I’m sitting in the Cheese Cave down the spiral staircase below Spring Street Grocer chatting to Ian Curley, the man behind some of Melbourne’s most well-loved restaurants and bars (The European, City Wine Shop, French Saloon, Kirk’s Wine Bar, Melbourne Supper Club, Siglo, Spring Street). Sometimes conversations can start pretty awkwardly but this was the best starter ever, thanks to Ian’s observation of the cheese tasting going on in the background.
Ian: Cheese people are really weird.
Jo: I guess it’s not like wine tasting; you can’t just chew cheese and spit it out. You’ve just got to keep going.
You do just have to keep going and they have this little club; they’re not very organised but they talk a lot about milk; the pH balance of milk and all that stuff. There are a lot of French people involved.
I’m a French teacher, as well as a food writer, so, you know, I like the French people.
Well we’ll move on from that one then.
Right. Well firstly, thank you for your time because you must be incredibly busy. You have a whole empire going on.
I’m doing alright.
How do you manage to keep that all in your head?
It’s all about staffing really. You get good people around you and you give them a clear vision of what we want to do. It’s not just about me, it’s about everybody. Some nights you lie awake thinking about whether you can pay the accountant or not, but you do what you’ve got to do.
How have things changed in the industry since you started? Not that I’m making any comment about age or anything.
Now it’s more and more a gentle approach. When I started, kitchens were brutal. So it was more of a military-type thing and you had the days of Marco and later on Gordon. Now you can’t be like that. Things have shifted now more to the employee rather than the employer. From Britain where I started to Australia now, I get dictated to by my employees; they tell me what they want to do.
Is that an Australian thing or a ‘new generation ’thing?
I would probably say a new generation thing. Now with Instagram and Twitter and the like people want instant gratification, whereas we used to have kids who were happy to go to work in a kitchen for two years and study under one chef. You don’t really get that any more.
So young people are coming in with a different attitude to what you might have had. What made you become a chef?
My mother wasn’t a very good cook, so I can’t say that we followed in any family tradition. I was in trouble with the police when I was a young kid and I wanted a job that I could do that I’d get paid for and I could travel with. I wanted to get out of my home town because I knew I was going to go one of two ways and one of the ways wasn’t going to be good. I wanted a job where I could say I wasn’t a loser and I wanted to travel. Luckily I found cooking. People always say to me, ‘you’ve done well,’ or something like that. I think if I’d become a plumber, or an electrician or whatever, I think I would have still worked hard.
But hospitality has allowed me to express myself how I want to be. I don’t profess to be the best chef. I don’t even want to be the best chef. I just want to do what I do every day because I love it.
Hospitality is an amazing industry. There’s a lot of bad in the industry, but there’s also a lot of good as well. I look at it from both sides and I’ve seen it from both sides.
Just to go back again, given that you could have done anything and ended up going down the chef path, you must have had some inspiring people around you.
I had some good people. A lot of them were people you wouldn’t look at and think oh wow they were this person or that person. Chefs talk about being trained by Gordon Ramsay or Marco Pierre White. I was never like that. I don’t hold those people in all that much reverence anyway because they’re surrounded by PR teams who create the hype. I have my own opinions about what success and fame is. For me, it was more the working class guy who goes to work every day has a smile, is a good person who inspired me. At the end of the day when you sit back and look at your life, and this is probably prevalent in my mind at the moment with Jeremy Strode’s death, I look at it and think, what will people say about me? I don’t want people to say, oh he was a magnificent chef like they do with Jeremy. I want them to say he was a good guy, a good father, he enjoyed himself. I don’t need an accolade that I made an amazing butter sauce or whatever.
I do want to acknowledge Jeremy, and I know you worked with him and were friends, so I am sorry for your loss. What I’m hearing you say and what I’ve read about you is that your approach is a real hospitality approach; it’s about creating an atmosphere. I really like that you don’t bow to trends. I do think that people are craving the cosiness and the simplicity of good food and, to me, feeding people and giving them a lovely environment is the epitome of hospitality.
My thing is, if you go to any of my restaurants, you’ll find that the oysters are the best oysters you can possibly get. It’s the same with the trout or the salmon. I can use any salmon in Australia but I choose to use the salmon out of New Zealand because I find it a better salmon. When we serve French fries in the restaurant, we cut the potato; we don’t use frozen French fries. That’s what my customers expect. If we’re going to charge upwards of $40 for a main course, these people have travelled the world and know what value is. There’s no point trying to confuse them by saying, look at this dish I’ve created, I’m an amazing chef.
At the end of the day when you strip through all the nonsense of ying and yang of flavours and umami, I just think, wow. I wonder what the people who come out with all that are like at night. Do they sit around talking about how they can balance flavours and all that? I can’t think of a worse conversation.
So, sticking to the traditional styles, how do you constantly come up with new menus?
I’ve only ever wanted to serve food that I would eat myself. I argue all the time with my head chefs. The dish has to fit in with what we do. For The European, it has to be European. As soon as someone puts a special on and it’s kangaroo or barramundi, they’ve missed the point. We don’t do those because it’s not European. We’re an all-day brasserie, like you’d have in France. It’s not about creating dishes that make people say, wow, what a technically superior person he is. It never ceases to amaze me when I see people do little pea drops. They put it in sulphuric acid and then drop dots of these peas and make a little ball out of this pea puree when nature gives us peas.
Exactly. Why do we do that? Little things like that seem quirky to me.
Do you think the industry will turn on itself then?
People always come back to it. It’s like a beautiful black dress. People want to go out wearing Versace and all that and that’s fine, but people always come back to a black dress and a smart suit because it’s reliable. As food becomes more and more expensive, they will go back to a place they can rely on and know to be consistent.
Do you still cook?
I still cook a bit. That’s the easy side for me. The hard side is listening to people who don’t understand. You talk to staff about why they’re unhappy. I can’t make them happy. Young chefs complain they’re not getting paid enough. When I was an apprentice, we didn’t have mobile phones and cars. When I was working in London, I was lucky to eat. Now they’ve all got cars and girlfriends and they want superannuation. Everybody wants everything.
They don’t want to start at the bottom.
There’s no such thing. As most chefs will tell you, they started off washing up. Kids nowadays they want to start off qualified and get paid a lot of money.
I look at you and you’re entrepreneurial, obviously a businessman, a chef and creative and there’s a teaching aspect. Do you think to be a successful chef you have to have all those things?
From my point of view, I just want to get up and do a job I love and go home. I value my time so when I’m not working, well I’m always working because it’s my own business, but you want to make it so you know in the back of your mind that people are getting paid and being looked after and they can get on. Nothing makes me happier than when one of my head chefs is buying a house. That’s good, as opposed to them going out and getting drunk and doing all that.
I don’t scream and shout any more and I think as you get older and you have a family and realise with kids in your life, it puts things in perspective. To come in and give someone a bollocking for overcooking the salmon is not really the thing. If you’ve been dancing to the Wiggles with your kids in the morning before coming in to work, you don’t come in with the idea that you’re going to terrorise your staff all day. You have to try and do the best you possibly can and achieve equilibrium around you.
Once you start believing you’re a guru, it’s all over.
As far as I’m concerned, I just do what I do. I don’t want to get caught up in the nonsense of these rockstar chefs. Most of the chefs I know aren’t rockstars at all.
I just do what I do. I’m happy doing what I do. I have good days and bad days but I never get to the stage where I want to pack it in. I’d rather play golf, but, you know, I’m no good at that.