A love of fine food, gardening and the Dandenong Ranges runs deep in Emma D’Alessandro. Growing up in Upper Ferntree Gully, her passion for food was inspired by her family’s Italian heritage and she knew from an early age that she wanted to be a chef. Her career started at an Acland St café and before long she had secured an apprenticeship at Donovans Restaurant. Emma spent 16 years at Donovans. It was here that she met her husband, the French chef Kevin Cerquiglini, and where she was promoted to Head Chef. The mountains soon began calling Emma home and she returned with Kevin and their two young children, to live in Ferny Creek. Together, she and Kevin, along with Kevin’s best friend from culinary school, Adrien Gomes, opened Cognoscenti Food and Wine, in the main street of Belgrave.
Emma’s first food memories include picking beans for dinner, making gnocchi with her Nonno, and raiding the fridge at midnight with her sister for homemade charcuterie. “My grandparents were avid gardeners,” Emma recalls. “They had veggie gardens and fruit trees and grapevines. In our garden in Ferny Creek, Kevin and I have planted some 60-year-old cuttings my grandparents bought back from Italy.”
There is a strong connection between Emma and the Dandenongs that dates back to her early childhood. “I grew up right near the 1000 Steps and always loved being in the forest,” she says. “Even waking up to a drizzly, foggy morning is magical in itself.” For Emma, this was the place to return with her own children. “I loved growing up surrounded by trees, going to different markets on the weekends and I wanted our kids to have the same experience,” she says. “We’ve put in veggie patches, beehives and vineyards, and bought chickens.” Then, of course, there is the access to the city, the beautiful walking trails, the winding roads and fabulous local producers.
When the weather starts to turn, Emma loves nothing more than coming home to a nice, hearty soup. Autumn in the Dandenong Ranges is a feast for the senses and Emma is able to immerse herself in the experience, foraging for fresh local produce. “Kevin and I go picking mushrooms in Emerald,” she says. “I just love all the beautiful smells of cooking and spices in autumn. We’re cooking quinces on the stove right now.”
A passionate gardener, Emma enjoys using home-grown ingredients in her cooking. “I would make minestrone soup using fresh seasonal vegetables, and finish it with pesto for a burst of flavour,” Emma says. “When I cook soup at home for my own family, it’s gone in minutes. I love knowing I’m feeding people something that’s wholesome and also nourishing for the soul.”
For Emma, it’s the sense of belonging and community that she’s found in returning to her roots. “It’s so special being back in the area where I grew up and a part of the community,” Emma says. “It feels nice to be close to home and doing my own thing.” And, of course, Emma loves the exquisite dining experience that she, Kevin and Adrien have created at Cognoscenti. “I love working with Kevin and his best friend, Adrien,” she says. “It’s wonderful being able to sit down and put our ideas together, and to connect with all the people around us, including the beautiful local growers.”