Monday, August 04, 2008
Elliot from 1001 Dinners 1001 Nights and I were ushered into the kitchen, the bustling hub of Vue de Monde and seated at a smallish table, just by a huge stock cooker that contained the gently simmering carcasses and trimmings of chicken. We had been granted an interview with arguably Australia's best chef, Shannon Bennett and I did come to wonder, given his well known antipathy towards some food critics, if perhaps a few of them might not be floating there.
The kitchen itself was humming along in pre-lunch mode, with all the chefs going about their work with quiet efficiency, there was no shouting or any sign of aggravation, everyone was dedicated to getting the coming job done.
When Bennett arrived a few minutes later, he somehow seemed smaller that imagined, his good looking face set off by long wavy hair and sparkling eyes that glowed with an inner determination. He carried himself with an easy confidence without any hint of the arrogance and hubris that besets some chefs.
It was a remarkably open interview, with Bennett happy to talk forthrightly about any topic. Something that became obvious during the course of the interview was that he cares very much for all the people around him, not just family and friends, but also his staff and takes very seriously his role as a mentor to kids that have got themselves into trouble, not in a way to draw publicity to himself, like a Jamie Oliver, but to promote the organization he volunteers for.
Do you have a favourite dish of your creation?
It’s hard to nominate any one dish as they are always changing and evolving, but one that comes to mind is our liquid cep gnocchi, made by cooking then pureeing ceps (porcinis), adding some sodium algaenate, then placing the mixture in a foam gun and piping that into a water bath containing calcium chloride. It then becomes a liquid centered, intensely flavoured jelly - true to the taste of earthy mushrooms, but created in a completely new way.
What is your favourite ethnic cuisine?
It changes all the time, at the moment Ethiopian is one that I like, but I also have a soft spot for Moroccan cuisine, especially tagines, as I spent some time there.
Is there any one person who has had a big influence on your cooking?
Marco Pierre White is the first to come to mind, but I can't leave out John Burton Race either. Their discipline in their approach to food left a large impression on me, even though they both have a very, let's say, unique attitude. Discipline is very important in food.
When you have the time to relax, what do you like to do?
Play with the kids and have time with my family, watching DVDs is good too. I don’t mind plane travel because there are no mobile phones, it's a little bit of peace. Sunday is my day off and that's when I can catch up with my friends, but I don't like to socialize every Sunday as it is my only time to relax, so I end up seeing my friends maybe two or three times a year.
Some think you have resurrected fine dining in Melbourne, do you feel that?
To a certain extent. In Vue de Monde, the front of house is very important, creating a good atmosphere is crucial and part of that is having quality cutlery, stemware and the like. But more than having all the best accoutrements, what sets us apart is our ability to treat guests as guests. What I’ve noticed, is that in Sydney for instance, their approach to service is behind that in Melbourne, though their food is just as good.
Do you sense any new directions in the Melbourne restaurant scene?
There seems to be a greater casualness. Behind the scenes we are focusing on a greater staff to patron ratio as well as greater attention to sourcing quality ingredients with a preference for local produce and taking different approaches with them. We used to change the menu quite often, weekly for instance, but as some patrons heard about certain dishes and booked especially to try them, we are leaving things on the menu a bit longer, looking to the seasons to be our guide. Bloggers talking about local food has also caught our attention.
Did you consciously work towards attaining 3 hats and Restaurant of the Year, or was that incidental to your mission as a chef?
My goal was to be the best I could be and there is still a long way to go with that, for instance, I’m looking to improve the front of house at the moment. We are also looking to be a leader in training our staff, in a very supportive way without ego and in a way that benefits the hospitality industry as a whole. It is important to us to support our own industry and to be a leader in that.
How did you feel when Neil Perry so publicly lost one of his hats for Rockpool?
Very disappointed for him and the way in which it was done. Neil is passionate and determined and should have been shown more respect. Why couldn't they approach him behind the scenes and tell him of their intentions to give him the chance to address the issues raised. To rip one away like that cheapens their own system. It’s as if the guide doesn’t understand the importance of their own hat system and is now delivering some very random and confusing results.
Does being restaurant of the year mean that Vue de Monde diners have heightened expectations?
YES! But for me that means constantly trying to raise the bar. For instance, we now top up empty glasses for wines that are matched to courses as long as our guests are still eating, at no extra charge. We are always looking for ways to improve things for the diner.
What ingredient gives you the most pleasure to work with?
Seasonal products, though with climate change it’s difficult to say what the seasons are anymore. Seafood is another thing I love to work with. We have wonderful Moonlight oysters from Batemans Bay, that a grown in a special way to optimize the flesh and presentation. I also love cooking a freshly caught mountain trout, straight into the pan with it. For most other seafood though, the day after it's caught is best as the flesh gets a chance to relax, otherwise it can be a bit stiff.
Is there any big name chef that you would like to work with for a special dinner?
Alex Atali, I cooked with him in New York and he uses some amazing products from the Amazon. Ferran Adria, need I say more? Andoni Aduriz from Mugaritz is someone else I admire.
Who would you like to invite for a dinner party?
Gordon Ramsey, I've met him and he's great, also his father-in-law, Chris Hutcheson, he's quite a character too. Other than that, I would invite all my good friends with whom I have limited time to catch up.
Is there anything you can’t get enough of?
Fast cars on a racetrack. It’s a bit of a hobby and I’m currently going for my CAMS licence. I also love mentoring kids through Whitelion, kids who have had some problems in life and gotten on the wrong side of the law. It’s great to see how they respond when someone takes an interest in them and shows them a few things. To see their self belief develop when they realize that they can actually cook something like an omelette, is uplifting.
Do you have a funny cooking moment?
We had a well known food critic in the other day who told us of 11 different food allergies they had, including allergies to all sugar and gluten. I could just see the headline, ‘Bennett kills food critic!’ But seriously, how does someone with so many allergies manage to be a food critic?
When Bono of U2 talks about their album, The Joshua Tree, he mentions that it manages to capture some of the melancholy and ache of the Irish. With your Irish heritage, do these emotions inform either your character or cooking?
I see the Irish as a friendly people who like to have a good time, express themselves and their opinions over a pint or two. They are a passionate people and that part, the passion, comes through in my food. Also the hospitality, the Irish are very hospitable people and that comes through in my approach to the restaurant, I want my guests to not only to have a great meal, but a great time as well. Another Irish thing is that I also don’t hold back when expressing an opinion, I tell it like it is.