On Saturday night three decades of running restaurants in Wollongong will end for Lorenzo Pagnan when he shuts the door on The Cheeky Fig for the last time.
It's the end of an era - and the start of a new chapter in the life of a chef known to most by his first name only.
In recent weeks dozens of regular diners from the past 29 years have come in for a last chance to experience the friendly service, fine food and personal touch for which Lorenzo has become famous.
In the final days, the renowned chef has done something he has always wanted to do - done away the menu.
When customers take their seat the master chef of 42 years has been advising them of his selection that day. But everyone's affection and respect for the man has left no one disappointed.
It is an endorsement of the trust his loyal clientele have in him, including some from the legal fraternity who made a booking for Friday night to experience the restaurant one last time.
"They have been following me since Lorenzo's Cafe. I can honestly say they have never once asked if they can see the menu," Lorenzo said.
"They came last week and they decided to come back Friday."
While the names of his restaurants and their menus have evolved since Lorenzo moved back to Wollongong from Sydney in 1990 to open Lorenzo's Cafe at 90 Crown Street, one thing has never changed - his willingness to come out of the kitchen to talk to diners.
It is one of the reasons many have kept coming for decades. And why their children have followed.
The personal touch is something that has stayed with Lorenzo since his first job in hospitality as a maitre d' at La Capannina in Albion Park in 1977.
"On the second night there the chef said, 'Here are the ingredients and here is your trolley'," Lorenzo said.
"So I had to go to the tables with no experience whatsoever and cook Steak Dianne. The next night I had to do Crepes Suzettes."
Lorenzo continued mingling with customers when he worked at Taylor's in Albion Street at Surrey Hills for five years from 1983.
"When I moved to Sydney that was my forte," he said.
"I used to do front-of-house and I set up a few restaurants.
"The people at Taylor's then got me into cooking and that is when I really got stuck into the kitchen."
Three years after opening Lorenzo's Cafe on Lang's Corner, Lorenzo went back to Sydney to work with his friend Neil Perry for a year at Rocket in Potts Point.
But the Wollongong lifestyle and burgeoning restaurant scene lured him back to the city he loves.
In 1994 he opened Due Mezzi in a former bank on the corner of the Princes Highway and Park Street in Bulli. There was dining downstairs and an art gallery upstairs.
Lorenzo still owned and ran Due Mezzi when he opened Sweet Lips in the Comelli building on the corner of Corrimal and Crown streets in 1996.
It remained in that location until 2001 when Michael's Trattoria opened on the same site.
Lorenzo still ran Sweet Lips when Ristorante Due Mezzi opened in Keira Street on July 6, 1999. It won several chefs hats in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide in the early 2000s.
Lorenzo decided to change the name to Lorenzo's Diner after five years. It was awarded the title of Australia's Best Italian restaurant in 2013 after being named NSW Restaurant of the Year twice before.
Conscious of Illawarra's constantly evolving dining scene he decided to freshen things up by opening a bar next door in 2012 and then changed the name of the restaurant to The Cheeky Fig in 2017.
When the Cheeky Fig serves its last customer this Saturday night, the doors will shut just two weeks shy of Lorenzo's 20th anniversary at the Keira Street location.
During those two decades many of his customers have celebrated important family occasions at the site.
"One lady stopped me in the street and said I have been to your restaurant for birthdays, anniversaries, weddings and funerals," he said.
"And a couple came in last night who gave me a little card with a thank you for feeding them for 30 years. They said it was lovely to see I was just as passionate as I was when I first arrived in Wollongong. And that my level of service has been maintained throughout.
"It makes me feel good that they see I am still delivering. In fact I have put even more effort into this last week. I really want to send people away happy. Because it could be a long while before they get to taste my food again."
Among the regular customers getting their last Lorenzo fix this week before Cheeky Fig closes were Matt and Bryony Clark.
They have been back twice in the last two weeks to reminisce about all the good times they have enjoyed.
"I worked for Lorenzo when he had Sweet Lips," Mrs Clark said.
"Since then I have been coming to his restaurants for about 25 years. We used to have all our anniversary dinners here. We just love his food and we will miss him. He is always friendly and is pleased to see you."
Also back on Wednesday was former waitress Isabella Patrone Hill who now works at Juniper Gin Bar next door. She was celebrating her birthday and having a last Cheeky Fig experience before it closes.
Lorenzo is astounded by the number of people who have come to me in the last month and said they had their first date and got engaged at one of his restaurants.
Lorenzo's interest in cooking started when he returned to Italy to live with his family until the age of 12.
"I started life in Figtree and then moved to Veneto for five years," he said.
"I got a lot of my passion from my grandmother who used to cook for 15 to 20 people every lunch. Because of the economic situation everyone would come home for lunch. She would make home made lasagne and gnocchi and always needed something done."
"The economic situation wasn't good in Italy so my parents migrated back to Australia. We lived in Fairy Meadow until I moved up to Sydney in 1977."
Lorenzo's father, Ernesto Pagnan, originally came to Australia to find work at the steelworks because of the economic situation in the 1940s. Prior to that he had been training for six years to become a priest.
