagram.

Catch him speaking in Melbourne at Global Table, 3-6 September 2019 at Melbourne Showgrounds. Tickets are on sale now: globaltable.com.au