It’s always nice to know where your food comes from. Provenance is big business in todays’ food market: your steak needs a cow (who may or may not benefit from being named before slaughter); your cow needs a farm; your farm needs a farmer; and the farmer needs a beer. This is farm to plate dining in its essence.
But what of the chefs that cook that tender piece of Agnes “Four Shanks” McWoolly or Oinker The Eventual Chop? Surely we’d like to know how they got to their kitchens and what is was they were fed to create their own distinct flavours. I sat down with our Chef de Cuisine, Johnon MacDonald for a chat about such things.
Keeping it in the family…
I first met Johnon a number of years ago whilst both employed at The Whitehouse Restaurant all the way across the Tasman in Wellington. Back then, as now, he spoke of food with a staccato excitement that was exciting to listen to, moving quickly from one thought or ingredient to another, but never leaving the previous one unexplained for fear of doing it a disservice. Food thoughts, as well as dishes, were always fully formed. As one working front of house at the time, a Johnon staff meal was a thing to turn up early to work for and always a welcome respite from the apparently endless variations on spaghetti with chilli.
Our chat together this week showed no loss of enthusiasm, even if I had caught the poor guy in between two full-house services. It also appears his staff meals are still up to snuff as he recently reproduced a burger made to his own award winning recipe (pictured).
Prior to joining us here at Sage and buttering up the staff with his bun-clad meat (ladies), Johnon trained with Neil Perry at Rockpool, notably worked with Masaharu Morimoto (of Iron Chef and God awful website fame) in his New York restaurant, and also cooked at Ginger Boy in Melbourne amongst others.
The artist’s palate
His choices of employment start to form path that winds its way through the Pacific Rim’s culinary landscape by way of Japan, South East Asia generally, Sydney and most recently Melbourne. Each destination has left its own mark on his cuisine; he says freshness and spice are what gets him out of bed in the morning, but he adores playing with his food. He told me of the satisfaction he gets out of hiding the influences of Asian cuisine in places you wouldn’t expect them, or twisting an old stalwart to liven it up or modernise it.
He recalls a recent visit to the restaurant by a group of Japanese foodies who were served our current swordfish dish that features a gyoza (Japanese) filled with hummus (not Japanese) and not being flayed alive for his trampling of a classic. He seems perfectly comfortable breaking convention as long as it stays within certain rules.
But his influences remain just that. Spice, flavour, and freshness are universally valued across the world and at home in Australia. We’re just lucky enough to have someone cooking for us who can bring that back to us in an Australian context. Perhaps you can think of it a bit like that well-traveled cousin who always has a more interesting story than you do – but much less annoying and probably in possession of more than one pair of shoes and effective personal hygiene.
When we spoke, Johnon and his fiancé Kat, who is also our current Restaurant Manager and fellow Whitehouse alumni, had just returned from a whirlwind culinary tasting tour of Melbourne alongside The Brothers Harrington and other Sage luminaries. The 48 hour visit reportedly included upwards of ten meals, including one night where three dinners were consumed – all in the name of research, you understand. This little anecdote is largely apropos of nothing except that Melbourne, a melting pot that remains fundamentally Australian, and an intense passion for food and eating seemed neat metaphors for our purpose. Passionate, cosmopolitan dining.
On a more personal level, we discussed the home habits of the off-duty chef. It was refreshing to learn that comfort food remains universal. Johnon revealed a burger to be the guilty pleasure of choice, but also a soft spot for instant noodles when not on duty. Specifically these ones:
It seemed fitting to end on such an accessible note. As anyone will tell you who has spent any time around chefs in the flesh rather than on the Food Network, the people that cook our food basically want to take simple things and make them a bit cooler for us. A boiled potato, some butter, cream and seasoning give you mashed potato which is one of the greatest things on Earth, but also so far greater than the sum of its parts as to call science into question. Johnon gets genuinely excited about the simple things for what they can be at the end of the process. This should be cause for excitement amongst all of you, because it is for us.
Finally, it seemed a waste not to tap into his brain for a few hints for the lay-cook, so I asked for his version of a Jamie’s 15 Minute Meal which seem to be all the rage currently, so here it is:
Marinade some chicken in yoghurt with lemongrass, ginger and chilli. Season and cook on a BBQ or griddle pan while you make a zucchini, chilli, and mint salad, dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. Put chicken and salad in a flatbread of some description. Eat it.
You’re welcome, Sage family!