Rockin’ Women Wednesdays – Leilani Wolfenden

Leilani Wolfenden – Chef Cakes & Ale, Sorrento

Leilani Wolfenden grew up in a village in New Zealand where her mum instilled a love for beautiful homegrown food and cooking. “My family lived on a small farm, mum made everything from scratch. I remember our garage was full of mum’s preserves. We never ate shop bought tomato sauce and I remember the kids at school always wanted my lunches. Which I now realise was amazing,” says Leilani.

She left New Zealand in the late nineties and flew to Melbourne with her sights set on working at Philipa Sibley and Donovan Cooke’s celebrated Est Est Est. With her backpack on Leilani headed straight from Tullamarine airport and walked into Est Est Est and asked for a job. “I worked there for four years and learnt so much. After that I went to London and worked in Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant Petrus, and then Michelin star restaurant The Square. It was a good time but hard work. I came back to Melbourne and worked in a few other restaurants before setting up my own place, Next Door Diner in 2010 which I ran for two years.”


When Leilani was in Europe she worked on privately owned luxury yachts for about four years. The owner of one of the boats liked to go to places that weren’t popular, they spent a lot of time anchored out off the coast of quiet parts of Turkey, Montenegro, and Croatia. Leilani remembers, “These areas weren’t particularly wealthy areas, quite the opposite. So the markets weren’t filled with glamour displays of fruit and vegetables like they were in Canne, St Tropez and Monaco. They were filled with “ordinary” produce, (plus the odd bottle of homemade grappa). It really was a case of using what was available and getting creative, working off the coast of Cyprus for two months using beans, dill and tomatoes every day got a bit tricky.”


Today you’ll find Leilani heading up the kitchen at Cakes & Ale, a beautiful new-ish bistro by the sea in Sorrento on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. Leilani enjoys the collaborative nature of working at Cakes & Ale, designing the menu with the bistro’s owner, and manger; she also likes sourcing local ingredients and getting to know the regions growers and producers. “It is time consuming because the pace of life away from the city is slower but that’s a part I like! James the owner, also grows some of our produce I like incorporating those different elements into what we’re cooking” she says. One day Leilani will go back to New Zealand, but for now she’s very happy on the Peninsula having the beach so close. And for most of the year not many crowds.

A few questions for Leilani

What’s your survival food when you’re on tour, travelling or working late in your business?
Miso soup with kale, tofu with brown rice.

What’s your healthy go-to comfort food – either at home or in a restaurant?
I don’t really have a healthy option. It would have to be French fries.

Do you have a secret remedy that keeps either your voice / mind / body in shape
This isn’t really a secret remedy but is definitely overlooked by chefs, and that is it has taken me years and years to work out that eating breakfast sets me up for the day. I make a smoothie and drink it on the way to work. I’m also a tea freak, English breakfast and earl grey.

What’s the most obscure rider or patron’s request you’ve ever heard?

When I was working on yachts in Europe, an exceptionally wealthy Italian family used to bring all their own food, there would be boxes of food from Italy piled up on the boat, they wanted to eat the food from where they lived.



Leilani’s Cianfotta

100ml olive oil
1 aubergine, cut into 2cm chunks doesn’t have to be perfect
2 kg ripe tomatoes cut into 2cm chunks, again doesn’t have to be perfect
1 large brown onion finely diced
½ head of garlic, finely sliced
750ml vegetable stock
1 yellow zucchini, sliced on the angle 2mm wide
1 green zucchini, sliced on the angle 2mm wide
2 or 3 leaves of silverbeet and or black cabbage, slice thinly
Handful green beans, slice on diagonal into 4 or 5 pieces
100 gram green split peas
1 onion
2 cloves garlic
500 ml vegetable stock 


  • In a heavy based large saucepan, heat olive oil over medium heat and add onion and garlic
  • Season with salt and pepper and stir. Reduce to low heat, cover with lid and stir occasionally until transparent
  • Add aubergine and stir. Put lid back on and cook until aubergine is a smooshy mess (approximately 45 minutes)
  • Add the tomatoes, season
  • Add zucchini and leave the lid off and cook until the majority of the liquid from the tomatoes has evaporated, check seasoning and set aside
  • In a separate pot, heat olive oil and add onions and garlic, cook in the same way as above
  • Keep on a low heat and add split peas. Make sure the peas are coated with onions and garlic before adding the veggie stock a ladle full at a time replacing the lid each time and allowing to cook slowly like making risotto (45-60 minutes)
  • When all the stock has been absorbed and the split peas are cooked, remove from the heat and set aside

To serve

  • Saute beans, zucchini, black cabbage and silverbeet in olive oil, seasoning generously
  • When vegetables are starting to wilt add 4 tablespoons of eggplant mix and 1 cup of vegetable stock. Bring to the boil and check if it needs seasoning
  • In a serving bowl put 2 or 3 tablespoons of pea puree – cold is fine – it all gets mixed around
  • Pour bean and zucchini vegetable mix over the top and scatter with fresh oregano leaves and a few fresh basil leaves
  •  A few drops of olive oil over the top won’t go amiss

Cakes & Ale, Sorrento
03 5984 4995

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