Domenic Mondillo - Italian hospitality in the blood
He grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, surrounded by the love, good food and wine that goes with the warmth of a large Italian extended family, so it was inevitable that Domenic Mondillo would excel in hospitality.
The grandson of Italian immigrants, it was “all about food and wine”. “My fondest childhood memories were when my grandfather made wine in his basement and as the only grandson, I got to stomp on them,” recalls Domenic. “He’d purchase the grapes in autumn – one barrel every year. I have a lasting memory of the smell of them fermenting.”
His grandmother’s homemade pasta and pastry chef father’s Italian pastries also donned the large family table.
From an early age Domenic’s uncle had him hooked on fishing, salt and freshwater – still a passion today.
“I thought this place was Paradise when I arrived in 1981. The ski season closed, and the fly-fishing season opened – 42 years later I’m still here.”
Domenic attended a local Catholic boys’ high school before heading to Johnson & Wales University to study hotel restaurant management and culinary arts where he graduated with honours – among the top 5%.
At 21 he was offered a chef’s job in LA working for Hugh Hefner. “I could write a book about that time in my life!” A friend spotted cheap airfares to Australia - $199 return, so he headed to Sydney, working in Cairns for three months cooking and crewing on a deep sea, marlin charter boat. The Australians wouldn’t renew his 12-month visa, so he opted for three months’ skiing in Queenstown. “That happened 42 times.”
“Queenstown in 1981 to me was the absolute best place on the planet – the world’s best kept secret, and there wasn’t anyone here!”
Domenic landed a chef’s job for Leon Udy at the upmarket Treetops Restaurant in Sunshine Bay, located halfway up a large gum tree.
“He was instrumental in me getting my residency.”
After 18 months there Domenic worked at Queenstown Bakery before spotting an ad for a chef at a Frankton Road guest lodge run by colourful character Ray Drayton. “I didn’t end up cooking for him but a year later in 1984, Ray, Pete Maria and I bought Roaring Meg’s Restaurant off Louise Ongley (Kiely) and Pete Bonifant.”
Set in one of downtown Queenstown’s few remaining quaint historic cottages, they quickly built Roaring Meg’s up to award-winning status, with Domenic tantalising tastebuds and Ray front-of-house creating great hilarity with his quick wit. “It was absolutely Fawlty Towers. He was a clown and still is,” laughs Domenic, who focused on local produce long before it became fashionable.
Within a year or so they’d netted the prestigious Michael Guy Restaurant of the Year Award for NZ, winning numerous other top awards, and consistently taking out NZ Beef and Lamb Awards every year until they sold in 1990.
“I remember at a staff dinner once Ray was on the phone – those ones with chords 2m long. We had a manual telephone exchange then and I overheard him say to the operator, ‘Aren’t you going to wish me a happy birthday’, to which she must’ve asked if it was his birthday. He said, ‘No, but I’ve had three while I’ve been waiting for you,” Domenic says. “She pulled the chord out and we didn’t get our phone installed for three days.”
The dishwasher broke into the restaurant one night and stole a leg of venison, caught trying to raffle it off down at Albert’s Nightclub.
Domenic also bought Chico’s Restaurant and Bar in 1987, running both for three years. An intoxicated young woman rang Domenic at 5am to come and get her once after she’d passed out in the toilet and got locked in, missed during staff checks. “I thought maybe I’d been set up, then I got there and took one look at her.”
Chico’s live music included Robin Tripp, Alexa Forbes and her band Mango, and Kevin Atkinson. Domenic was granted one of only two Queenstown 24-hour licences.
In 1992 he sold his Chico’s shares to his partners, the Murphys.
He’d been helping Alan Brady with his Gibbston Valley vines for a few weeks, which morphed into 18 years with the company, studying extramurally as a viticulturist and winemaker and developing all of Gibbston Valley Wines existing vineyards. “I found and developed the land, including Chinaman’s Terrace and their Schoolhouse Single Vineyard.”
“It’s been hugely satisfying to see how that land and those vines have performed.” It was an “absolute pleasure” to also look after Alan’s original vines.
In 2000 Domenic and wife Ally bought 22ha at Bendigo and planted 12ha for their own top honours Mondillo label - Royal Easter Show Champion, O-I New Zealand Trophy, Top Five Pinot Noirs of Australasia, and a heap of gold medals and accolades for each vintage among their successes.
Mondillo Vineyards celebrates 20 years this harvest.