Leo is Yak’s chef and one of the owners, the restaurant’s star midfielder and engine room.
Yak revolves around his fresh pasta made daily from stone-ground flour and the culinary creations he paints on its blank canvas.
He grew up in Coburg, the son of Italian parents who ‘left Italy but didn’t really leave Italy’, as he puts it.
Legal or not, the backyard pig was killed each year, salami made. And annually, too, his parents grew tomatoes and cooked passata. With such a background, he says, you can’t help but respect what you eat. He adores simple food crafted from the best and freshest ingredients.
At William Angliss, Leo actually trained for a front-of-house career. But what went on in the kitchen intrigued him too much. ‘I was more comfortable and more appreciative of seeing food come together.’ Being out of the front-of-house spotlight also suited his temperament.
He started an apprenticeship quite late – in his early twenties – and was tutored by one of Melbourne’s best Italian chefs, Valerio Nucci, at places such as The Grand Hotel in Richmond and The Boulevard in Kew.
He likes the stories behind recipes, researching authentic regional concoctions to test their suitability for Yak’s tables. Some of them are quite old, such as the famed vincisgrassi (offal lasagne), which was named after Austrian general Prince Windischgratz.
Linda and Mark Durnan
Linda and Mark are in youthful middle-age, a couple with three daughters and the same number of grandchildren.
Hospitality veterans, they’ve owned and run pubs and restaurants in both country and city for decades.
These days, Mark keeps an eye on Yak while working as a hotel broker. Linda is almost never away from the restaurant. She’s responsible for much of the management nitty-gritty as well as helping out front-of-house.
The couple bought Yak a little over ten years ago, attracted by its great location and loyal customers – they loved Yak’s casual ambience and quality bistro tucker.
But the Durnans, who love travel and excellent eating, wanted people to come to Yak for a superb gastronomic experience. Hence the partnership with Leo and Chris.
The ambience was also faintly Middle-Eastern, and they decided to lighten, brighten, and freshen up the place, which is these days mainly snow-white.
Linda cautions, though, that she and Mark were keen to retain Yak’s ‘friendly and easy-going ambience’.
The wine list is thoughtful and well-priced, and to find several excellent Italian micro-beers on the drinks list is very rare in a Melbourne restaurant.
FRONT OF HOUSE
Chris trained as a chef but these days handles Yak’s front-of-house.
He grew up in Melbourne’s outer-eastern suburbia, a bookie for a dad and receptionist for a mum. He jokingly claims he had to learn to cook ‘in self-defence’ – dishes at home hardly aroused the tastebuds.
He remembers being taken as a kid to restaurants, though, and chatting with his father’s friends, a few of whom owned pubs. He was hooked, and after HSC, he joined a catering firm and learned a lot from an excellent cook called Alex Roser.
‘Through him, I got in touch with the passionate side of cooking,’ he says. The chef showed him the care and precision required to make a great brown sauce, for instance. Chris quickly acquired the skills to make most of the classic dishes and sauces of Gallic cuisine.
This kind of rigour was reinforced when he worked in the UK and France. European culinary pros took cooking and kitchens very seriously, he learned, and he was taught the importance of precise quantities, temperatures and cooking times.
It was an eye-opener. ‘I got whacked once for having a tea-towel over my shoulder,’ he says.
At most Australian restaurants, this kind of kitchen discipline is pretty rare. ‘It’s like the AFL to the VFL,’ he says.
He also learned the primacy of great, fresh ingredients. ‘I often use the expression, the genius is in the simplicity.’ He adds, ‘Provided the quality is there it’s as simple as that.’