Pastry chef Adriano Zumbo is Australia’s dessert king, known for his colourful creations and challenging recipes.
The dessert maker boasts a number of tongue-in-cheek titles, including the Sweet Assassin, the Patissier of Pain and the Dark Lord of the Pastry Kitchen. His mad scientist approach to crafting sweets has drawn comparisons to Willy Wonka – Zumbo even has the character tattooed on his arm.
The celebrity chef hails from Coonamble, a country town in the Central West region of New South Wales, about 6 hours’ drive from Sydney. Zumbo was born in 1981 to southern Italian parents Frank and Nancy. He inherited his mother’s culinary skills, having grown up watching her prepare sumptuous Italian feasts on special occasions.
The family owned an IGA supermarket, instilling in young Zumbo an appreciation for hard work and business acumen (in addition to a steady supply of sweets). A childhood spent in Italy exposed him to the local coffee culture, fostering a lifelong love for the caffeinated concoction. Coffee remains a favourite ingredient in the chef’s signature desserts.
Zumbo moved to Sydney in 1997 at the age of fifteen to embark on a pastry chef apprenticeship. The French-trained patissier studied the craft at Parisian culinary schools l’Ecole Lenôtre and Belleouet Conseil. He cut his teeth in prestigious kitchens around Australia and France, working with industry heavyweights Ramon Morato and Pierre Hermé.
Before becoming a household name, the chef came from humble origins, selling standard café fare like muffins and banana bread to local businesses and the grower’s market. In 2007, he launched his first patisserie in Balmain, enchanting residents with his sweet treats.
In 2009, the chef was catapulted to fame on the first season of MasterChef, after contestants struggled to replicate his infamous croquembouche.
Since then, the chef has appeared on every season of Australia’s favourite cooking program to showcase more of his dessert masterpieces.
Highlights include the macaron ‘tower of terror’, composed of 120 raspberry-beetroot and black olive macarons. Season Two’s V8 cake was an ode to vanilla; the awe-inspiring layered dessert featured vanilla done eight ways, from dacquoise to crème chantilly.
Capitalising on his newfound fame, the macaron maestro began building his dessert empire. At one point, the Zumbo brand helmed 10 patisseries across Sydney and Melbourne.
The Melburnian ventures included Fancy Nance, an upscale high tea salon offering a 12-course degustation. The whimsical menu featured delicacies like chocolate cake with cherry and vodka foam and a tarragon ice cream sandwich. In classic Zumbo fashion, even the savouries included a sweet twist, like the beef and bean chilli with dark chocolate.
Zumbo also went back to his Italian roots with the neighbouring Little Frankie’s, an Italian café, bakery and gelataria.
A collaboration with Arnott’s saw the patissier putting a unique spin on Australia’s beloved biscuits, reinventing Tim Tams in choc raspberry, red velvet, salted caramel and coconut cream editions.
The brand has been plagued by financial strain in recent years, with the chef’s companies going into administration in 2018. Amid a reported $10 million in debt and controversy around workers’ pay, Zumbo’s businesses eventually shut their doors. An alleged investment into a $500,000 macaron machine didn’t help matters.
Nevertheless, the pastry pro’s reign is far from over. Zumbo is a familiar face on Australian TV screens, with a portfolio spanning far more than occasional appearances on MasterChef.
He’s starred on SBS One’s Zumbo series, hosted Zumbo’s Just Desserts on Channel 7 and acted as a judge on Netflix’s Sugar Rush. The latter two dessert competitions have each been renewed for a second season, cementing the chef’s burgeoning television career.
The patissier has also authored Zumbo, Zumbarons and The Zumbo Files. Pastry-obsessed home cooks can find the secrets to the chef’s elaborate desserts within his extensive range of cookbooks.
Regarding his personal life, Zumbo is dating fellow foodie Nelly Riggio, a former contestant on My Kitchen Rules. When he’s not bustling around a kitchen, the chef enjoys hip hop and electro music, travel and fast cars.
By Jennifer Luu