Meet the Chef: Dan Johnston at Fontana

Photography by Nic Gossage
Interview by Harriet Davidson

Perfectly simple, simply perfect. That’s Dan Johnston’s food. But simple isn’t quite the word I’d use to describe how Dan has come to be the chef he is today, running the kitchen of the restaurant he co-owns with partner and front-of-house wizard, Ivey Wawn. From places and people to pages and potagers, there are many layers that Dan’s approach to food and cooking is built on. 

It’s likely that if you’ve dined in Sydney, you’ve eaten plates cooked by Dan and sipped on glasses poured by Ivey. And lucky you if that’s the case. This welcoming, warm and talented couple of wonderful taste opened Fontana last year. “We wanted to open a great restaurant and do it with good people that we respected, and that treat each other well,” says Dan. The way this duo run their restaurant, with such ease and grace, while making it look like a whole lot of fun, you know there’s a great deal of passion and professionalism behind every pour and every plate. 

We spent the morning with Dan and Ivey in their Redfern restaurant, capturing the space they’ve built with their team, their friends and their family, while Dan cooked his much-loved ceci e tria – a Southern-Italian dish that epitomises much of what Dan’s and Fontana’s food is all about. We also spoke with Dan on his approach to cooking; on the who, what, and where that has been behind his direction in food; on what inspires and what unwinds; on both the joys and complexities of working with small producers and farmers. 

Before you dive into the interview, you very well might want to scroll to the end, to the recipe, to get those chickpeas soaking so you can make yourself a bowl of Dan’s ceci e tria ASAP – it’s humble, it’s simple, but at the same time it’s delightfully lush. Much like Fontana, you know you’re in for a good time.

On what’s been most impressionable on Dan and his approach to food…

There are two experiences that changed my approach to food and cooking. The first was years ago thefirst time I visited and worked in Italy. I fell in love, and became obsessed. I always knew that Italian food was regional but travelling and eating through Italy made me realise to the extent of how definitive and defined the differences in the food is, not only region to region but also within the region, town to town. 

The other huge influence early on in my cooking life was having my own vegetable garden for a couple of years. I learned so much, about vegetable’s time and seasons, and stages of life and growth. How a young broad bean can be eaten whole, that a leek takes more than six months to grow, that I’m an excellent composter.

On what inspires the most…

My approach to food often starts with the traditional. I’m in love with the regional and subregional food of Italy. My starting point is often looking through a stack of old books, or regional-specific books. 

I also find I need food around me; I need to go to the markets, go shopping, see delicious things to feel inspired to cook something. In saying that, sometimes I read a recipe or think of something I’d like to cook, like a cassata or a beef daube, and I can’t move on until I’ve cooked it. 

Always trying to find the balance between simple and perfect. But don’t get me started.

My approach to food often starts with the traditional. I’m in love with the regional and subregional food of Italy. My starting point is often looking through a stack of old books, or regional-specific books.

On what Fontana is all about …

Fontana is a fun place. We wanted to open a great restaurant and do it with good people that we respected, and that treat each other well. We have such a good team and that’s where it starts. Ivey is now my business partner, best friend and lover all in one. She runs the best crew in the front of house and sweet wine list with lots of wines from friends and the greater community. The food is wholeheartedly Italian, but also wanders a little around the Mediterranean. We cook simple food with care. I think we get the vibe right in here almost every night.

We had so many friends help build the resty  – special shout out to creative studio, Oko Olo, they are amazing and simply the best, and to Ivey’s family.

The food is wholeheartedly Italian, but also wanders a little around the Mediterranean. We cook simple food with care.

On what drives day in and day out…

Wanting to be good at something. Becoming a better cook each day. 

Making a place where people have good times.

A satisfaction of contributing to making our city a better, more fun place.

On unwinding…

After service it’s a glass of wine at home and a few stretches. Days off always involve a swim or even a surf; I picked up surfing again a couple of years ago. I bought a huge, old man long board and I love it.

