Nona food with heart from Jason

Vine ripened tomatoes.

By Tania Phillips

There is nothing better than fresh home passata created from vine-ripened in-season local Granite Belt tomatoes according to Jason Costanza and as the local “celebrity” chef for the region it’s hard go passed his opinion.

By day Jason works at the family winery Golden Grove – where you can find him on a tractor or at the cellar door, but most weekend evenings he is at his other job “Giorgio’s Mobile Chef”, catering events from the small and intimate to large banquets. At the moment he is busy preparing for the Rotary Charity event Bowties and Bling later this month, putting the finishing touches to the menu, sourcing produce.

However, despite learning to cook and love food thanks to his Stanthorpe-based Italian family and several years in Sicily – drawn by his culture – it wasn’t automatic choice for him to become a mobile chef – a caterer.

“I came back from overseas, I’d travelled around looking and working and doing all that fun stuff you do when you’re in your twenties, but I didn’t want to go fulltime back into a restaurant – getting slammed ala cart lunch and dinner,” he explained.

“I’d started working back at the family estate here at the winery at Ballandean. I always loved to cook. I always grew up cooking with my grandparents. Food was always part of your soul I guess – being Italian with Scillian Heritage. I started to cook, but I thought I didn’t want to do it full time – what can I do that ticks all the boxes?

“I just started doing real little dinners like 10 people, six people for the accommodation houses here.

“It started growing – a wedding here, a forty or fiftieth there. And I just started doing bigger things.”

He said he didn’t realise how much of a market there was in Stanthorpe – for massive events of 300, 400, 600 people until he started his business.

For Jason, his last name has helped him set up his business, they are a well-known and respected family and in a small region like the Granite Belt that means a lot.

“Word of mouth has been the biggest thing. The Costanzo name is big, word of mouth in this little town is better than any advertising I do, I don’t advertise much I’m just so busy.”

He said the first event he catered was back in 2010 – a small wedding.

Next year during the Apple and Grape Harvest Festival he will cater for 600, serving four courses. It is something he has already started planning.

“You need to work out what you need, what pasta you need to cook, what can stay warmer for longer, what doesn’t dry out. Picking the menu is an important piece of that puzzle,” according to Jason.

So where does he draw menu from?

“I just know what works,” he said.

“It might look elegant and good. But for a huge setting like that it is not going to work. You might cook for four people, and it might be the best thing you’ve ever eaten but upsize that by 400 and everything changes. Cooking a really good pasta, cooking a sauce it all changes.”

And all of the produce he uses is local?

“Yes and no, most of the produce I use in the summer is all local, tomatoes, capsicums, eggplants, mushrooms all that stuff that we grow. We make our own salami, dried tomatoes, pickling the olives, it’s really good,” he said.

There is little surprise, then, at his answer when asked what’s his favourite thing to cook for himself is. It’s farm fresh and simple. A predictable but perfect answer from a man who, along with his father, has been collecting and planting old peach and nectarine tree varieties on the family farm in recent years.

“It’s probably good old gnocchi with fresh passata,” he enthused.

“The old grilled capsicum on a bit of sour dough is always good.

“But my favourite thing is just fresh tomato sauce. What else would it be, when you’ve got vine ripened tomatoes, grown here in Ballandean. You pick them yourself, you make your sauce, it’s the best sauce out there.

“You can go to any deli in the middle of Melbourne, the middle of Sydney, pay a fortune but fresh passata with vine-ripened tomatoes, you can’t beat them.”

He said it is best to get the tomatoes at the end of the season when the season is pretty much finished, and farmers are happy for you to pick what your want just to make sauce.

“We’ve been doing that on this property for 65 years,” he laughed.

“The bottles that I put my sauces in are the same ones that my father use to use back in the 60s and 70s – the tallies, the long necks.

“Right now, I’m pickling mushrooms using vinegar from a vinegar barrel that dates back to the 60s. I’m using red wine vinegar out of that barrel that I’m keeping topped up, it’s got the culture in there. To me it’s the best vinegar and the only vinegar that I use. But it’s all those little things, all those things that you just can’t get or do anywhere else. You might be able to go buy the best rib fillet somewhere but some of the old school traditional, easy ways of cooking I love. Making the gnocchi or meatballs and all that stuff.

“Nona’s food I call it. It’s what it is and it’s just the best. I’ve spent four years in Sicily, and you see what they use and it’s just seasonal produce. It’s good in Stanthorpe because you’ve got a lot of stuff, a lot of produce to choose from.”