They say you can tell a lot about a person by the friends they keep. If that’s the case, then Vince Garreffa truly is Perth’s best loved butcher.
Last night, Garreffa and a roomful of pals – 553 of them, according to official RSVPs – gathered at Perth Arena to celebrate the launch of his first cookbook, The Flesh In My Life. The crowd wasn’t just notable for its quantity, but its quality, too. From winemaking royalty and heavyweight chefs, to members of famous Perth food families, the city’s eaters and drinkers were out in force to show their support for the founder of Mondo Butchers.
Equally telling is the calibre of Garreffa’s friends that couldn’t be there in person. Care of his 50-year (and counting) career as a butcher, our man is what you might call “well connected”. Among the people he considers buddies: Italian food figure Antonio Carluccio (he wrote the book’s foreword), celebrated restaurateur Neil Perry (he helped opened Mondo’s Beaufort Street store in 2006) and – more recently – American chef-turned-rapper Action Bronson. Spend any significant amount of time with Garreffa and it’s hard not to be won over by his warmth, positivity and generous nature.
Despite Garreffa’s impressive black book, his speech at the launch focussed not on the big names but rather the people and causes closest to him, in particular, Lifeline (last year Garreffa raised more than $500,000 for the suicide-prevention charity’s work). While the night featured plenty of humour (Garreffa: “A friend will help you move furniture, but a good friend will help you move a body”), there was an equal amount of sentiment, too, with the man-of-the-moment reserving his kindest words for wife of 43 years, Anne.
“She put up with all my bullshit and deserves medal after medal after medal,” he said with a wavering voice. “I don’t deserve her but I’ll hold onto her with all my heart.”
Heart is something Garreffa’s maiden release has little shortage of. The author writes with honesty, his recipes are designed for the dining rather than coffee table, and the photos provide priceless insight into life in Perth as an Italian migrant. In this exclusive extract for Broadsheet, Garreffa recalls the start of his butchery career.
Vince Garreffa: Although Frank Torre was a tailor by trade, he saw the need for Italian butchers in the area. He sponsored men from Italy and they worked in his stores, eventually training his two sons Carl and Anthony in continental butchery. I began a six month trial midway through 1965 before being signed up to begin my apprenticeship on the 5th of January, 1966, that day changed my life profoundly and would again in the not too distant future.
I worked at the Lake Street store with Carl and Garry worked at the Bulwer Street store with Anthony, so we never felt in competition with each other. Mr Frank (that is what we always called him) occasionally served in the shop himself until one day when he was faced with a terribly fussy customer. She complained loudly that the meat he was serving her was rubbish and he couldn’t please her no matter what he said. He lost his patience and threw his knife down, where it embedded itself in the wooden floor as he stormed out. I walked in at that moment and saw the knife swaying. Carl calmly instructed me to finish serving the customer and she gave me no trouble. It was the last time Mr Frank served in the shop and my beginning.
Old Mr Frank was a character, who ruled over his sons and the two stores. When we had early 4am starts, he’d arrive in his Sandman Panel Van to collect Garry and me so we wouldn’t be late. He’d pull up outside the house and rev the engine so we’d know he was waiting. At that hour, he couldn’t blow the horn and wake up the whole neighbourhood. We’d pile into the car and he’d drive us to work, rumbling along in second gear the entire way. In all the years I worked there, I never saw him drive in any other gear but second because he couldn’t be bothered to change gears. Realistically he should have had an automatic car.
Carl opened my eyes to a world I never knew existed. I had been sheltered by our quiet life; our parents preferred to keep to themselves and had only a few close friends. The butcher shop was my gateway, bringing me friendships, a social life, pride in my work and a window into the lives of customers from all walks of life. From a boy who never wanted to work, now I never wanted to leave. Carl was the first person I’d ever met who had been to university and to me, he knew everything there ever was to know about life. No matter who came into the store, be they a lawyer, politician, housewife, or doctor, Carl was sophisticated and could converse on any topic that came up. I was in awe of his ease with people and watched him intently, wanting to absorb everything I could.
His attention to quality and his skills with a knife were exceptional. I thrived working for the Torres, learning about more than just butchering. One of my jobs was to deliver the meat orders on foot, as most of the restaurants were within walking distance. Tony Perroni was in charge of handling the restaurants and he gave me detailed instructions on how to talk to the customers. When I had to deliver to Mamma Madiera Restaurant, he told me to pay close attention to Mrs Campolo and see if she was wearing anything new or had her hair done recently. Whatever I noticed, I should turn into a compliment. I followed his instructions and she immediately softened, smiling and instructed her staff to bring me a free Coca-Cola. To this day I still remember, a little charm and attention goes a long way.
The Flesh In My Life ($50) is available from Mondo Butchers, The Re Store, The Good Store, and Boffins Books, 88 William Street, Perth. Mail-order copies are available from Mondo for an additional $15. mondo.net.au