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Shane Delia Talks The Art Of Hip Hop Cuisine & Family

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By the sound of things, chef Shane Delia might have become a hip hop artist.

He certainly had some of that genre’s essential ingredients: a love of the music, an adolescence with (some) angst and a passion for sneakers. Instead, the father of two has become one of Australia’s best known chefs, with the Middle Eastern Maha restaurant (named after his wife) under his belt, and the newly opened Biggie Smalls, serving up kebabs in various incarnations.

His love of food has also led to his own TV show (Shane Delia’s Spice Journey), a collaboration with caterer Peter Rowland and an ambassadorship (Friend of the Brand is the official title) with Mercedes Benz. Rachelle Unreich sits down with this week’s Man About Town. 

Rachelle Unreich: You’ve named your new restaurant Biggie Smalls, which was a stage name of rapper Notorious B.I.G. – what did you like about him?

“I was the kid who no one believed in.”

Shane Delia: I like hip-hop and hip-hop culture. I was a fan from a young age. I was a kid who was finding it hard to fit into groups at school and get social acceptance and I had ADD, but I needed something to connect to, and I found a connection through the expression of struggle and pain and adversity, but also in the happiness and independence [in that music].

I liked how real it was, and Biggie is a poet. Especially that song Juiy – I know it word for word, I really relate to that track. I was the kid who no one believed in. Academically, I was the kid who was the pain in the ass of the teachers, and they were rapt when I told them I was leaving.

RU: That song says – “Don’t let ‘em hold you down, reach for the stars.” Were you always dreaming big?

SD: I’m always going to succeed, I’ll never fail. Too many people have sacrificed too much to give me this opportunity, so failure’s not an option.

My dad has given his whole life to us. Even before he had us – he knew when he came to Australia at 17 years old with the hopes and dreams of having a family and giving them a better life than he had.

RU: Musically, what else are you into?

SD: I’m stuck in the past, but I also listen to new stuff. Hip-hop as a whole is in a good state – look at Joey Bada$$, J. Cole, Drake, Pusha T – they’ve actually been brought up on the hip-hop that I’ve been brought up on – Run-D.M.C., Jay-Z, classic hip-hop, and they’re paying homage to that as well as creating something new.

For awhile in the mid-2000s, hip-hop was lost. It was no longer the hardcore Crips and the Bloods thing from the 90s, gang warfares died out, and it was trying to be hard but it wasn’t legitimate and went a bit weird. Now the rappers know who they are and are rapping their own style.

RU: Your family is Maltese, which has a very tight-knit community in Melbourne. What was it like growing up in that community?

SD: It’s a blessing and a curse! Up until grade 6, I thought everyone in Australia was Maltese. I’ve got 30 cousins on my dad’s side and the school I went to was nearly all Maltese, and the Australian kids were in the minority.

It wasn’t until I left primary school and realised, shit, I’m in the minority! We went to a public secondary school in Keilor and I was on my own and had to start again. But being Maltese was great, because we had a strong sense of family and security.

My grandfather was the pillar of our community, and very well respected by everybody, so being part of my family was a big deal. My grandfather was the Sergeant of the police force and a very honourable man who commanded obedience. You knew it if you stepped out of line. And my dad has seven sisters, so we were the last of the Delia name – my grandfather put a lot of emphasis on his Delia boys. 

“Chefs who cook on their own and don’t act like part of a team don’t work for very long.”

RU: You’re a big sports fan – who did you get that from?

SD: Dad was a massive Western Bulldogs supporter, and also worked at the Dunlop Factory, across the road from Footscray Oval.

From a young age, I didn’t know my dad really well because he was always working, so it was only when we went to the footy that we had quality time. I never played sport when I was a kid because I was the bad egg that teachers didn’t want to deal with – you could only do those things like sport if you did other things right.

I was like, ‘Stuff you!’ But I wish I’d had the opportunity to play team sports and be involved in a team. I didn’t learn that until I went into cooking. Chefs who cook on their own and don’t act like part of a team don’t work for very long.

RU: What’s been your best food experience?

