Making pasta from scratch is a deceptively simple process that’s nothing short of a labour of love — especially in a restaurant setting. At Ramona Trattoria in Brisbane’s Coorparoo, Owner Ashley-maree Kent forgoes extruders and produces almost every pasta shape by hand. The chef has long had an affinity for dough-based creations, honing various applications in some of the most reputable kitchens in Australia and overseas — think Quay, Tartine, Biota and Paper Daisy, to name a few.

Kent speaks to Hospitality about going to and from fine dining to baking, opening her first solo venture and taking a hands-on approach to each and every dish served at her suburban trattoria.

Ashley-maree Kent grew up in Bowral in the Southern Highlands in New South Wales and spent the early part of her career in Sydney. After completing her apprenticeship, the chef worked at Quay before joining Merivale. “I jumped between Felix, Uccello and Est.,” she says.

Kent decided to expand her skillset after two years with the group, going on to work in the kitchens of the now-closed Greek restaurant Xanthi and The Morrison Bar & Oyster Room. “I always found myself wanting to have a piece of each pie to gain experience, and I thought it would be best to learn a little bit of everything,” she says.

The chef later decided to take a step back from fine dining and work at Iggy’s Bread. Just six months later, she was approached by Nathan Sasi to join Nomad. “They needed someone to do the bread section, pastry prep and the charcuterie,” says Kent, who was brought on as chef de partie. “I’d start at 10pm when the oven was still hot from service and I’d work until about eight or nine o’clock in the morning, which was tiresome, but it was a good experience.”

Image by Jess Kearney.

Kent returned to her hometown to join James Viles at his renowned fine diner Biota. The position had a lot of appeal, not just because it was close to home, but because it provided an opportunity to learn more about sourcing and growing produce. The gig allowed Kent to do a bit of everything, fast expanding her skillset. “We were a small team and got to move around a lot in the kitchen,” she says. “You might be on pastry one day, then garnish or meat. Everyone was cross-trained and there was a very personal and family oriented vibe.”

After a year, Kent planned to work at the now-closed Manresa in Los Gatos,
California, but a kitchen fire resulted in a change of plans. “I already paid for my green card, accommodation and flights and didn’t want to waste them, so I started calling a couple of friends,” says the chef, who secured a position at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco instead. Tartine was a small operation at the time, with its heritage loaves, pastries and rustic-style sandwiches soon becoming globally acclaimed. “We were doing a lot of products with our hands,” says Kent. “I did everything from dough mixing and shaping to loading the ovens and scoring.”

Upon her return to Australia, Kent went back to Biota before joining Three
Blue Ducks in Sydney’s Bronte. When the group launched another location in Byron Bay, Kent relocated to join the opening team and worked her way up the ranks. “I ended up going from sous chef to head chef pretty quickly,” she says. “It was my first head chef role. I was in charge of 26 kitchen staff and doing upwards of 1,200 covers a day.”

Although Kent was hitting her stride at Three Blue Ducks, she returned to Biota as co-head chef, with her final role coinciding with five years spent at the fine diner. “It was a place I could always go back to and be welcomed as if I never left,” she says.

It has now been almost six years since Kent moved to Queensland after spending the bulk of her cooking career in Sydney. “I didn’t want to work in the big smoke anymore and do so much fine dining,” she says. “As soon as I made the move to Queensland, I got a job at Paddock Bakery where I was just doing bread production.”

Kent was in her element at the Burleigh Heads bakery, with the job rekindling her love of working with dough. “You get more and more passionate the more you do these things,” says the chef. “I thought, ‘Maybe my passion is doing bread?’”

But staff changes at Paddock prompted Kent to resign and return to fine dining, working at Ben Devlin’s Paper Daisy. “I did expect I would go back to fine dining, plating with tweezers and being meticulous,” she says. “I guess it is ingrained when you do it for that long.”

Image by Jess Kearney.

Stints at Alex Munoz’s Labart and a wine bar called Tasca followed. “The owners of Francie’s in Coolangatta ended up buying Tasca and we turned it into Cross Eyed Mary, which was a hand-shaped pasta bar with wines and a small food menu,” says Kent.

