Is Adam D’Sylva the most optimistic chef in Australia?

Dec 8, 2021

For acclaimed Melbourne chef Adam D'Sylva, sweet success has arrived in a gelato cone.

By Wendy Hargreaves 

In the long shadow of Melbourne’s pandemic lockdowns, the award-winning chef has launched two new dining venues and a thriving gelato business, all while adapting his acclaimed CBD restaurants for the home retail market.

And this month, the MasterChef regular got his own TV show, co-staring in a brand new SBS cooking series India Unplated (Thursdays, 8pm).

So how does D’Sylva maintain momentum while fellow restaurateurs struggle with the economic uncertainty of repeated lockdowns?

“At first, it was all about keeping the lights on at Coda and Tonka,” D’Sylva says. “I had to make sure my staff kept their jobs and rooves over their heads.

“We were all in the same boat. Stopping wasn’t an option.

“Then you see new opportunities. And I’ve got some good people around me… people I can ask for help.”

Within days of Melbourne’s first lockdown in March last year, D’Sylva switched both of his Flinders Lane restaurants into production lines for vacuum-packed curries and braises and started home delivery.

Soon after, the flavour-packed bags from Coda and Tonka were stocked across Melbourne in dozens of high-end grocers.

“I never even attempted hot take-away,” D’Sylva says. “I couldn’t see the point of giving 15, 20 or even 30 per cent of our margin to somebody else.

“Restaurant costs don’t go away, so we created a whole new business feeding people at home.

“We do it all ourselves… vacuum sealing everything, so our customers just drop the meal in boiling water. We even print our own labels.

“We make food that people wanted to eat day-to-day, but with a twist. It has to be easy.”

With the arrival of summer, as restrictions lifted, D’Sylva opened a permanent Coda outpost on the top floor of the Lorne Hotel on Victoria’s south-west coast in partnership with the pub’s owners.

He also directed a sell-out Tonka pop up in the gardens of the NGV for the gallery’s triennial.

But wait. There’s more.

D’Sylva took on the role of culinary director at Lollo, his first hotel restaurant at the swanky new W Melbourne at the other end of Flinders Lane – a dining room poised for more great things when the Melbourne lockdown ends.

But D’Sylva says his most successful business move to date has also been the simplest – making gelato.

As Melbourne came out to play last summer, D’Sylva joined forces with Coda/Tonka pastry chef Monika Frkovic to launch Boca Gelato.

Testing the idea with two pop-up carts, they quickly moved the business to a permanent home in D’Sylva’s home suburb of Ivanhoe.

D’Sylva’s Indian-Italian heritage shines through in the flavours, from chai to traditional bacio.

True to form, D’Sylva is never shy about asking friends for help, and it’s paying off. His collaborations with MasterChef contestants are brilliant. He asks them to create one-off gelati flavours, running limited seasons at Boca and sharing profits.

“Boca has been amazing,” D’Sylva says. “The margins in gelato are so much better than restaurants.

“We’ve got plans for pop-up stores this summer.”

So, there’s a lot to feel positive about?

“Absolutely,” D’Sylva laughs. “Watch this space.”

Wendy Hargreaves is a Melbourne journalist, broadcaster and connector with decades of experience in print, radio and screen. She’s also an award-winning short filmmaker, food writer and proud FareShare ambassador. Her business, Bread and Butter Media, creates unique content to connect food and drink businesses with their people, and she’s always up for a chat: [email protected]

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