LUNCH WITH ADRIANO ZUMBO

Adriano Zumbo in Verde.
Macaron magic: Adriano Zumbo. Photo: Jenny Evans

Adriano Zumbo is the only celebrity pastry chef in Australia – possibly the only one ever. He has appeared in every season of MasterChef, the Ten Network TV show that turned competitive cooking into a spectator sport, and the queues outside his poky bakery in Darling Street, Balmain, grew across three neighbouring shopfronts. Tourists came first to take photos of the shop, then to take photos of queues. The shop was even burgled – and who burgles a baker?

He has lent his magnificently euphonious name to five stores, including cafe-style outlets in Rozelle and Manly, a cake shop at Star City, and a new bakery in Waverley. He has changed the way Australian foodies pronounce the word "macaron", so it now rhymes with "paragon", and introduced a puzzled but appreciative public to meringues made with pigs' blood.

He appears composed and at ease, almost perfectly still, but sometimes, he says, he feels a fear well up from nowhere.

"I get anxious for no reason," he says. "It might be stuff that's built up inside, I've got so many things on. Sometimes I can't stop it. I start to freak out. I get hot and I don't know why, then I start to panic a bit. It happens to me all the time."

Zumbo is quietly charming, open but understated, a country boy with Calabrian eyes. He's only 32 but can seem younger, almost a teenager. He grew up in Coonamble in the central west, and never expected to have all he's got.

"It never entered my mind I'd want to be in those shoes," he says. "I always wanted to be successful with a shop or something."

He could perhaps have been a footballer. He represented his district in junior rugby league and he is surprisingly burly. When he tries to show me a tattoo on his upper arm, he cannot roll up his shirt sleeve because his biceps form too big a hump.

We meet for lunch in Verde, a southern Italian restaurant in East Sydney. It's my choice, because Zumbo couldn't decide. The only place he eats "as a ritual" is Rosso Pomodoro, a Neapolitan pizzeria in Balmain.

"Between me and my girlfriend, we buy four pizzas, fold them over, sit there and eat them," he says. "I love it."

Verde is classical and comfortable. It's booked out at street level, but the manager seats us upstairs, where we are alone for most of the meal. A couple of guests come up, look around, spot Zumbo and say "ah", as if they fear they've made a mistake and accidentally walked onto a film set. He offers them a warm, shy smile.

In Coonamble, Zumbo's parents, both immigrants from Calabria, owned an IGA supermarket and, eventually a bottle shop and service station.

They set up Zumbo's sister with another IGA on the other side of town, and Zumbo used to work there while he was at high school.

He wasn't a great student. He was suspended from high school twice, and expelled from primary school in year 6 after a series of incidents culminating in his spray-painting the school fence with his initials – "and there was only one AZ in Coonamble", he says.

"I was just unfocused," he says. "I was a very fidgety kid. I had to do something in class – throw something or talk to someone – so I was always in trouble."

He liked geography, PE and woodwork, and his primary school girlfriend, whose initials, "PF", he painted alongside his own on the fence.

He wasn't much excited by food. His mother was a great cook, he says, but he was "a very fussy eater".

"Having a supermarket," he says, "everything's free – lollies and chips and biscuits and all the crap stuff. I used to live on that really. After school and before school, I'd get my supplies and eat them. And by the time mum cooked dinner, if it didn't smell sweet, or like a packet of chips, I wouldn't eat it.

"Sweet-wise, I knew my lollies really well. I was like an encyclopaedia at the time for the lollies that were around."

He liked working in the in-store bakery at his sister's supermarket but, he says, "I wasn't enjoying school and I had to be home by 10 o'clock, and I got sick of sneaking out at night. So at 15 I came to Sydney for a school formal and I found a job in the paper."

His first job in the city was at a bakehouse in Palmer Street, not far from Verde. It was there that he learnt both to cook and eat.

"I ate things that I'd never eaten before," he says. "I used to eat pasta with no sauce when I came to Sydney."

The chef at Verde seems excited and a little nervous that Zumbo will be eating his food. He puts together an entree platter for us, and Zumbo says the robust arancini balls and delicate whitebait are "beautiful".