On a morning routine …

Every morning at the restaurant, once the chefs have arrived, we all sit down with a pot of coffee and talk about what we are cooking that day and who’s coming in. It’s a nice way to take a breath, have a couple of lols and get on the same page before starting a long day in the kitchen.

On the importance of relationships with producers and farmers …

It’s important for me because I’ve always had a love for growing food, and greatly appreciate the effort of the people who farm. Being close to producers means you keep in touch with the seasons otherwise it’s easy to lose track. In saying that, I am only really close to a couple of producers at the moment, and I don’t like to use that friendship as some sort of selling point; to me it’s a personal part of what I do and doesn’t need to be shouted to the world. 

We work with some stunning, cared-for produce, but I also don’t pretend that I don’t often buy tomatoes and capsicums from Queensland or John Dory from New Zealand.

On supply and championing small growers while running a business …

Of course, I love working closely with growers and producers and with farms and gardens of friends – that’s sort of where I started off 10 years ago – but I also need to buy from a big wholesale supplier for a couple of reasons. The nature of the small farms I work with means they have fluctuating supply, which makes menu planning of a busy restaurant tricky, so I often use these farms for parts of the menu that are more flexible – herbs or ingredients for a salad, garnish for a meat dish or a special.

The other reason is price – buying from a small farm is usually a more realistic price of what it actually costs to grow food and straight-up, I support that and make adjustments on our menu, but we also need to find a balance in what we charge for dishes. For example, on the current menu, we use around 40 kilograms of onions per week – none of the small farms I work with have this kind of supply and if they did, it would be a big price hike for the menu. It’s tricky but we use these great farmers where we can.

On late-summer produce that’s currently thrilling …

I work a little bit with Georgie from Sift Produce and she did a run of stone fruit a couple of weeks ago. I think I ate the best yellow nectarine that I’ve ever had. This is actually quite an abundant time for lots of local growers. Moonacres’ yellow tomatoes, sweet like a ripe fruit, need a mention, too. They’ve just about finished for the season.

On a shifting culture in kitchens towards a more balanced, more mindful workplace …

Everyone should be treated well and respected in their roles. I’d like to think that we have a great work culture at Fontana, some of that is down to how we run it, and some is due to the great people who work here. I think that if you come to work with an interest, a level of care and respect, that the culture will make itself. And remembering that we work in a place with extremely short-term goals and pressures, and often very in the moment, testing situations. Kindness is cool.

Kindness is cool.

On day-off, at-home lunching …

Spaghetti with butter and anchovies, a salad, a small beer.

And to finish, a few faves:

Favourite kitchen tool: Small, offset pallet knife
Favourite food book: Patience Gray’s Honey from a weed and Flavours of Puglia by Nancy Jenkins
Favourite food person: Vintage Rick Stein, like when he first went to the Mediterranean and The chef from the film, Big Night 
Herb: Controversial – marjoram
Place to perch for a glass and a snack in Sydney right now: Ante (sake and a snack)

Fontana’s Ceci e tria

Serves 4 people

Ceci e tria or or ciceri a tria; a dish that epitomises so much of what I love about food and how we go about cooking at Fontana. I’m in love with traditional dishes typical of far-flung regions of Italy. I think it could be the 0.5 percent of me that’s interested in history, or that travelling through the country you notice how suited and important some foods are to areas. There’s a small part of me that wants to keep these incredibly simple dishes alive and prevent them be forgotten. 

Ceci e tria is a chickpea pasta dish; luscious, warming and delicious. It hails from the Salento region of southern Puglia, but it’s often said that it could be one of the earliest pasta dishes recorded with close ties to the Arabic language and cuisine. Originally an unleavened dough, rolled and cut into strips then boiled in a chickpea or bean soup. Pieces of the pasta dough are always kept aside to fry and add to the dish at the end. 

I’ve eaten plenty of versions of ceci a tria during visits to Puglia over the years; we’ve tried to make the best possible version at the restaurant. This recipe here though, is for home – it is such a simple dish but it takes a bit of time and care to get it right. At Fontana we make our own chickpea pasta with an extruder. I’ve simplified this recipe, using packet pasta and frying chickpeas instead of the more traditional fried homemade pasta. The recipe is broken down into five parts, each as important as the next. 

