An unforgettable character full of passion and zest for life
WHETHER it was hand-crafting 60 huge paper flowers, staining menus with tea bags to fit a historic event theme or turning a children's train set into a miniature Orient Express, John Cornwell-De Luca always went above and beyond to create an unforgettable experience for diners.
John was one half of the team behind Delizie, the decadent Rockhampton dining experience that amazed locals with extravagant events for more than a decade.
When the restaurant suddenly closed in late 2017, only those closest to John and husband Gianni Cornwell-De Luca were aware of the dire health situation he faced.
Gianni said most people assumed they had closed the restaurant because of his kidney failure, for which he'd been on dialysis since 2015.
The couple were forced to close the restaurant which was their life's passion because John had been diagnosed with cancer.
In a cruel twist of fate, John was given the news the same day Gianni was told he would finally be able to join the transplant waiting list.
Gianni's doctors advised him to prioritise John's health and plans for a transplant were placed on hold.
Sadly, John died on March 30, 2018.
However, nearly a year on Gianni has spoken to The Morning Bulletin about their life together, and John's never-ending passion for creating show-stopping experiences for his clients
'THE LOVE CHILD OF BAZ LUHRMANN AND HESTON BLUMENTAL'
At John's memorial service last year, Mark Savage spoke about his friend's instructions to only share stories from his life with Gianni.
"He didn't want to bore people with a potted history of what he did or who he was in the earlier years,” Mark said.
"He was only interested in being recognised and known as the man he had become during the last couple of decades ... to be even more specific, in the last 22 years with Gianni.”
Mark joked that he would be "a little naughty” (as John sometimes was) to share some childhood stories.
John's humour was well known, with Gianni even saying friends joked that his death on Good Friday was well timed as he would sometimes refer to himself by his initials as "JC”.
Mark described John's birth as sounding "like a script for a motion picture”.
In November 1956, John's parents were driving from Brisbane to Rockhampton and stopped in at Gladstone to visit friends who ran a funeral parlour.
John couldn't wait for arrival in Rockhampton and his mum, in labour, was driven to the hospital in the hearse.
John's passion for food was sparked in domestic science classes, as was his lesser-known mastery of textile design.
Although he would become renowned for his culinary skills, John also made beautiful wedding dresses, which would often include delicate hand embroidery and individually sewn pearls.
He also crafted elaborate theatre costumes, and intricate cross-stitch patterns.
John got his first work in hospitality at Brisbane's Top of the Town when he was 18 and, after learning a great deal professionally, he relocated to Melbourne at 21.
He marched into the old Windsor Hotel and applied for a job, not knowing if one even existed. He started work the next day.
After a year at hotel, and at just 22, John opened his own restaurant in Carlton.
Three years later he moved again, this time to Sydney, where he applied for a job (this time advertised) at The Regent Hotel.
During his four years at The Regent, John developed and refined their butler service with skills which prompted rival Sheraton Hotel to poach him.
After a decade at the Sheraton Hotel, John moved into private catering where he would also design the elaborate events which would later influence those memorable Delizie high teas.
Mark described John's style as "the love child of Baz Luhrmann and Heston Blumental”.
Professionally, John was becoming well respected in Sydney while personally he had embraced the opportunity to travel and would always start or end a trip in his beloved Italy, a country which he said welcomed him as a solo traveller.
FROM A STREET IN KING'S CROSS TO A LIFE TOGETHER IN ROCKY
March 2, 1996, marked the day that would change John's life forever.
It was a Friday night and, although he was tired and wanted to stay home, John's friend Desmond dragged him out to a show.
After the show Desmond insisted the pair go for a drink in King's Cross.
It was Mardi Gras weekend and the streets were throbbing with people, including a jet-lagged Gianni who had just arrived from Italy for his second visit to Australia.
Desmond "collected” people off the street to join in for a drink including Gianni.
Gianni said he was immediately intrigued by this strange group of people, which included the flamboyant Desmond, two goth girls, and John in a double-breasted black suit (which he had worn to work the night before).
John and Gianni formed the foundation of a friendship which would evolve into "a deep, enduring and loving relationship”.
At the end of March, Gianni returned to Italy but the pair continued to talk to each other in costly long-distance calls daily.
Three months later John arrived in Gianni's hometown of Treviso just in time to celebrate Gianni's 35th birthday.
They lived together for six months in Italy before moving permanently to Australia.
