Al Dente: Lessons Learned from an Italian Chef Living in Melbourne Lockdown

Jul 30, 2020

“I started making pasta from my house for no reason other than I’m not very good at standing still.”

Andrea Vignali has always had a passion for hard work and seizing opportunities. After working as a head chef in Robbiate, his village in Italy, he said to himself, “If I stay here, I will stay here forever.” And so, with his masterful culinary skills in tow, he made his way to a new country and a new experience.

The young chef arrived in Melbourne five years ago and after resume dropping to some of the most notable restaurants around town, landed a job at Grossi Florentino. He has been working there as a chef ever since. As the pandemic hit, he found himself, along with so many others, in an overwhelmingly difficult situation.

As many are so aware, when the reality of lockdown came crashing down, our international colleagues who help make up the vibrant food community in Australia found themselves in desperate times with no official financial support from the government.

“A chef always finds a way to work,” he said, stating it was “not an easy situation for anyone.”

As the government rolled out support schemes for those out of work, it quickly became apparent this did not cover temporary visa holders.

“At that moment they [the government] weren’t even telling us if we could get any money from our superannuation… I was really stressed out, I lost about 5 kilos in a few days because of the fact that we don’t have any support.”

Finding New Ways To Work

It was then that Andrea turned to something he’d always known. What started as a hobby became a way of appeasing his overwhelming situation.

“I started making pasta from my house for no reason other than I’m not very good at standing still. I just started making pasta and some friends on Instagram started saying they wanted some.”

In just one week, he was selling his handmade pasta direct to customers.

“I didn’t have any support. I couldn’t get any money from the government. It was really, really hard for me in that moment and this was the only thing I could do.”

“I had something like $1000 in my bank account. I started doing this.”

After gauging enough interest and seeing the potential that this could help him pay rent, Vignali bought a fridge off marketplace and made pasta-making his full-time job.

“I was never going to leave this country. It wasn’t my plan. I was ready to go work in a hospital or do whatever, as long as I could stay.”

Al Dente Community

Andrea’s social media endeavours gained significant interest, leading to him being contacted by renowned food writer, Dani Valent. Together with Ben Shewry, Valent founded the Attica Soup Project, a social justice movement that provides food and support for unemployed hospitality workers on temporary visas.

“I started making pasta and then I was contacted by Dani Valent and she really liked my story. We spoke about different support options and she put me in touch with the founder of Cookaborough.”

Lyndon Galvin is the founder of Cookaborough, an online platform that makes it easy for cooks to coordinate a home cooked meal service. Dani & Lyndon have been helping out immensely and contributing largely to keeping the project alive. From here Andrea’s pasta project, Al Dente, hit the ground running.

“Basically, I started just selling from that platform. In the second week we were doing 130 orders.”

With this new venture came a lot of exposure, “A lot of people have contacted me with ideas and wanting to go into business, with one person even saying they wanted to open a business called Al Dente and put me in there, sponsor me.”

“I owe a lot to Guy (Grossi, owner and chef of Grossi Florentino). He’s done so much for me. I came here and couldn’t even speak English and he gave me a job.”

Not only has this new project helped him get by in these trying times, it has also been a great springboard to share his experiences of being an expat in Melbourne with no financial support.

“My head doesn’t stop for a second, I’ve got a thousand ideas. I will do it when I can.”

Moving With the Times

In what is the norm these days, even this article has had to pivot over the past few weeks. We first spoke to Andrea after lockdown 1.0 restrictions eased in Melbourne and were all set to share his story. However, after going back into lockdown, his story and this article have both evolved even further.

Al Dente has developed now into a larger operation during lockdown 2.0. Andrea is now running this hustle with his best friend, Davide Bonadiman, another Italian chef from Veneto who has helped and supported Andrea since he first arrived in Melbourne 5 years ago.

“He has 14 years of experience in the kitchen and we have a really similar type of cooking.”

“I met him the first week I was in Australia and he gave me his couch when I was in trouble and without a place to stay.”

Al Dente in Iso 2.0

In this second round, Al Dente feeds about 140 families per week and gives out of work hospitality workers a job and support.

The chefs have employed a photographer, Dwichyna Putra, who is here on a student visa with no financial support. They have also hired another visa holder, Pranav Kapoor who is doing deliveries.

Al Dente is operating out of a pub kitchen, Coopers Inn, located in Melbourne’s CBD. Matt O’Kane is the owner of this venue and he has been supporting one of his employees – Isabelle Woods – since the first lockdown in March. Isabelle is from England and like many other migrant workers, she is unable to access government support due to her visa type.

Sharing the Ex-Pat Experience

“The thing that has been so important to me is to speak to other people and let them understand how hard it is for someone who has come from another country. I’m actually Australian,” he says jokingly. “I’m not but I still feel like it.”

“There’s so many others who have been here for years and are feeling the same way. From one day to another we have felt pretty bad because there was support for everyone else but not for us.”

“And that’s the thing that makes me happy – is that I can speak about this and not just the pasta.”

When asked what else he has been getting up to with such a drastic change to life as he knew it, Andrea celebrates the simple things, “One thing I actually enjoyed was having some dinners at home. I never had that! I worked in a kitchen from when I was young. I never had nights home where I could relax.”

In speaking to Andrea, it was very apparent that he was passionate not only about food, but also about helping others through his own experiences and now, providing opportunities to fellow struggling hospitality workers through a project that got its beginnings on Instagram.

“What I did without even having a job is I got up every day and I worked.”

“When you are in a hard position, there’s always a chance to find a way to get out. What pays you back is always hard work.”

An initiative of Fine Food, Hospitality Unites is the voice of the foodservice industry, dedicated to sharing the collective experiences and solutions to thrive in a post-COVID economy.

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