In The Weekly Review’s photographic studio, Shane Delia is discussing the secrets of making a perfect meringue – a clean bowl, egg whites at room temperature and slowly raining in the caster sugar …
Delia lives and breathes food and flavours and it’s been that way since he was 13. He grew up in a hard-working Maltese family in the western suburbs and his teenage years were a challenge. Teachers at Keilor Downs Secondary College probably didn’t have the young Shane Delia earmarked for the success he now enjoys.
“I had some learning difficulties,” he says frankly.
“I was diagnosed with ADD eventually but teachers just thought I was a bad kid who didn’t want to listen. They were always kicking me out of class. I wanted to succeed but I didn’t have the tools. You keep hearing ‘you’re bad, you’re dumb’ and, when you are trying really hard and getting bad marks, you think you’re stupid.”
A correct diagnosis and medication turned things around for Delia, 38, but by then he already had his heart and mind set on leaving school to start cooking.
“When I was given the drugs I needed, I smashed it – suddenly I was getting A+,” he smiles.
“I’d come home and go to my room to do my homework. But it was too late and anyway, I’d go insane in an office all day! I wanted to cook but it wasn’t glamorous then. People who flunked out of school or who came out of prison were cooks!”
Delia’s extended family were tradies – electricians, bricklayers and mechanics – but those trades lacked the creativity he craved.
I can’t wait to share my new series #RecipeForLife with you guys in January on @sbsfood! I had the most incredible time working with members of my community in Melbourne, like setting up a school kitchen garden with the guru Stephanie Alexander (@growcookeat) and some legendary high schoolers for the Feed The Mind project. #sbs #sbsfood @sbs_australia
“My happiest times were eating and cooking with my family. Every Sunday we had lunch with Mum’s side of the family and dinner with my paternal grandfather – 50 or 60 people,” he recalls.
“I had a block-release apprenticeship at the Gordon Institute in Geelong when I was 17 and Dad and my grandfather would drive me there after the family dinner. I was boarding in a dodgy place, earning a few hundred bucks a week and my grandfather would slip me a few bucks.
“Dad came to Australia at 17 with a couple of bucks and worked in the Dunlop factory for 36 years. He began as a tyre builder, educated himself and left as a director in south-east Asia setting up new factories. He’s the most selfless person I know. Before I got my licence and I was cooking I didn’t finish work until 11.30pm and the last train home to the western suburbs was a V Line at 10.30pm. Dad picked me up every night, put on the L-plates, I drove home and he’d be up at five o’clock the next morning for work.”
The structure and hierarchy he found in the kitchen suited Delia and he still seeks that structure and routine in his working day. He worked at Eden on the Park and Sofitel before becoming sous chef at Chateau Yering.
“I worked in pubs and pasta shops and hotels and then I realised there was another world of internationally renowned chefs who were innovators. They were highly skilled and wealthy and I wanted to be part of that,” he says.
“A lot of cooks work hard and there is that pocket who work hard and they’re gifted. I’m not saying I’m gifted, but I like food and I understand flavours – it’s the only thing that comes easy to me. I see something and instantly know five things that will go with it and how I’m going to use it.”
In 2008, Delia opened Maha with George Calombaris – in 2013 he became sole owner of the award-winning Middle Eastern restaurant. It’s named after Delia’s wife, whom he married in 2007 but the couple had known each other for years.
“Maha worked with my sister, Sarah, as a hairdresser. I’d see her around and would tell Sarah ‘Maha’s cute’ but Sarah would tell me to leave her alone because she had a boyfriend. Then they broke up and Sarah suggested we go out. Maha says she had to convince herself, but I was persistent.
“We married in 2007 and I wouldn’t be where I am without Maha’s support. She brings it back to the simple things all the time. I find it hard to get out of bed some mornings and sometimes I find myself upset for no reason. But every time, Maha pulls me back. I would have left me five times! I think it’s the pressure I put on myself. When I was a cook it was just me. Now I have millions of dollars of debt and 80 employees with families to think about so I have to stay focused.
“I hate the term ‘celebrity chef’ with a passion. I am at the businesses all the time. I take food out to people – I’m not peeling the carrots – but I’m there and I write every dish with my team.”
That focus led Delia to Biggie Smalls Kbabs – a kebab shop with a difference on Smith Street in Collingwood. Delia named the flagship venue after his favourite American rap artist who was shot dead in Los Angeles in 1997. He’s wearing a jacket bearing the face of the rapper that he bought in New York and couldn’t resist slipping into his suitcase.
Delia discovered Biggie Smalls when he was 14 during a family trip to Detroit to see relatives.