John and Gianni worked together at a prestigious private catering firm for the next eight years until they felt the need to take things slower by leaving Sydney.
This is how they came to live in Rockhampton in 2005, the place John remembered from childhood visits to his grandparents.
DELIZIE: A PLACE WHERE EVERY GUEST FELT SPECIAL AND LOVED
Originally, Gianni and John hoped to open a deli but as they were searching for the right venue they were approached by the owners of Stewart's to lease the former cafeteria space on the first floor of the iconic East St building.
They delivered lunch and the high teas which would become synonymous with the Delizie name, including a selection of cakes made on the premises.
After four years here, John and Gianni moved to the venue at the Pilbeam Theatre with dreams of offering the elegant silver service dinners which they were unable to at Stewart's.
Those who experienced dining at Delizie say Rockhampton still doesn't have anything to rival what John and Gianni created.
However, Gianni is quick to attribute all their success to John's wealth of experience and irrepressible creative spirit.
Over the years, Delizie welcomed prime ministers, premiers, governors, mayors, bishops, prima ballerinas, and many other dignitaries.
Although it was the place not to be missed in Rockhampton, Gianni said every guest was special and made to feel welcome.
Annette Czerkesow, friend of the couple and former executive officer Mater Rockhampton and Gladstone, has written a Letter to the Editor about the restaurant which she describes as "like stepping into a European parlour” (read the full letter on pages 16-17).
"With the beautiful background music playing, you were transported. Time slipped by,” she said.
"John was the concierge and master of ceremonies. Gianni provided the culinary excitement and the touch of pizzazz, when at the end of service he would go from table to table and greet his guests.
"Together they planned the menu, being mindful of the region and the seasonality of the produce.
"John was the creator of the desserts and I loved them all.
"The wait staff were always in black and white. They were polite, well spoken and discreet. Beautifully trained. Upon arrival you were greeted by name. Which made you feel special.
"The key to the restaurant's success was the consistency with all key elements.”
Another friend, Melinda Scash, former Rockhampton Girls Grammar School principal, has also written about how John and Gianni "delivered dreams for patrons”.
"Delizie always surprised and delighted,” she said.
"For every function, external and internal spaces were altered to create whatever theme was desired.
"The results were no accident. John was a skilled designer and master craftsman who delighted in every unique creative challenge.
"Whether it was establishing a room full of butterflies, Marie Antoinette's banquet, a tribute to ballet, a ride on the Orient Express, Valentine's Day intimacy or a Halloween experience, John De Lucca never, ever failed to fashion the perfect accessories to create an utterly enthralling atmosphere.”
Gianni said John took delight in creating each new Delizie theme and would go all-out to design a menu and decor befitting this.
To this day, their house has a stockpile of props used to transform the restaurant.
Although John's standards for service were meticulous, he took pride in teaching the staff the finest details of silver service.
John and Gianni called their staff "their children” and in turn they were "uncles”.
Melinda said John was "an inherently wise and gentle teacher”.
"His requirements of service were unequivocal, his standards consistent and unwavering, but his interaction with the young people he trained was respectful, caring and generous,” she said.
"Every single one of them has benefited from his generosity and talent.”
Even now, Gianni will lovingly recount where all the "children” are now from their latest travels to their professional achievements.
'TOGETHER THEY WERE ASTOUNDING AND FORMIDABLE'
Those who knew John and Gianni understand why he was only interested in rejoicing their life as a couple.
In his memorial service speech, Mark said "separately, John and Gianni were generous, joyful, fun-loving and super. Together they were astonishing and formidable”.
Mark recalled meeting John at the Intensive Care Unit where Gianni had been admitted for kidney failure.
"The thought of losing Gianni was inconceivable to John,” Mark said.
"He felt his life began the day they met.
"He valued, above all, the extraordinary time they had together.
"Everything they did, they did in concert - they lived, they talked, they travelled, they worked, they dreamed and they planned together.
"But most of all they celebrated in each other's company in ways few people are privileged to experience.”
Despite his declining health, John hatched a plan to celebrate their 22nd anniversary on March 2, 2018.
On Valentine's Day, 2018, John's surprise was scuttled when Gianni answered his phone and realised he had been planning a surprise wedding in Brisbane.
In this ceremony, John told Gianni "you came into my life and I knew you were here to stay”.
In Gianni's vows, he recounted the words of an Italian writer: "Meeting you was like listening to a song for the first time, and knowing it would be my favourite”.