As we gear up to watch 24 home cooks battle it out in the ninth season of Australia’s premier cooking competition, it seems a fitting time to celebrate the world of reality cooking programmes and the gems which they have the power to unearth.
While we have all followed the journeys of Reynold Poernomo, Julie Goodwin and Poh Ling Yeow, some Australians may not be as familiar with the story of one culinary great who has risen to fame following her humble beginnings in a cooking competition.
Melbourne-born Toni Brancatisano made history in 2009, competing in and winning Italy’s first ever cooking reality show, before ‘Masterchef’ came to the Belpaese.
The programme, ‘La Scuola - Cucina di Classe’, saw 15 contestants go head-to-head to prepare savoury and sweet dishes and make it through weekly eliminations to take out the title at the end. Sound familiar?
Toni, the only Australian in an ocean of Italian contestants, defied the odds and won the entire competition.
“There was also an American girl in the competition; I think from the beginning we were both considered easy people to beat and it was commonly assumed by Italians that we would have no idea how to cook,” she says.
“Winning was a wonderful experience, and I surprised not only the Italians, but also myself!”
The prize for first place was the chance to host a cooking show on Italy’s food channel Gambero Rosso and, in 2010, the first season of ‘Le Torte di Toni’ went to air.
The Aussie food guru won the hearts of Italians by taking to the screen to teach her daughter Annabella how to make and decorate a different cake each episode.
The show was a great success and by its third and final series, Toni Brancatisano was a household name in Italy.
Since then, Toni has built a career out of her passion, publishing a book, catering for special events (including the Australian Embassy’s ANZAC Day reception), and travelling throughout Italy to teach her craft and conduct Food Tours.
Toni also has a flourishing food blog where she publishes her culinary masterpieces, inspired by her life in Italy and her childhood memories in Australia.
Currently based in Rome, Toni grew up in Melbourne surrounded by fresh produce and passionate foodies.
Her father, a wholesale fruit and vegetable merchant, migrated from the Calabrian village of Motticella in 1955 with his mother and siblings, reuniting with his father and two eldest brothers who had settled in Melbourne five years earlier.
Meanwhile, Toni’s mother, of English background, was an exceptionally talented cook who mastered the art of not only Italian cooking, but of myriad other cuisines from across the globe.
“I can't cook without thinking of [my mother],” Toni explains.
“She’s the reason that I developed a love of cooking for others and a joy in preparing dinner parties, from setting the table, to finishing with a wonderful dessert.”
Having trained as a Registered Nurse at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Toni ventured to London in 1995, working as a nanny for a family with toddler triplets.
The plan was to stay for six months then return home to Melbourne, but the pull of London’s charm proved too much for Toni, and she stayed for three years, leaving only when she had exhausted every possible visa option.
“Coming to Italy was supposed to be my 'last summer' overseas before returning to Melbourne,” she recalls.
Toni made her way to Tuscany to nanny for an English family in their summer home, and settled there permanently when she married, raising Annabella and her son Joseph in the Belpaese.
Though Toni had been exposed to her father’s dialect and studied basic Italian in Australia, it took a winter of lessons and a few months of immersion for her to master the language.
“Doing my food shopping was a daily Italian lesson,” she says.
“The TV was only in Italian, and my first job was in reception at a small boutique hotel where answering the telephone seemed like an Italian exam every time!”
As Toni settled into the Italian lifestyle and became more familiar with the language, she also began to turn her hobby for making cakes into a small business which naturally progressed as people began seeking her talent for special occasions which called for an opulent cake.
Then came along a cooking competition and, as they say, the rest is history.
More recently, Toni filmed a pilot episode in English of her eating her way around the Italian capital and, if successful, it will become a series which will take viewers on a culinary journey of the entire peninsula.
Toni’s dream for the future is to produce a television programme for both Italian and Australian audiences, illustrating the many migrant stories which paint both nations’ histories.
“There are so many beautiful stories of migrants creating a successful life for themselves and their families and I'd love to share that through food, family, conversation and memories,” she explains.
“I feel that, especially at this time, it’s important to highlight the positives of immigration.”
While Toni is soaking up the splendour of la dolce vita, she admits to missing a few things about Australia, and though her twin sister lives in Florence, her family is number one on the list.
She also misses the food which represents Australia’s cultural diversity, and when she touches down in her hometown, Toni is sure to take a trip to the South Melbourne Market to savour the flavours of freshly shucked oysters.
While she may consider herself a “tourist” in Melbourne after living abroad for more than two decades, one thing is for sure: Australians will always claim Toni Brancatisano as their own.