Celebrated chef and dubbed ‘Godfather of contemporary Spanish cuisine’ Frank Camorra explains why the best coffee experiences often have nothing to do with the coffee quality.
Frank Camorra’s face lights up with the smile of a Cheshire cat as his mind casts back to the days of his chef’s apprenticeship at a prominent Victorian coffee lounge.
“The Arab was the most iconic coffee house in Australia in the 60s. Think of the hippest, coolest, most bohemian place you could ever imagine, that was The Arab. Sadly, it’s no longer exists, but man, was that an interesting place to work. There were wild parties, people smoking pipes, colourful cushions everywhere, and plenty of coffee. It was the first real coffee shop in Lorne [on the Victorian Great Ocean Road]. People would come back to relive the coffee experience they once had,” Frank says.
“For me, the best coffee memories are not just about the coffee but the environment, the atmosphere, the entire experience. Everyone has their favourite place, whether it be Marios on Brunswick Street, Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar in Melbourne’s CBD, or The Arab in my case. It may not be the place that serves the most amazing coffee but it’s the place that brings back the most memories.”
For Frank, those memories also include watching his mother visit a little café in Geelong for “her daily treat” – a cappuccino after the morning shopping, and the cafetière boiling on the kitchen stovetop. Even now when he visits his parents in the waterfront city, the cafetière comes out, and so does a bottle of anis liqueur.
Back in Spain, Frank describes the coffee culture as nothing short of “rubbish”, with strong, acidic, Arabica-based cortados and café con leche the most popular coffee beverages. Frank says coffee is often served with a shot of anise-flavoured alcohol to make the morning social ritual palatable. Thanks to Aussie expats, however, there’s a dynamic shift in coffee quality, and hopefully more on the horizon thanks to the next generation of passionate coffee lovers.
“I really do think Australia is the best place to drink coffee in the world. There’s no doubt about it,” Frank says. “Unlike Geelong in the 70s, you don’t have to search hard to find good coffee. It’s everywhere. And the fact that there’s innovation in it all the time is so impressive. It’s also a testament to the country’s hospitality scene, which is so advanced compared to anywhere else in the world.”
Frank enjoys a bit of bitterness in the cup, and drinks mostly black coffee at his acclaimed MoVida restaurant, which serves Aroma Coffee. He also enjoys a cup from neighbouring Patricia Coffee Brewers or Market Lane when he visits the Queen Victoria Market.
“There’s the coffee you drink because you need a caffeine hit, something to get the heart rate pumping before service, and there’s coffee you drink because you want to enjoy its flavour and nuances – they’re two different things for me,” Frank says.
“But you can’t have a Spanish restaurant without coffee. In Spanish food, you wouldn’t have a meal without bread, and you wouldn’t finish a meal without coffee. It’s part of the conversation as well. When you get your coffee and sit back and relax, that’s when the real issues come out.”
To fuel that conversation, MoVida serves a popular Madrid digestif called Sol y Sombra, meaning sun and shade in Spanish. It consists of equal parts brandy and anise dulce. There’s also carajillo – a typical hot Spanish drink of espresso with brandy. For extra oomph some people like to peel an orange, burn off the oil and add it to the coffee and rum concoction. It also makes the most amazing ice cream flavour.
Frank’s love and respect for Spanish cuisine has evolved over the years. Born in Barcelona before living in the southern Spanish town of Córdoba, Frank migrated with his parents to Australia in 1975 at just five years of age.
Growing up in the industrial suburbs of Geelong, Frank and his family spent much of their time hanging out with the Spanish community. His parents ran the Spanish social club canteen, which he recalls as a daily hive of energy, food, dancing, and coffee shared among hundreds of Spanish migrant families and friends.
“The food culture was massive. Everyone shared recipes and showed each other how to make chorizo, cured olives, and ham – things they would easily get at the local shops back in Spain, but couldn’t in Geelong at the time, so they had to learn to make it at home themselves and bring it to the club to share. It was an amazing experience and the first time I really saw people cooking for other people,” Frank says. “That’s how I got into cooking and why I enjoyed it.”
Frank completed five years of an architecture degree before his love for cooking took over. Initially, Frank says it was difficult to get a job as a mature age chef, but he worked his way up the ranks, coming back to Melbourne after his apprenticeship to work under Guy Grossi for eight years, eventually running a few of his restaurants as head chef.
“Guy was reinvigorating the cuisine he grew up with and I wanted to do the same. I felt Spanish food had been underwhelming in Australia for a long time. So, I went to Spain to get more experience and learn about the different regional cuisines,” Frank says.
On his return to Melbourne in the early 2000s, there was no shortage of head chef jobs in Italian restaurants, but no one wanted to hire a Spanish cook.
Instead, Frank started MoVida, a traditional Spanish restaurant that pioneered the idea of bar dining, shared food, and laneway eateries. It was first located in a pub before moving to Melbourne’s CBD where it gradually gained a loyal following and won multiple Chefs Hat awards and accolades.
“I remember in the first six months, people would walk in, the bar would be completely empty, and yet, people thought it wasn’t good enough and walked away. Nowadays the bar is the most sought-after spot. It’s where you get interaction with the chefs and other customers and have an experience that’s about more than just the food,” Frank says.
In 2008, Frank opened MoVida Next Door – Australia’s first genuine tapas bar and Frank’s personal favourite for its simple, delicious food with street-bar appeal, transporting Frank straight to the streets of Madrid. Then came MoVida Acqui in 2009, which embraces a larger, more corporate crowd, and MoVida Lorne, and ode to beachside Spanish dining with a focus on seafood and regional Otways produce.
Like most commercial chefs, 2020 tested Frank’s adaptability. After thinking the restaurants would hibernate for three months during the Melbourne lockdown, it was Frank’s staff and head chefs that were bored and wanted to put their energy to use. The team established traditional Menú el Día home delivery boxes of wholesome Spanish food. They also signed up to pre-prepared meal delivery service Providore and opened a small Mexican bar called Trasico.
“It’s been a hectic year. Despite the lockdown and being away from the day-to-day grind, it’s been taxing and squeezed the energy out of me. On the flip side it’s allowed me to be more hands on in the kitchen, which is what I know and love. And it’s been great to watch the staff grow and progress,” Frank says.
“But I’m ready to grab a camper van with my wife and drive up to the Northern Territory with only an end date in mind. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I can’t wait.”
This article appears in the August 2021 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.