“I saw hip-hop culture for the first time and I immersed myself in this music that was so powerful but so wrong, too, then. You were a ratbag if you listened to that music,” he laughs.
“But I related to the messages in the stories. I didn’t live in a ghetto but I was a kid who was under-achieving and the music gives you a voice. I heard Biggie Smalls and thought he was an amazing lyricist and many of his songs were uplifting. There’s a song called Juicy – he talks about the dreams he had of being something else and of achieving that. It’s the anthem for me.”
Delia is a self-confessed perfectionist and creating Biggie Smalls became all-consuming. He spent $800,000 just on the fit-out and soon launched the Biggie Smalls Food Truck, and in September last year, another Biggie Smalls at the Windsor end of Chapel Street.
“I didn’t want another kebab shop. I got excited with it and wanted it to be special. Rap has an element of bling and glamour and I wanted Biggie Smalls to feel authentic to the last detail. My favourite kebab on the menu is the Juicy kebab. It’s tasty as hell! Have it old school with hot sauce – rocket fuel!” he grins.
“If I do something it has to be 100 per cent. We re-fitted Maha 12 months ago and spent a million bucks but I still wasn’t happy, so two months ago I put another $200,000 in to it.”
Delia’s Spice Journey series on SBS brought his passion for food to a national audience and he credits the show with enhancing his culinary capabilities. It took him from Iran and Morocco to the foothills of Mount Lebanon.
“I am 10 times the cook I was before I did the show,” he stresses. “I landed in Lebanon in season one with a backpack and heap of notes. I never did any training and it was hard work. There was conflict in Syria and at one point we were filming in a market in Morocco and I was p****d on by a donkey.
“I’ve been told by SBS there won’t be another Spice Journey, although I’d love to do something similar in southern India where the spice trade began. And I’d like to do a Spice Journey in New York – the biggest melting pot in the world.”
HAPPY BIRTHDAY @biggiesmallskbabs 🎉🎊🎈🎁🎁🎉🎊🎈 2 years ago today we opened our first store in Collingwood. Thank you to everyone for your support in making this dream come true. BIG things for biggie next year! I can’t wait to spend the love in 2018❤️ @mercedesbenzau #thebestornothing @mercedesbenzvans_au #borntorun #readytodine
His success and popularity have attracted some high-profile partnerships. Delia is a proud Western Bulldogs ambassador and a supporter of Melbourne City. But one of his most rewarding partnerships is with Mercedes-Benz.
For a motorsport lover, taking part in a Celebrity Grand Prix and driving a car he never dreamed he’d own is still a bit of a surprise.
“When I was young I built cars with an uncle,” Delia says. “He re-built old Holdens and he and Dad loved motorsport. My first car was a $600 piece of s**t that was in my uncle’s paddock with grass growing through the floor. I spent a year working on it – a Nissan/Datsun Pulsar. My other uncle sprayed cars as a hobby and he said he’d paint it for me. I had no money so he told me to collect his half-empty tins and mix them and that’s what colour my car would be. It was pink and he put all these metallic flakes in it – so much in that my car was all glitter. But I drove it for three years.
“I still don’t understand why Mercedes-Benz wanted me. Think about that boy with ADD getting expelled from school – did you ever think he’d be a brand ambassador for Mercedes-Benz? Every morning I get up and there’s a Mercedes C63 sitting in my garage. How good’s that?”
Delia has swapped the Sunbury home he’d lived in since his 20s for a larger family home – but he stayed true to his roots, choosing Moonee Ponds over swankier options south of the river.
“We looked in South Yarra and Toorak but they’re not my home. I have to stay true to who I am,” he says. And Delia looks forward to being his true self on Sundays when he gets to spend time with Maha, his young children, son, Jude, and daughter, Jayda.
“Monday nights we have dinner at Mum’s house – my brother, sister, our kids and cousins. I work Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. On Saturday my daughter goes to Arabic school and I pick her up and we have lunch and then I go to work.
“I love Sundays. I take my daughter to Vic Market early. We have a look at what to buy, have a burek, come home and I cook brunch or late lunch. Then I’m on the couch, chilling out and holding my kids.”
Away from the kitchen, Delia keeps fit and focused by boxing. He trains three mornings a week, spending another two mornings lifting weights in the gym.
“I box to keep fit and manage my weight and it makes you stand up straight and confident,” he says.
“I’m a bit of a recluse and like being around home or going to the supermarket in my trackies and a T-shirt.
“Last night I got home about five o’clock and there was nothing in the pantry so I ran down to the shop in a dodgy pair of trackies given to me for a charity cricket match last year. I don’t care.”
- 86 Smith Street, Collingwood
- 36 Chapel Street, Windsor
- Check the website for food truck locations.