Alejandro Cancino is bringing his esteemed talent and passion for produce to the Sunshine Coast as our regional food ambassador.
Alejandro Cancino tears open a lemon that has fallen to the ground at McMartins Farm and takes a deep breath; the scent, he says, reminds him of home.
Growing up near Buenos Aires in Argentina, his father had a farm where it was commonplace to walk around the orchards, tucking into oranges and watermelons right at the source. And it was this accessibility to the freshest and most delicious food that Alejandro says set him up to become fussy with food.
“I’ve always been very picky with food! Even as a kid, my mum had a hard time with me and as I grew up, that transformed into me taking the time to make and eat good food,” he says.
“You might think every chef eats good food but that’s not really the case. Normally chefs try to please everyone but we don’t really look after ourselves because we don’t have the time, but I still take the time. I’d rather skip a meal than have a really bad meal. When you eat it sets you up for the following hours, if I eat something that’s tasty it puts a smile on my face and makes my day.”
Alejandro’s parents divorced when he was young, and he says he started cooking for himself from the age of 10 to help his mum, which fed his curiosity for ingredients and the enjoyment of cooking prospered.
“Even if it was making a sandwich, I would take the time to make it or I would go and buy fresh bread because I wanted to eat fresh bread,” he says.
Then at the age of 15, Alejandro saw an ad in the newspaper for a course to become a chef. Growing up in a third world nation, Alejandro’s family was not well off, but his mum said she would manage to pay for the course if he were to take it seriously.
“There was a scholarship at the end of the two years for the best student and I said to my mum when she enrolled me, ‘In two years I’m going to France with this scholarship’, which would pay for everything for three months,” he says.
“When I finished high school and finished the course, I went to France for three months and before I went back home I changed my ticket and decided to go to England to save some money. I went there and I knew no one, I had $100 in my pocket; for the first three nights I slept at the airport, at the train station, knocking on restaurant doors every day asking for a job.”
Alejandro, then aged 18, got a job in a restaurant in London and saved for six months with the goal of moving to Spain to work in the number one restaurant in the world. Unfortunately that restaurant, which has since closed, didn’t think he had enough experience and encouraged him to go work for one of their former chefs at Mugaritz, which is now one of the best restaurants in the world.
“I worked there for three years. The first year was super hard because I was taking on a role that was beyond me, but after a year I was okay. From there I went to Mexico for a year and then I went back to the UK to a very good restaurant and then I went to Japan for a year-and-a-half, working for Bulgari Hotels in Tokyo, which was awarded one Michelin Star.”
In 2008, Alejandro was named Young Chef of the Year in the UK and in 2013 was honoured by Australian Gourmet Traveller Restaurant Awards for Best New Talent, and was named Chef of the Year 2013 by The Good Food Guide.
During his tenure in Brisbane, Alejandro earned one hat for The Euro and three hats for Urbane, where he worked as executive chef for six years. But he always had his sights set on the Sunshine Coast, and in August he and his wife, Paola and their one-year-old daughter, Lola moved to the Coast.
“I wanted to step back from the kitchen and spend more time with my baby and make the move to the Sunshine Coast. I was mainly a stay-at-home dad until I opened our cafe (in September) because I wanted to spend more time with the family; I’ve been working for 17 years at a really high pace and really long hours – this time I’m prioritising life over money,” he says.
Alejandro is also putting his money where his mouth is, by serving only plant-based food at his cafe, Lola’s Pantry, and through his food label, Fenn Foods.
“It’s more about how we can make it easier for people to eat plant-based food. It makes you healthier, you have less impact on the world, it’s really positive. Rather than removing things from the plate, I prefer to add; through flavour. It’s much harder and it’s a challenge, but I like it. The more I work on it, the better I will get,” he says.
“If you think of bread or cheese or wine, I’m sure the first wine tasted like crap, or the first beer or the first bread, it wasn’t what it is today. The same goes with plant-based food, if you go to a cafe now, it’s okay and you will eat it, but we need years and decades and I reckon it will happen, but I want to accelerate that and be a part of that and be able to say I’ve done my bit to get animal produce off the plate. That’s my way to be an activist.”
With such a strong passion for food and incredible talent in the kitchen, Alejandro has become a Sunshine Coast ambassador, showcasing the region as one of Australia’s leading and most vibrant food tourism destinations.
Through his new role, he says he will connect with local and organic food producers to make healthy, wholesome and delicious vegan products in a way that is as environmentally friendly as possible.
“There is a large and ever-growing vegan community on the Coast and we wanted to make the move to the area not only for the lifestyle, but also for ethical reasons. As a vegan, I was no longer comfortable working with dishes containing animal products. I want to be able to serve 100 per cent plant-based foods.”
Simon Latchford, CEO of Visit Sunshine Coast, welcomes Alejandro to the region, recognising him as one of the most talented and reputable hatted chefs in the country.
“From the region’s earliest days, the Sunshine Coast has been synonymous with food. A great dairy region is now producing some of the finest cheese-makers. The establishment of Buderim Ginger and some of Australia’s largest herb and spice producers has been a natural segue for the growth of an incredible range of Asian-inspired cooking schools. And, of course, our coast is a fishing haven, with Mooloolaba and Tin Can Bay prawns and Noosa mud crabs now established as favourite menu items for chefs around the world,” he says.
With Alejandro at the helm, it won’t be long until the Sunshine Coast region is more widely recognised as the delicious foodie mecca it is.
Cover Image: Photo contributed by Visit Sunshine Coast