On Sunday June 4, 2023, Enzo Clappis celebrated his 90th birthday. The surprise bash was organised by his son, restaurateur Andy Clappis, and the shindig happened at their hilltop restaurant Our Place at Willunga Hill. Enzo had no idea the party was happening; he was too busy in the kitchen, preparing what he thought was a usual Sunday service. Our Place only opens on Sundays, and Andy and Enzo’s overwhelmingly generous hospitality has a devoted following of “in the know” regulars.

There is no menu. Instead, the father-son duo prepare dishes on a whim, each one inspired by Enzo’s past, from his childhood in Pola (now Pula, Croatia) to his cooking apprenticeship in Italy, and finally Australia where he and his late wife Zofka (known as Sonia in Australia) arrived in 1951 as post-war refugees.

The pair went on to pave the way in Italian dining in South Australia, including Glen Osmond Road’s Buonosera, the former Enzo’s restaurants at Burnside Village and Kent Town (which eventually became Chloe’s), and the Maylands Hotel, which they sold because the Clappis family didn’t want to be involved with poker machines. Now, with Andy by his side, Enzo shows no intention of slowing down.

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After nearly eight decades in the kitchen, he shares his thoughts on hospitality – then and now.

When and how did you start cooking?

I was 13 when I started my apprenticeship in Italy. When all my friends used to go and play soccer, I used to go in the kitchen and learnt to cook. When it was time to leave for Australia, my teacher said, “Enzo, don't forget that bravery in the kitchen is to do a lot with nothing. Not nothing with a lot”. This year, I’ve been in the kitchen for 77 years. Unbelievable.

What was the boat journey like in 1951?
It was a very good trip. The boat was an ex-army American boat and it was beautiful because we were treated as if we’d paid for the trip – and that’s where I met my wife. I befriended her brother and he introduced me to her. I was 17 and she was 20. She was wonderful. We lived together for 71 years.

We had to sign an International Refugee Organisation contract to agree that we’d work wherever the government here in Australia sent us. For two years, I had a contract in Whyalla working for BHP. I slept in a shed and when we had our first baby, he slept on top of a suitcase, but we loved it because we were in such a wonderful country. Eventually, I got my mother and the rest of the family over here and I went to Adelaide to cook.

Was finding work in kitchens difficult?
It was very hard to make a living by cooking because people wouldn’t touch anything continental. My first job was helping Emma Floreani, who ran a boarding house for 36 young, single refugee men. When she found out I did my apprenticeship in Italy and I was a qualified cook, she said, “Please cook for my boys”.

What were Australians eating in 1951?
Australians didn’t eat squid. They used to say that squid was poison and just good for catching fish. When I introduced it, they thought I was a mad wog. Don’t get me wrong, Australian food was good, just very simple. We taught the Australians to use olive oil because they just used dripping. When I had my first restaurant, people used to touch the plate and say, “This plate is not hot!” I couldn’t understand because back home we used to use the plate at room temperature. One day, I woke up and understood why; the dripping would immediately get stuck on a cold plate.

Did anything else surprise you?
When I was in Whyalla, I caught a giant cuttlefish and couldn’t believe it. My friends from BHP thought it was poison, but I said, “You must be joking, if we had something like this in Italy, we would have been rich”. I took this cuttlefish home, cleaned it, cooked it, kept the black ink and made a beautiful black sauce. I made risotto for 25 people with one cuttlefish.

When the Vietnamese and Chinese came to Australia after the war in Vietnam, you used to find a lot of things in Adelaide Central Market that you couldn’t find before. The first thing that I found was the parson’s nose. I rang my mother and said, “Mum, I found the chicken bums!” We used to love it. One day, I found rooster testicles and she thought Christmas had come.

How did you win hearts, including former South Australia premier Don Dunstan’s, with offal?
Where I come from, offal is a delicacy. Australians cooked tripe with a white sauce but I didn’t like it, so I cooked it my way with white wine. Oh, yes. Don Dunstan used to come to the restaurant regularly and couldn’t believe it. He said, “This is the best tripe I ever had … and I’ve been around the world a lot.” Don used to bring politicians to the restaurant for offal. When we had the hotel I said, “Don, I’m going to give you what you’ve never had before”. He said, “Come on, you should know that I have everything by now.” I gave them pork liver, brain, and then the surprise. Testicles. Don Dunstan had never eaten pig testicles before.

How do you cook a pig’s testicle?
First of all, you just poach it a bit and you take the skin away. Then cut it in half and you breadcrumb it like you would with brains, and fry very delicately in butter. It’s unbelievable.

How did Our Place at Willunga evolve?
We built it slowly, from nothing. Andy and I bought 500 acres at Willunga Hill and thought we’d retire up here. Andy started this as a joke and I’m still in the kitchen! Sonia helped me at all my restaurants, until she had a fall and she never recovered. She used to say, “With love you can do anything”. She was amazing. I miss her so much.

Where did you get your work ethic?
My mum had 12 children, that's why I'm a workaholic. I worked hard all my life. Sometimes I'm surprised what I can do at 90. I'm lucky that I can still drive. I still live in my beach house in Port Noarlunga and every morning at 7.30am, I give Andy a ring and if he needs anything, then I do some shopping for him. I'm here seven days a week. It must be in my genes. My Aunt Etta died last year at 108 and she was very sharp.

What is it like to work alongside your son?
When Andy was seven years old, he used to cry because he wanted to come with me to my first restaurant. We’ve been together ever since then. He said, “Dad, if anything ever happens to you, I’ll close [Our Place at Willunga]. I wouldn’t be able to go on without you.” It’s amazing. We have such a beautiful relationship.

What is the secret or the key to great hospitality?
You’ve got to love what you’re doing and every client should be a friend.