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André Ursini: from MasterChef to a hospitality empire

Eat | Drink | Explore

Despite a shaky start, Adelaide restaurateur and former MasterChef finalist André Ursini has established a fast-growing hospitality empire that is about to expand further with a new venture in the Hills – and, he reveals, a second city restaurant.

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For someone whose first restaurant venture bit the dust before it even got off the ground, who’s done everything back to front and says he’s broken all the rules, André Ursini has been an extraordinary success.

It helped, of course, that he was a finalist in the first series of MasterChef in 2009 – won by Julie Godwin with fellow South Australian Poh Ling Yeow second, and that he went on to make an enormous success of his second restaurant venture, initially named André’s Cucina and Polenta Bar. But it hasn’t stopped here.

“Now I’m flying under the radar,” Ursini says. “No-one knows what’s going on.”

When he took on MasterChef at the age of 28 he was described as a project manager. That was probably an optimistic description for someone who was helping his brother-in-law with a mining camp accommodation project.

He loved good food but he was no chef. He’d simply grown up in a large family with a strong north-eastern Italian tradition and a grandmother who was the nonna of all nonnas: “I still have her handwritten recipes from the ’60s,” he says.

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LISTEN: André Ursini reveals more about his MasterChef experience and his future restaurant plans to The Message Pod’s Nicole Haack here:

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Good academically, Ursini gained a degree in international tourism at Flinders University but he had no idea what he wanted to do: “I was confused and did heaps of jobs. From my late teens I’d said I wanted to be a chef, but my parents had talked me out of it.”

A visit to Dublin in 2006 changed that when he ate at a local Italian restaurant, Dunne & Crescenzi – still regarded as one of the city’s best Italian restaurants. It featured shared plates, great antipasti, simple cooking and great ingredients.

“There was nothing like it in Adelaide and I thought it would work really well here.”

Partners were found, a Grenfell Street lease was signed, there was a last-minute falling out and the idea collapsed. Ursini instead became a project manager in the mining industry.

That was when he saw an advertisement for MasterChef.

“I thought I could win it and use it as a platform for my restaurant concept,” he says.

“I really believed in MasterChef, and when I saw the other contestants I decided that I was the only one who really wanted to open a restaurant and that I could win.”

He did well, surviving for more than two months before being eliminated 10 days before the final, with only six contestants still ahead of him out of the 20 who’d started.

He worked for a suburban Italian restaurant in Adelaide for a year, “where I learnt what not to do”, before finding a place underneath a developer’s building in Adelaide’s Frome Street. He describes it a nondescript “scorched earth” location whose main advantage was its easy access.

“I ran the Dublin concept past Matt (MasterChef judge Matt Preston), who said I had to have my name on the door and add ‘polenta bar’,” he says.

“There were people who wanted me to fail, who told me I had to do an apprenticeship first. I was clumsy and I fumbled for the first two years.

“It was craziness – I had no idea what I was doing. It was a horrible experience.

“But I had some good mentors who supported me, like Jordan Theodoros (from Peel St restaurant). He came in and said, ‘Do you want to know the truth?’, and then he just laid into me.

“I knew I had to learn fast so I started working on the floor, not in the kitchen, and I took every bit of critical feedback to my face. I left my ego at home and went on an exponential learning curve.

“I’d been advised to first create the business model and, once that had been achieved, then to live out the passion. So once we’d established our corporate culture I was able to step back into the kitchen.”

André’s Cucina and Polenta Bar. Photo: Tony Lewis

André’s Cucina and Polenta Bar. Photo: Tony Lewis

But even that has been relatively short-lived. Having pulled together a skilled staff, many of whom have stayed with him throughout, Ursini was able to move beyond the kitchen and put together the necessary building blocks to build a fast-expanding hospitality empire with the “mothership” restaurant at its core.

Through his brother-in-law, he won catering contracts in the mining industry, providing home-style Italian food. That led to André’s Cucina and Catering Co, now with a still-expanding production kitchen on Prospect Road supplying restaurant-quality food for sit-down dinners of up to 300. That’s been followed by a wholesale business supplying other cafes and restaurants with breads and pastries.

Ursini didn’t like the consistency of supply of the micro-herbs he liked using, so he set up Big Little Veg & Co, a hydroponics venture housed in two shipping containers and a greenhouse. Another container is used for growing Italian varietals, “the bitter leaves”. Yet another container has been turned into a portable kitchen for a streetfood business he calls Mangia Mangia – “we’re at all the festivals: we say yes to everything”.

That should be enough, but no, there’s more.

Last year, Ursini and his family bought a former youth camp on nearly 8 hectares near Mylor. It will be named Lunelli Agriturismo, based on the Italian farmstay model, but with a derelict orchard to be restored and plenty of space to grow things it will become a culinary resource for the other businesses.

In the meantime, back at mothership André’s Cucina, life remains as hectic as ever, requiring the restaurant to run two dinner sittings on Friday and Saturday, closing the doors between 8pm and 8.30pm so the restaurant can be completely reset.

“It’s a very strange practice but born of necessity,” Ursini says regretfully. “It doesn’t please everyone but we have no alternative.”

So what next for Ursini? Could there be another restaurant? He never thought there would, but an opportunity has come up so there will be, opening around mid-next year.

If you live anywhere near Kensington Road, Rose Park, you’ll be very happy. But if you’re expecting any of the dishes mentioned above, forget it: Ursini says it won’t be Italian!

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