On The Line: Caterina Borsato, Caterina’s Cucina E Bar
Richard Cornish, Food Writer, speaks to Caterina on finding the leader within.
Caterina Borsato has served traditional Italian fare to the barons of Melbourne’s business world since 1995.
As the founder and face of her self-named restaurant, Caterina and her team are renowned for consistently razor-sharp service and exceptional food. So how did Caterina’s underground CBD dining room not only survive the pandemic lockdowns, but re-emerge even stronger?
“During the darkest hours of 2020 I realised that if my business was going to survive, I was going to have stand up take charge of everything in my control,” says Caterina. “I learned quickly that leadership is not about telling people what to do. It’s about listening to the people you have around you, and finding out what they have to offer.
“I found out who was loyal and who were true friends. When the business came under severe stress those relationships we forged with customers, those conversations we had with suppliers, the people who respect and love what we do here… they were the people who supported us.
“We had customers who we have looked after, years ago, and helped us in profound ways that changed the lives of the people who work for us.”
With hospitality staff shortages remaining at critical levels, Caterina has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep her crew close and maintain her reputation for excellence.
“It has come to point where people in the industry are stealing staff,” she says stiffly. “If you approach my staff, you will never meet an Italian as angry as me.”
But Caterina says the staff shortages have created a new wave of cooperation in the industry.
“We are now in position in the CBD where businesses, my competition, we are sharing staff,” Caterina says. “That is how valuable they are.
“Good staff are essential in a business like mine. We have businesspeople who are on busy schedules, who are writing deals, impressing clients, so we need trained people, not just bodies. We need people who know wine, who know sequence of service and who know how to read people.”
Caterina also bemoans the loss of international workers. “When the government got rid of those poor students and visa holders we lost so much skill, training and deep knowledge of our businesses,” she says. “It costs so much to train people, and that training went back on the plane with the people the government sent back home.
“On any shift, with COVID and the flu, we can be three staff down with 90 covers to look after. This is where you rely on your family. My husband comes in and washes dishes. My daughter has resigned her fulltime job to work with me and my nephew went part time to come and work the floor. I am now doing 70 hours a week.”
During the depths of the lockdowns, Caterina returned to the country in Gippsland where she was born. She would visit her elderly mother who passed on the recipe for the bacalao dish that kept her employees busy when all else was shut.
“We made this super creamy salt cod dip,” says Caterina. “We put in jars and sold it online. The bacalao gave my chefs a reason to come to work. It wasn’t for the money; it was something to look forward to.
“And seeing mum gave me a chance to get out into the fresh air, the wide skies, the trees. I’d pick mushrooms and just getting my fingers, my hands back into the earth really grounded me.”
It was something else her mother said, that really put things into perspective. “Mum went through WWII,” says Caterina softly. “She said to me, ‘The war ended. So will this plague. Trust me.’ They were words I needed to hear.”
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