The chef opened the doors to the new concept during the pandemic, using the time to become acquainted with pasta. “I started getting into pasta-making and doughs in general and then it became a passion thing,” says Kent. “I did a lot of research and spent a lot of my free time teaching myself how to hand-shape pasta.”

The newfound skills were put to good use after Kent’s departure from Cross Eyed Mary. “Unfortunately, the partnership wasn’t going the way I wanted it to,” says the chef. “I was approached by Tom [Torchut] from Tommy’s Italian to be a consultant for pasta after I left Mary.”

Kent later decided to embark on her first solo venture: Ramona Trattoria. “I wanted to open a restaurant and do my own thing because I was kind of over working for other people,” she says. “While I was working full-time, I was planning, designing and constructing Ramona.”

The dream was finally brought to fruition when Kent signed the lease for a location on Leicester Street in the residential area of Coorparoo. The Italian concept had to stand out from the get-go and deliver something truly unique to the dining scene. “There are so many Italian restaurants opening and I was like, ‘Am I going to be another Italian restaurant in Brisbane or am I actually going to have a point of difference?’” says Kent. “The space was a little bit too big for just pasta so I thought, ‘Let’s incorporate anything dough-associated’.”

Image by Jess Kearney.

The name Ramona means wise protector in Spanish, which speaks to the venue’s core ethos of preserving food traditions. Each dish is curated with care and has simplicity at its core. “A big part of our culinary direction here is being minimal,” says Kent. “We take a lot of time with the small things and we make it quite simple.”

The offering centres around dough-based dishes such as pizza and bread along with antipasti and dessert. But the main drawcard is the hand-shaped pasta, which Kent and her team spend upwards of four hours making every day. “I think it connects you to what you’re serving instead of buying packet pasta or putting semolina and flour into an extruder,” says the chef. “You learn to look after your produce a bit more and have respect for it.”

While the kitchen is equipped with tools such as cutters, knives, chitarras, rolling pins and gnocchi boards, there is not an extruder in sight. Kent is adamant on producing everything by hand and believes the final product is unparalleled. “We make the dough by hand, shake it by hand and roll it out,” she says. “Our hands don’t work the same way as a machine, so when we’re kneading pasta, it takes up to eight minutes to get the texture we want. It’s a lot of labour, but I believe it’s worth it.”

Kent has trained her whole team on the art of pasta-making and switches up the menu to keep chefs engaged. “I change the menu every six weeks because I don’t want people to be stagnant,” she says. “Imagine doing six pasta dishes five nights a week … you’d get bored.”

When it comes to pasta, Ramona serves everything from fettuccine and spaghetti to ravioli and tortellini. Each shape is paired with the right sauce and there is no room for swaps or substitutions. An example is the tagliatelle alla Bolognese made with a traditional-style ragu that uses various off-cuts and proteins for added flavour. “There’s different types of charcuterie, pork mince and veal mince that goes into it,” says Kent. “The sauce is very brown and is quite rich from chicken livers.”

Kent tips the tortelloni burro e oro as a mustorder. The dish is a staple in the Italian region of Bologna and is known for its sauce which combines butter and tomato. “We do a very simple sauce which is basically tomato sugo, but it’s done with San Marzano tomatoes that have been crushed with our hands,” says Kent. “The sauce is yellow and chunky at the same time.”

Ramona Trattoria has been open for six months now and has stirred up plenty of interest from diners near and far since it launched. “A lot of the feedback I get is [that people can never get a seat] because it’s not just locals coming here,” says Kent. “We’ve got people from the city, the Gold Coast and other states coming in.”

The chef is content with the restaurant’s progress and has well and truly settled into the neighbourhood. “I’m not interested in the city — I’m interested in the suburbs,” she says. “In the city, you’re probably always going to be busy because there’s so many people going in and out, so you don’t always have return customers who come in twice a week. That’s the clientele I want for this restaurant. I want a local person to come in and I know them by their first name.”