After Lorenzo's mother Pierina Pagnan migrated to Australia on a ship to marry his father she became the first cook at the Italian Centre in Stewart Street, Wollongong in 1954.
It originally opened for migrants who were wanting to eat traditional Italian food.
Lorenzo is proud to have been a part of a dining-scene explosion in Sydney in the 80s and then in Wollongong for the past three decades.
In recent weeks as many of his diners have relived their memories he has been reliving his - and admits to a few tears welling up as he's been saying his farewells.
Lorenzo has also been touched by the many positive messages posted on social media.
"It has been really nice," he said.
There have been many famous faces at Lorenzo's eateries over the years. They include senior politicians, judges and celebrities.
His good friend Neil Perry spoke of their mateship when he visited Wollongong to open the new David Jones Food Hall.
"Neil Perry, David Thompson and I were good mates. The three of us used to do Sunday night dinners together for about three years," he said.
But it is the regulars who keep coming back that have made pulling up stumps this week particularly hard for Lorenzo.
He is not sure what he will do next. His immediate plans include visiting his daughter Chloe Burton in London where she works for KPMG. And then spend time with family in Veneto, Italy.
When he does decide to do something in hospitality again he wants it to be fresh and new.
But whatever it is he will still make a point of talking to people.
Because they are what has allowed him him to make a career of doing what he loves.
Lorenzo also wanted to thank the business community for their support this week. He said he felt privileged to be a part of such a positive, proactive and supportive business community.
He loved being a face for and ambassador for the city he loves and calls home for many years when asked to by Destination Wollongong.
One of the hard things to get used to though was the size of the large photo that used to grace the western wall of the WIN Entertainment Centre.
Something else he is grateful for is his staff who all told him they were staying until the last day and have volunteered to help him clean up this coming week.
"The staff have just been brilliant," he said.
Lorenzo said the past 29 years in Wollongong has been a wonderful journey as the industry constantly evolved.
"I have employed 260 people over the last 20 years," he said.
"Of those about 15 to 20 per cent have been chefs."
Lonenzo has given many young chefs the chance to develop their careers and many have gone on to open their own restaurants.
One of them Daniel Sherley, of Rookie, is taking over the lease and is opening another restaurant with a new name after a complete renovation.
"I have had two chefs from overseas work with me over the years. One was from France and the other was from Germany," Lorenzo said.
"I have had chefs who have gone to work in Europe. In fact there are three of them working in England at the moment".
In looking back on his three decades running restaurants in Wollongong the man who has now spent 42 years in the hospitality industry said he felt really proud of what he has accomplished.
He is also excited by the new things happening in the city's rapidly changing and increasingly vibrant culinary scene.
"I think some of the newer chefs are really good things around town. I am really happy about what is happening," he said..
Lorenzo said when he arrived back in Wollongong in 1990 there was very little change happening in the food industry.
But the last decade has seen the a dramatic explosion in the number of eateries and of diversity options.
People in Wollongong have never had so much choice. Which has seen a dining scene emerge as good as anything in Sydney or Melbourne.
The emergence of small bars with different menus and drink options in each has added to the mix and created what Lorenzo describes as a more transient dining culture.
There are a growing number of people enjoying the option of visiting several small bars a night and eating an entree size meal at one and a different course at another and maybe a dessert option at a third.
"I kind of like that. Especially if there is enough variety and quality," he said.
Lorenzo said what was happening in Wollongong is an exciting evolution in an industry which is constantly changing.
Which is the reason there are more people out dining than ever before in the city.
And they are spoilt for choice.
Lorenzo said that makes it even more important to give diners quality in an environment where they are likely to be less loyal to one eatery.
he recalled how three decades ago people had one or two favourite places to eat.
That was because there was less choice.
Now more people decide what they want to eat and where will go while they are out.
"There is such a plethora of options and there are so many different eating styles as well," he said.
"We no longer have a pre-conceived idea of eating. It is really changing fast which can be challenging".
Lorenzo said there were still customers who wanted the same.
He knows who they are and will always give them what they want.
That is because loyal clientele who keep returning are priceless for any business.
But Lorenzo has consistently kept updating his menu every four weeks for those who like different options every time they come to one of his restaurants.
With tears welling in his eyes on Thursday the popular chef said one thing he won't miss is coming in on his day off every Monday to put the bin out.
What he will miss is the emotional attachment he enjoys meeting people through the food he makes.
"I like to feed people," he said.
Asked what famous Lorenzo dish people are most like to remember him by and never wanted him to take off the menu Lorenzo said Torta Di Verona.
"Which is my layered panettone, mascarponi with toasted almonds. I wanted to put it on for the last month but the only place I could get it from was Boston in the USA. It was going to cost me $90 plus shipping which would make each piece of cake worth about $28".
Panettone is a rich Italian bread made with eggs, fruit, and butter and typically eaten at Christmas.
"Honestly I phoned delis in Melbourne and Sydney. The penettone component of it is so popular. But they only ship a certain amount to Australia from Italy every year," Lorenzo said.
"It is only made for three months in Italy. That is prior to Christmas and then they shut the factories down because in Italy that is the only time they eat it."
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