Home cook and author Julia Busuttil Nishimura talks to BeanScene about local coffee appreciation, a year of simple family food, and the train station coffee that started her drinking journey.
If home is where the heart is, then Julia Busuttil Nishimura will have no trouble adjusting when she moves from her inner-northern Melbourne abode. For the past five years it’s been the place she’s raised sons Haruki and Yukito, picked figs from the alley way, cooked family meals, developed recipes, and acted as the entire backdrop for her cookbook photography.
As Julia connects to her Zoom interview with BeanScene, her iconic kitchen is once again on display with a map of Japan on the wall behind her – an ode to her husband Nori Nishimura’s heritage – and dough proofing in a bowl to the side of the computer screen.
“I’ll miss this space but I’m so excited about the move. The kitchen is what sold us – the marble benchtop, really big oven, and lots of space to cook and create,” Julia says.
Currently a short walk to her favourite cafés Market Lane, Wild Life Bakery, and Everyday Coffee, Julia loves the ritual of visiting for a morning milk-based or iced coffee and buying beans for home. “We live so close to Market Lane that when we run out, we just ride our bikes to the vending machine out the front and stock up,” she says.
Julia is excited to explore the surrounding cafés in her new suburb, but one device packed and ready for the move is her filter brewers.
“If we’re at home and Nori is making coffee, I’ll have a pour over or a Moccamaster black filter coffee. In the afternoon, I love a long macchiato or short black after lunch or dinner. My maximum is two a day. I have to space it out otherwise I get jittery,” she says.
“I’m not a connoisseur, but I know what I like, and that’s more rich, darker roasted coffee rather than coffees with super fruity profiles, which probably lends itself to the Italian style coffee I got used to.”
During her university days studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Italian language and international politics, followed by a Masters of Teaching, Julia studied in Florence before working as an au pair in the small town of Grosseto in the region of Maremma in Tuscany.
But it was on arrival to Rome’s ‘termini’ central station that Julia experienced her first Italian coffee encounter while meeting her sister living in the city at the time.
“We got a ‘cornetto’ or a croissant with an espresso at the train station bar, holding it with a napkin to avoid sticky fingers, and I remember standing at the bar, taking a sip, and it felt incredible. You feel a part of something special among the hustle and bustle around you. There were people in suits, nuns standing next to you – a whole gamut of people who had come together at the one place to have a morning coffee,” Julia recalls. “It’s a vivid memory of my first experience with coffee and it blossomed from there. I travelled across Europe, drank quite milky coffees in France, and learned to enjoy coffee after food, which has become such a part of my daily ritual.”
On return to Melbourne, Julia’s love for coffee extended to heavy consumption on her university campus, and visiting classic Italian cafés such as Brunetti in Carlton where she lived, and an old school Italian coffee shop on the corner of Faraday Street where she would sit for hours drinking coffee after coffee.
Julia fell in love with Italy’s passion for coffee, but experiencing Japan’s coffee culture has also been a contrasting experiencing as part of yearly trips to see her husband’s family and friends – pre-COVID-19.
“There’s two sides to Japan’s coffee culture. On one side is the super old school traditional-style cafés called kissaten where they serve black filter coffee with shokupan bread and a boiled egg for breakfast with everyone smoking around you. Then, there’s this new wave of tiny hole-in-the-wall cafés popping up all the time with a new age demographic who’s obsessed with coffee, pour over, and coffee in a can. When we visit in summer it’s all about iced coffee though. I love it,” she says.
Compared to Melbourne, Julia says, what’s unique about the coffee scene is its consistency and unwavering pride in preparation and quality.
“What I love is that real attention to detail. People have really honed their craft and you know wherever you go, you’re going to get a good coffee. It’s not until you travel away from Melbourne you realise how special that is. Almost every café is a standout. You find places you like the best, but each is very reliable and very relaxed. It’s not intimidating. Buying coffee to grind and make at home seems really approachable, and people are always happy to talk to you about it,” she says.
It’s that same passion and transparent nature for food that has helped Julia transition from an Italian primary school teacher into one of the country’s most aspiring home cooks and authors.
Born in Adelaide and growing up in country Victoria with Maltese heritage, Julia’s father was one of seven children, with food a central part of the family household and gatherings from an early age.
“My dad had friends come bring rabbits they’d hunted for rabbit stew, my grandma would bring us broad beans to pod, and we’d make our own ricotta. It was mostly out of necessity – no one was selling rabbit or supplying broad beans through the greengrocer. We had to source it in our own way,” she says. “At school, kids would have Vegemite sandwiches and I’d have tuna and capers. At the time I would have given anything for a packet of Samboy chips, but of course now I appreciate the food diversity I had growing up.”
Julia always enjoyed cooking and studying cookbooks, but it wasn’t until her trip to Italy that her interest in documenting recipes spiked, and she started a blog, which wasn’t largely popular eight years ago. She started writing some recipes for publications and making connections in the Melbourne food scene. She launched her first cookbook Ostro in 2017 and her second in 2020 in the middle of the global pandemic, which in hindsight Julia says was the “perfect storm”.
“Everyone was at home cooking. I would often see the same people cooking my food and tagging me on Instagram, but then it exploded to 50 people tagging me each day with dishes from my recipes. Perhaps people had the time to cook that they didn’t before. It was great to see a community blossom from that,” Julia says. “I pushed myself to do [recipe] videos which I’d never done before, but felt I needed to, to feed my creativity, and Haruki was home from kinder, so he helped me out. Then my second book came out and it was well received and supported from everyone.”
Titled A Year of Simple Family Food, Julia says it unintentionally became the mantra of her cooking style when Melbourne faced into a 112-day lockdown, forcing the closure of shops, the rise of home delivery services, and bread making.
“I really paired back our cooking style. We used what we had at home more than ever. I couldn’t go down to Prahran Market to buy that one thing I really wanted. I had to be inventive and creative and reassess what is simple cooking and what does nourish us, not just from a nutritional side but comfort-wide,” she says.
“I think a lot of people did that and realised how important sharing food with family was, and when we couldn’t do that, it was really apparent how important home cooking is and how much food connects us. I love going out to restaurants as much as the next person, but being able to cook for yourself is such a wonderful thing to do for yourself and your family.”
Last year was “a blur” for Julia. She had her second child Yuki in January 2020 and went into lockdown when he was just three months old while her husband Nori, a chef, was at home for a period of time before returning to work to assist with takeaway service. Julia is fortunate to have spent quality time with her family and be a comfort for her fans, but admits it was undoubtedly tough.
With Melbourne back on track to a relatively “normal” year ahead, Julia is excited to relaunch Ostro with a new front cover in May that will be more reflective of her style for simple home cooking. She will also rebrand her website, work on some curated home and kitchen pieces, start work on her third cookbook, due for release in 2022, continue to teach monthly pasta making classes, and hopes to travel more around Australia with border openings permitting.
“I feel super grateful that my career in food happened so naturally and that I get to do it full time now,” Julia says. “I truly love it so much. Food is something that will never leave me. It changes every day, it never repeats, is really exciting and motivates me to keep learning and creating. I still can’t believe it’s my job.”
This article appears in the April 2021 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.