Cooking with love, caring for others, and never giving up: Resilience in the face of uncertainty

From the Winter edition of InTouch Magazine.

Joseph Vargetto, Chef, and owner of iconic Melbourne restaurants Mister Bianco and Massi, found out he had MS quite literally by accident - when a bicycle collision with a car caused him to be taken to hospital five years ago, he underwent some tests which revealed his condition. Since then, his dedication to serving others has remained steadfast, even in these uncertain times. We spoke to Joseph about how resilience plays out in his own life, both as a business owner and as a person living with MS.

Joseph Vargetto, Chef

What does resilience mean to you?

My parents immigrated from Italy in 1956 and they set up a new way of life here. They couldn’t speak English, they had good days and bad days. I saw what my parents went through and I think I took that on and used it as a strength. My mother always said to me, “Giuseppe, never give up. If you believe in something that is either going to benefit yourself or the people around you and is for the common good, never give up.” So, resilience to me, is sometimes having a bad day and thinking you’re going to give up, then having three really great days, and then having an average day. Then, months down the track you look back and realise that those bad days were nothing compared to the joy you can give to your family or staff, and so I had to get through the bad times to achieve and create something better. 

How do you see resilience playing out in your own life as a successful business owner?

I don’t see myself as being successful. I just see that I can’t give up. I am now 46 years old, I have a family, I’ve been married for 21 years, I have a beautiful wife and two great kids. I work as a chef so for me, there was no such option as failure - I had to continue. And maybe that’s a heavy burden to put on your shoulders, but if you’re going to put yourself in this game, you have to understand the rules, which are long hours, and you have to understand the burden of your responsibility when you employ people. When I step through the doors of the two restaurants that I own, I am an employee of the business. So, I always ask myself, “am I good enough? Do I have the right skills now and moving into the future?” Because there’s a lot of new rules about to engulf us. So right now, I’m ok, but I do wonder what’s going to happen in the future.
How do you deal with the uncertainty?

I give myself goals and I tick them off one by one. You want to be Halley’s comet – you go around slowly but surely You don’t want to be a comet that’s pelting into earth, you want to do things consistently. You could think of the analogy of “a brick a day,” which means you work on something every day, which then turns into something grand. Giving up shouldn’t be an option. Use the words “overwhelm,” “anxiety,” and “stress” as powers for yourself, don’t use them as the kryptonite that went around Superman’s neck. 

How do you turn feelings of helplessness into personal power?

There are a lot of aspects that are not within my control; I can’t control when they’re going to release another restriction; I’m not in control of the spread of the virus; I’m not in control of how people react to someone standing next to them in the restaurant. Probably 95% of what is going on is not in my control. The things I can control are within my four walls; making sure that staff have a place that they can come to, and the food and service our customers will experience. I told my staff that I would give them the best of myself and that we’re going to get through this.

What did you do to weather the impact of COVID-19? 

We created something special. What we achieved was a frozen meal delivery service called “The Italian Job”, for people who have an illness like myself, or who just had a cancer treatment, or who couldn’t leave home. I didn’t even realise the enormity of what I was moving into. We also introduced an evening service called “Flavours of the Sicilian Kitchen,” where people could come and pick up hot food. People love what we do here, and we are grateful for the support. The learning is to keep active and to maybe be a shining light in the midst of all this. A lot of other chefs in Melbourne have done similar things because they too want to do something positive, I’m not the only one.

What would be your advice to someone whose been recently diagnosed with MS?

It’s really difficult to give advice because everyone’s MS is so different. That’s just the way it is. MS doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor. The biggest dilemma about it all is that when it gets diagnosed, it can be too late. For me, I thought it was just a pain in my shoulder and neck because my bike wasn’t set up right, but it wasn’t, it was MS. It’s not a disease where it’s live or die - it’s like a torture process. A lot of these things do play on your mind, like going from very able-bodied and sporty, to imagining if it takes away your ability to do something you love. I think it’s very important that some sort of process be placed in the community that MS awareness is not just about supporting a very good cause, it’s actually also about supporting yourself; check your vitamin D levels, be aware that some of the symptoms you might be experiencing could be related to MS and get checked out as early as possible, because getting diagnosed really early could make a big difference. If I hadn’t been hit by a car, I probably would never have found out I had MS and would’ve just kept putting my symptoms down to working in a kitchen for 29 years.

What practical tips do you have for people wanting to build their own resilience?

Analyse yourself, understand yourself. One of the major parts of all of this is your diet – make sure you eat clean foods, doesn’t have to be expensive foods, just clean foods; do things you enjoy. People can say, “but I don’t have another choice, I don’t have other skills.” Sometimes you have to make those decisions and say, “Ok. What do I enjoy doing? Oh! I like knitting.” Create something for yourself. There are a lot of online platforms, things that you can do on the side, things you can learn that you have always wanted to, things that may create your little business in five or six years’ time. If you don’t start, you don’t know.

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