SD: Anyone can talk about the best fine dining experience they’ve had. The Fat Duck was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had, but my best food memory – it might be gross – was with my grandfather and father, standing in his backyard slaughtering rabbits and preparing them for lunch.

I know it seems quite gruesome but it was a special memory for me – the connection, and the sense of handing down that skill, to my grandfather, then to my father, then to me. And then the cooking of the dish – the Maltese-braised rabbit – and feeling a sense of pride when I watched everyone eat it. I was about 13, 14 and contributing to something multi-generational made me want that, and not just on the weekend.

Everyone wants to be happy, and you’re drawn to things that make you happy. Cooking was one of the few things early on that I felt quite safe in. Everything else I wasn’t very good at, or wasn’t accomplished in, and it was a struggle.

RU: Worst food experience?

SD: Recently, at a local restaurant in Moonee Ponds. I like trying authentic dishes from different walks of life, and this was an authentic Laos Beef Curry. Can I tell you, this thing was the worst dish.

I opened the lid, and it smelled like someone had vomited in there, it was disgusting. [My wife] Maha told me not to throw it out but to take it outside. Stupidly enough – this is how dumb I was – three weeks ago, I ordered food from the same shop and ordered the bloody thing again because it sounds great on the menu! I forgot that it was the same dish I hated.

RU: Do you judge people by their approach to food?

SD: I try not to judge anyone, and I can’t judge, because I don’t like cheese. I can’t eat a cheese board, like blue cheese – anything that smells that bad should be buried. If you’re going to eat that stinky shit, there must be something wrong with you! I hate avocadoes, I’m not a massive mango fan, but some people come into the restaurant and go, ‘I’m a simple eater, give me a schnitzel.’

C’mon, mate, just try something else. Maha is more adventurous than I am. She comes from a traditional Lebanese family, and raw lamb is not something that’s unusual.

“I only like old school sneakers.”

RU: What are you passionate about aside from food?

SD: My family, that’s an obvious one. I’m not passionate about food, I think I’m passionate about hospitality as a whole.

I love getting up in the morning, I haven’t been to work in a long time, I really haven’t – I don’t feel like I’m going to a job. I love my footy clubs, I love automotives, I love the association I have with Mercedes Benz, music, my family, cooking. I’m not passionate about travel. I get to do it a lot but I’m not passionate about it.

Lately I’ve been really passionate about men’s health – mental health, emotional health. I’ve seen people around me really suffer, myself included, and that’s always overlooked, especially by men. [They think] It’s a sign of weakness if you need help. I support Beyond Blue, and I’m an ambassador for a men’s health program.

Sons of the West, I think it’s amazing, it’s changed so many people’s lives. I only play a small part about awareness and eating and making small choices that make big differences. Most men won’t change and do a 180, they’ll do a small change and eventually those changes add up.

On a more superficial thing, I’m passionate about sneakers, and I’m a bit of a weird about that too – I only like old school sneakers. Today I’m wearing Reebok Pump blacktops, I’m a big fan of my Nike Jordans, all my Adidas Shell Toes.

RU: Describe your dress sense?

SD: Diverse. Like yesterday I was wearing some beautiful stuff from Godwin Charli, a nice black jacket, but today I’m in a t-shirt and jeans. I dress for the occasion, I’m practical. I’m in a chef’s jacket in the evening, but when I jump on my motorbike to work, I don’t want to be wearing a suit, even though I love wearing a suit – that sense of empowerment and feeling good about yourself.

RU: You’ve got a few tattoos…

SD: All the tattoos I’ve got, it’s been a big decision – I don’t get them for the sake of them. They all have meaning. I have my wife’s name, my son’s name, my daughter’s name, the family crest and the evil eye.

With the last one, at one stage in my life I was going through that much crap that I thought I was jinxed. I prayed to my grandfather, and said that I felt like I needed something. Being Maltese, the evil eye is prevalent in our folklore.

For me, it was something I grasped onto, and I’ve had nothing but sunny days since then.

Photographed exclusively for D’Marge by Tintin Hedberg @ HELL STUDIOS – No reproduction without written permission.

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