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Put simply, Alejandro Cancino loves food!
That’s why he became a chef, and that’s what drives him to create dishes he’s not only proud to serve to his family, but to share with the public.
Alejandro’s illustrious career saw him lead the team as executive chef for Brisbane’s only three-hatted restaurant, Urbane, before he set out on his own on the Sunshine Coast.
He made the sea-change with his wife Paola and their 17-month-old daughter Lola, and since then the Visit Sunshine Coast Food Ambassador has made it his mission to champion plant-based cuisine.
Together with his wife Alejandro started his own plant-based wholesale company, Fenn Foods, and this week opened the doors to their own cafe in Kuluin, aptly named Lola’s Pantry.
In the lead-up to the much-anticipated opening Alejandro has shared what he loves most about food, and how the Coast’s food scene is inspiring him to further his plant-based philosophy.
What made you first fall in love with cooking?
The reason I became a chef is because I love eating good food. Since I was probably five years old I would take my time to prepare something or I would skip a meal if I didn’t like it, I was very picky when I was young. When I was around 15 I saw an ad where it said you could become a chef, and that’s when I was like, you can actually study this!
What was our first job in the industry?
I worked on a pizzeria doing events on the weekends because I was still in high school. We did weddings and big banquets, and that was my first contact with food.
What has been your biggest professional achievement?
Probably building up a team I am proud of, and I think I got that when I was at Urbane. I could really trust them and I think that for me professionally was the biggest achievement, walking in to a kitchen where I don’t even need to talk or explain, they just already know.
When did you start moving towards a plant-based diet?
I lived in Japan for a year and a half and at the end of my time there I met this guy and I asked him why he was vegan. I became a chef as I like eating, so for me I didn’t see why. I started investigating and the more I learnt… I didn’t really find any reason not to (become vegan). So, when we came to Australia we said let’s give it a go for a year, if we feel like we are going to die or we feel sick then we know it’s not the right thing for us. That was six years ago.
When did you first decide to move to the Sunshine Coast?
Probably 15 years ago, even 20 years ago. I knew it was going to be Australia, and I knew Queensland and the Sunshine Coast, so basically, we slowly came from the UK. We decided to go to Japan first as I had a job offer, and then from Japan I got a job in Sydney, and then from Sydney to Brisbane. We lived in Brisbane for six years, but it gave me a good platform and I had a chance at Urbane to do well and I get my name out there.
What can we expect from Lola’s Pantry?
It will be very simple, plant-based food. But we don’t advertise this as plant based or vegan, there is nothing on the sign, we just want it to be good food that happens to vegan. To start it will only be breakfast and lunch, and in the future let’s say on Fridays and weekends I would like to do a feast. I wouldn’t call it a degustation, it’s not going to have the stiffness of formal fine dining, it will be more like you sit down, food will flow and you will get to try a lot of little things. We are really focused on trying to use local produce and organic as much as we can.
What local suppliers will you be working with?
I am working with Food Connect, which is basically a Brisbane based social enterprise that does work with Sunshine Coast growers. So for small growers, who don’t even have a chance to deliver themselves, Food Connect will collect and deliver. We also have some small producers that deliver themselves.
What does the name Lola’s Pantry mean to you?
Why I named it Lola’s is because every time I do something on the menu I will be thinking of her (my daughter), would I serve this to her and would I be happy if she eats this? We are really proud to be serving local, organic food. Obviously, there will be some sweet and some indulgent food, but that’s fine everyone wants to have some chocolate, but it will be food that I am proud of in terms of the flavour and the ethics behind the ingredients.
Would you ever look at opening a fine dining restaurant on the Sunshine Coast?
Yes - I will come back to fine dining. This is a step to do something different and to build the company, but I think even within this complex (in Kuluin) we are going to have something, we don’t know yet exactly it all depends on what the response is, but I want to do more to develop and research what we can do with plant-based food.
What do you love most about living on the Sunshine Coast?
I think the landscape, the air and also the energy, I think people get more relaxed here.
What are your favourite places to visit in the region?
I really like the beaches, I love the area from Mooloolaba to Maroochydore, we live there in fact, and then up north Noosa is also really nice. I also like the Glass House Mountains, Doonan and Eumundi.
What would you like to see going forward for the food scene on the Sunshine Coast?
I think it’s already really good, I am happy with what I see so far, and while I know there are a lot of markets already I would really love a place where there is a food market every day. I lived in Europe for a few years and you would go to a market every morning and see ingredients that are amazing. My aim is probably at one point to get something like that here where you come any day of the week.
About Alejandro Cancino
Argentinean born Alejandro Cancino has captured us with his dynamic and internationally trained palate since his arrival in Australia. He has worldwide experience, including working in one of the world’s top ranked restaurants, Mugaritz, in Spain. In 2008, he was awarded Young Chef of the Year in the U.K. and in 2013 was honoured by Australian Gourmet Traveller Restaurant Awards for Best New Talent, in addition to being named Chef of the Year 2013 by The Good Food Guide.
During Alejandro’s tenure at Bulgari Hotels, Tokyo, the restaurant was awarded one Michelin Star. In Brisbane, Alejandro has put all his experience and natural talent to excellent use and has achieved three hats for Urbane and one hat for The Euro.
Now he's moving to the Sunshine Coast to expand his vegan manufacturing company, Fënn Foods, and recently opened his own vegan café, Lola’s Pantry.