Dan's ceci e tria – a Southern-Italian dish – is presented alongside IN BED 100% Linen Napkin Set in Natural.


Stewed Chickpeas

500g dried chickpeas
2 litres water
1 carrot
1 stick celery
1 brown onion
1 tomato
15 g salt

Soak the dried chickpeas in at least 2 litres of cold water for 4 hours, or ideally overnight. This will reduce cooking time and ensure an even cook. 

After soaking, drain the chickpeas and place them in a large pot. Peel and chop the vegetables into rough chunks and add them to the pot. Add the salt. 

Now it's a patience game. Cook the chickpeas at a tremor, just below a simmer, until they are tender (no chalky texture). Add more water if necessary so everything is covered by at least a few centimetres. When the chickpeas are done, take them off the heat and cool them in the cooking liquid. Discard the vegetables. Keep all the liquid to help bring the pasta sauce together later in the recipe. This should give you around 600–700 g of cooked chickpeas.

Chickpea Purée

150 g of your cooked chickpeas
80 ml of the cooking liquid

Add both ingredients to a food processor – it blends better when both ingredients are still warm. If it's not blending well, scrape the mixture back down and add a little more cooking liquid. At the restaurant, we pass the purée through a drum sieve to make it super smooth but this isn’t crucial if you don’t have the time or equipment – you’ll still finish with a great pasta.

Sofrito (This part of the recipe can be done ahead of time, or while the chickpeas are cooking). 

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 carrot
2 sticks celery
1 brown onion

Peel and chop the vegetables as small as you can. Alternatively, roughly chop them then pulse them all together in a food processor until they’re the size of lentils. 

In a small pot set over a low heat, add two tablespoons of olive oil. Add the chopped veg along with a good pinch of salt. Place a lid on the pot, stirring it periodically until the veg is soft, about 20 mins. At this point, take the lid off and continue cooking until all the water is evaporated and the mixture becomes sticky, about another 20 mins. The mixture should be sweet and a bit pasty, and all the ‘oniony-ness’ should be cooked out. If not, continue to gently cook until it reaches this consistency. Put the mix aside.

Fried Chickpeas

500 ml vegetable oil
80 g of cooked chickpeas, drained and dried on paper towel

Heat the vegetable oil in a medium size pot until it’s about 160°C. If you don’t have a thermometer handy, once the oil has had time to heat, add in one chickpea – if it immediately sizzles, it’s ready. If not, continue to heat it for a little longer. 

Carefully add the chickpeas and fry until golden and crisp, 1–2 mins. 

Scoop the golden-brown chickpeas out with a slotted spoon and drain on some paper towel. Boom.

Finishing, and pulling it all together

300 g orecchiette
The remainder of the cooked chickpeas, drained
500 ml of chickpea cooking liquid (hang on to remaining liquid in case you require more)
The chickpea purée
The cooked sofrito
100 ml of good-quality olive oil
Salt and a lot of freshly cracked black pepper

Put a pot of salted pasta water on and let it come to the to the boil. Add the pasta and cook for a couple of minutes less than the packet recommends.

In a large pan or medium pot on medium heat, add the chickpeas, chickpea cooking liquid, chickpea purée and sofrito. Stir until everything is combined. When the liquid starts to simmer, add half the olive oil, give it a good stir and turn it down to a low heat. Continue to reduce this sauce a little while the pasta is cooking. The chickpea purée helps to emulsify the cooking liquid with the olive oil. 

When the pasta is perfectly al dente, strain it and add the cooked pasta to the pan with the sauce, along with a few fried chickpeas (reserving some to garnish). The sauce should be emulsified and glossy, perfectly beige and still a little wet and soupy. If needed, add a touch more chickpea liquid.  

To serve, divide between bowls, scatter with the remaining fried chickpeas, a few more glugs of good olive oil and lots and lots of cracked pepper. 



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