It’s 7pm on a weeknight in early January and the restaurant at Melbourne’s Hotel Windsor is all but full. It’s not the customary scene, however, at this polite Victorian-era dining room in Spring Street. For tonight, diners here are going on a spice journey, sitting down to the likes of chemen-cured kingfish with Kewpie mayo and Urfa biber, or strawberry clams with basturma, saffron and arak yoghurt.
You might call it a pop-up; The Windsor prefers the more genteel “residency”. Downtown restaurant Maha has moved in and will stay here for six weeks, coinciding with the chic Middle Eastern veteran’s 10th anniversary and an overdue kitchen makeover at home base.
Boss Shane Delia is working the room. When you’re a telly star (Spice Journey, Postcards and his newie, Recipe for Life), chef, restaurateur and serial ambassador, it helps if you like a chat. And my goodness, Delia does.
He pulls up a chair and runs through his day. It’s been a biggie. He’s been scouting the northern suburbs for a suitably large pub to buy and thinks he might have found one; he’s making progress on finding new sites for his kebab brand Biggie Smalls, with the aim of opening another seven by year’s end; and he’s scouring the city for another site “to bring a bit more Middle Eastern magic to Melbourne”. Still under wraps, that one.
Plus there’s another 7am radio interview in the morning to promote his new series on SBS.
Even for someone as routinely overbooked as Delia, there seems rather a lot on his plate right now. And isn’t this holiday season?
“I love this time of year,” he says. “It’s when I do all my strategising. I was driving to work early the other day, on the hands-free, big few weeks ahead, and I thought, why I am I doing this? Oh that’s right, because I love it.
“Because when all the other monkeys out there are sleeping, I’m hustling. I don’t stop working.”
He was home early last night, though, he says. “About 11pm.”
Earlier, when I catch the chef at Maha in between meetings – and a gym workout – he talks non-stop for nearly an hour, darting from one subject to the next with an easy, engaging manner and a candour that slips into the confessional at times. Even then, the made-for-TV boyish grin is never far away. Whatever else you might say about this hyperactive, self-made, 38-year-old Maltese-Australian from Melbourne’s western suburbs, there’s no denying he’s an interviewer’s dream.
A born ambassador
The ambassador’s role comes easily. At last count: Western Bulldogs, Melbourne City FC, hospitality super fund Hostplus, Mercedes (he drives a C63) and – just signed – the Melbourne Storm. “No pots, pans or food products in sight,” he says, alluding to the more facile brand associations of many of his celebrity chef peers. He helped set up Sons of the West, a men’s health initiative, and City and the Community, a football- and hospitality industry-based program for disadvantaged children, among other community projects aimed at using food and sport to engage and educate.
It’s his fourth year with the Western Bulldogs. “I talk to the new recruits about nutrition,” he says. “They can relate to me. I was just a fat boy from the western suburbs. I can relate to their drinking problems, their anxiety and depression … I’ve had ADD [attention deficit disorder] all my life.”
Plus he’s tackling the thorny issue of school food through Feed the Mind, a project set up with the help of kitchen garden authority Stephanie Alexander and given a good airing on Recipe for Life.
“It’s not a reality show,” he’s quick to assert. “It’s really a voice for other people. I’m not Jamie Oliver, I’m not a crusader. I’m not a forager, either. I’m a businessman.”
Not many businessmen do this much community work, though. Do they?
“Ha! Well, too many people have sacrificed too much for me to just sit on my arse,” he says. “I’m just trying to balance out all the bad I’ve done in my life. I’ve not always been a good person. I was mentally unwell for a long time.”
As a young chef, fuelled by ambition and ego, Delia was obsessed with joining the ranks of the culinary elite. For a time, he was cooking for the wrong reasons, craving acclaim.
“In the past I’d come into work and punch a hole in the wall … I just used to react,” he says. “Now I don’t strike out so easily.”
Boxing, daily meds for his ADD, and the support of his family – wife Maha, son Jude and daughter Jayda, their names tattoed on his forearms – have all played their part in dragging him back up. “F… yeah. I was lucky.”
These days, he’s more sanguine about his 10-year-old restaurant’s place in the culinary firmament.
Loyal following says it all
“I’ve realised you don’t have to be the best. That’s not what hospitality is all about. Just be the nicest. We’re not one of the most celebrated restaurants in the country. But we have a loyal following.”
His friend Darren Purchese, pastry chef and creator of truffle-shaped icecream on Recipe for Life, says Shane is “a passionate and very knowledgeable chef”.
“Maha is a real extension of his personality in that it is warm, generous and has quality in spades but is not unapproachable,” Purchese says.
Back at The Windsor, Maha’s signature “soufra”, a banquet of allegedly four courses that errs in favour of the customer (it’s more like six or seven), is arriving at the table on earthenware plates. If there’s any sense of cultural disconnect between the faded grandeur of the setting and the spice-laden exotica before us, it’s gone soon enough. The flavours might be traditional, but there’s a freshness and a modernity to the food that lifts it above the rustic.
A quick word to the table-hopping chef about the lamb, slow-roasted and served off the bone with green olive tabbouleh mixed through. It’s so good, so clean and too easy to eat.
“Well, we’ve been doing it for a few years now,” grins Delia of the restaurant’s best-known dish. “I guess we know what we’re doing.”
And he’s off, on to another meeting, another customer, another deal. Never sitting still. What’s that quote from Woody Allen? Eighty per cent of success is just showing up? By that reckoning, Delia’s smashing it.
Originally published by The Australian Financial Review on 23 January 2018. Written by Necia Wilden.