Zumbo enjoys the company of other chefs. His friends include George Calombaris and Ben Hong. "We're like one big family," he says, without irony (he says pretty much everything without irony). "We always give each other help if we need it, and when you go and eat at their places you're always welcome.

"My girlfriend's a lawyer and she can't believe how protective this industry is of each other. In her industry, they all hate each other, in a certain way. They don't talk, they don't socialise, they don't do anything."

After the bakehouse, Zumbo went on to work at Wokpool, then Victoire, a high-end bakery in Balmain where he became the head pastry chef. He opened the first store of his own in Balmain in 2007, and began selling confectionary-as-art, sweets with names and faces and strange, exotic flavours. The pigs' blood macaron was only on sale for a day – "Blood doesn't last," says Zumbo. "It goes off once you put it in air" – but it went down well. His hamburger macaron was also popular, and pumpkin, risotto and humus have all been good sellers, but he describes his eggplant-and-chocolate creation as "pretty how's-it-going".

"It's not that it can't work," he says, "but I couldn't get it right."

His cakes carry titles like "Ed It's Twins", " Youranuse" and "Alessia I Like Big Buns".

He comes up with most of the names himself. "That's probably one of the hardest things," he says. "The cake's hard, getting the textures, the flavours, but then you get to the end and it's like, what am I gonna call this? Sometimes I have ideas for names before, and then I'll match a cake to it."

Zumbo became a regular on MasterChef "by accident", he says. He was asked on to the show to help design a "croquembouche challenge", and his quiet charisma made him an attractive TV performer, and he was invited back 13 times.

The queues outside the shop began after his second appearance.

"It was crazy," he says. "We'd bake all night and every morning by 10 o'clock we'd sell out and the shop staff would go home. We had to grow the kitchen and keep on growing and growing. We grew a base of followers from all over Australia. People used to take pictures of the queue. I remember on Twitter, people saying, 'Look at the queue'."

"There was so much hype at the time, MasterChef was new, everyone wanted to get in and see what the hype was about."

But it wasn't easy for him to get used to being on television.

"I was very anxious for the first few," he says.

"Now I'm pretty natural."

We both have the chef's special, wagyu sirloin with spinach, salsa verde and white anchovies. The steak is carved into polygons, as if it were cut from a giant, pyramidal cow. Zumbo says it's "really soft, like butter, delicious".

The queues outside the shop, he said, attracted the attention of criminals looking for a soft target.

"We got robbed once and they took the safe," says Zumbo. "It was bolted to the ground, they ripped it out. It never got solved."

Things have calmed down around the Balmain store since Zumbo expanded into other suburbs.

"It's softened up heaps," he says. "After opening so many stores, it's spread it around, but the hype of it has gone now. Still today people fly in just to grab cakes, then fly back to their city. Which is pretty surreal."

His breads are wildly popular. I could live off nothing but his nine-grain sourdough (and a couple of glasses of beer). But they don't always work.

"Bread with vegetables people didn't really take to," says Zumbo. "Pumpkin and tomato turns everything a reddy kind of colour and makes it hard for people to buy it. You've got to be careful not to be too adventurous. People want what they always get, bread-wise, but pastry-wise they're always looking for something new."

Internationally, he says, the trend in sweets is away from tricky molecular gastronomy and back towards classic desserts such as brulee, tiramisu and lemon meringue.

Sometimes it seems a bit overwhelming: "There's a lot more people here than where I came from," he says, "which is fine – this is where I wanted to be – but there's a lot going on, a lot more pressure to be somebody, to live up to who you are.

"It'd be a different story," he says, slightly wistfully, "if I was in a country town and I had a little bakery."

Life and times

1981 Born in Coonamble, NSW.

1997 Left school, started work at Dobinsons Cakes.

2000 Went to work at the pastry kitchen at Wokpool.

2001 Took a job at Victoire in Balmain.

2005 Left Victoire to work in the Cairns National Hotel for a year.

2007 Opened his first Zumbo store in Balmain.

2009 Opened the Zumbo cafe in Rozelle, made first appearance on MasterChef.

2010 Opened Manly store.

2011 Opened Star City store.

2012 Opened Waverley store.