One of the things I love about blogging is the opportunity to meet incredibly talented people who are truly passionate about what they do. Pure South’s head chef Ashley Davis is one such person. When I first met Davis he was full of stories about the suppliers he works with and the produce that forms the basis and often the inspiration for the superb dishes he creates. Davis’ excitement for food was infectious and I could taste his passion and the respect he has for quality ingredients.
I recently caught up with Davis to have a chat about his work and life at Pure South. Davis has a stellar resume with years spent as head chef at two Michelin starred restaurant Hélène Darroze in London. More recently Davis led Pure South to Melbourne culinary victory helping nab the restaurant a chef’s hat in the Age Good Food Guide in his first six months at the helm. Below is my interview with Davis, I hope you enjoy it.
You have an impressive resume. Can you tell us bit about your background and how you became a chef?
I started out cooking in Sydney working at the Hard Rock Café back in the day. It was through my work there that I met Andy, an Englishman, who went on to open a restaurant. In the end, I went with him. That’s actually how I learnt to cook, working with him. From there I moved up to a sous chef role and headed over to the UK. I spent eight years in the UK, working in a vegetarian restaurant in Brighton called Terre a Terre, and then eventually moved to London.
In London I started as a chef de partie even though I was already a sous chef. I took a step back to go into the Michelin world. I started at Arbutus which had one Michelin star, and within three months they had already promoted me back to sous chef which was quite cool. I stayed there for nearly two years before moving on to Hélène Darroze in London, which had one Michelin star at the time. I stayed there for three years and in that time we won the second Michelin star. Now I am back here in Melbourne at Pure South.
So how was the Michelin world?
It’s incomparable. It’s just about being the best and always being the best. The pressure of getting it right all the time without compromise is impossible to describe. The investment in every detail is unbelievable.
At Hélène Darroze we had the best of everything, the best cutlery, the best crockery, two million dollar pieces of art, Damien Hirst paintings on the wall. People came in with an expectation and we had to create almost another world. There are different types of Michelin star restaurants, you’ve got ones like Arbutus which was more of a bistro where people know they are going to get a good meal and quick service. But then there’s the more luxurious restaurants like Hélène Darroze or Alain Ducasse. When you start to get to two Michelin, three Michelin level they are creating a entire world, not just food.
How is the London food scene different to the Melbourne food scene?
I think the food scene in London is great, and people eat out a lot, but I think Melbourne has always had one of the best food scenes in the world. Having worked in Sydney I know Melbourne is much more happening. It’s seven days a week here and there’s always something new.
But I think Melbourne’s food culture has shifted a lot recently. There’s been a trend towards more relaxed dining which is also happening in London, to an extent, but there’s still room for full service restaurants. I like what we do here at Pure South because we kind of try to find a happy medium. It’s a full service restaurant, but it’s a little bit informal. People come in with jeans and a t-shirt and it’s a bit more relaxed and approachable.
What is your philosophy on food and Pure South?
The first thing is it’s all about the produce we work with. We try to find the best produce from Flinders Island, King Island and Tasmania. The bosses had that thought early on because they believe, and quite rightly in many regards, that it’s some of the best produce in this country. That’s not to say there isn’t other great produce in Australia but choosing the best in Tasmania is what we do.
For me personally, my philosophy on food is all about simplicity, flavour and good produce. Most of my food has a story, it is connected to my experience, my travels, places and people I have met along the way. Everything has a place. I don’t just dream up a dish – it’s always connected to something.
Can you tell me about the producers you work with?
Philip Kennedy, the owner of Pure South, has been doing this for ten years and has built up a lot of good relationships with suppliers over the years. I think that’s one of the key factors why what we do works. It’s about going that extra mile. A lot of people talk about sustainable farming and ethical fishing but not that many people actually do it.
I’ll tell you a story that might help. There’s a guy that does our ducks, he is the only guy in Tasmania who is licensed to kill game birds and we’re the only restaurant that he deals with because of the relationship Phil has had with him over the years. He doesn’t want to deal with anyone else. Going down there you see the ducks running around eating rhubarb because he just lets them run free around his farm. So when I put the duck on the menu I think, hmm what about duck with rhubarb?
It’s about having that connection to the place as well.
Do you have a career highlight to date?
The highlight would be the day we won the second Michelin star, at Hélène Darroze, that was pretty cool. We were really in the weeds for staff at that time, and it was my first head chef role at a Michelin kitchen and we were pushing, pushing, pushing. I think we were four chefs down in the kitchen and the team that was there, we were all just busting our bums. The day the news came out, Hélène called me in the office and said we won our second star and it just made it all worthwhile. All those 110 hour weeks, missing your last train and getting a night bus, getting three hours sleep and getting up in the morning to be there at 7.30 am again, it was all worthwhile just in that one moment.
What do you think it was that you guys did that made that happen?
Oh it was a big team effort. The attention to detail was just immense. I think the difference that I made personally was just that consistency and the attention to detail. That’s the only thing I can put my finger on. It’s creative as well, we’re only as good as the dishes we put up so if we create dishes with a bit more flair, a little bit more technique then I think that translates across and they can see the skill of the chef behind it.
Do you think you have brought a bit of that to Pure South?
Oh certainly. Pure South was already a good restaurant before I started. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t have taken the job. I saw that there was a good starting point, something to work with. I actually simplified the food. They were doing some good food but there were a lot of elements. I just took it one step back and concentrated on the flavour and said “lets simplify it but keep it tasty and then we are going to please more people more of the time”.
And that’s what I did. It seems to have worked too, because we won a hat this year and we’re pretty stoked about that.
What brought you back to Melbourne?
The weather! I loved London but I was ready for a change – I just said to my wife let’s try Melbourne for a few years and see what happens. So far so good. I loved London but I don’t know if I could have done another long hard winter, the winter seems to drag on for ten months.
What’s your style in the kitchen?
I have toned myself down a bit but I am pretty calm in fact. I just want people that want to do it well. If you are chef that’s why you are there, to cook good food and to make people happy. I’m not one of these guys that yells and screams. I think that some of those old school style kitchens where they rule with an iron fist is a thing of the past. I think that chefs now are a little bit more educated and the best restaurants in the world are much more calm and professional. I don’t think that yelling, swearing and calling people names actually gets the best out of people.
Where do you like to eat out in Melbourne?
It’s all still pretty new to me but on my days off I just want simple food. I love good Vietnamese food and I love simple Italian as well. I’m pretty easy to please when I go out because I try not to judge I just try to sit there and enjoy it. If I sat there and broke down every meal every time we went out I don’t think my wife would be too happy and we would probably never enjoy it.
Finally, what do you think about food bloggers?
First I have to say I think they have got their place. It is difficult when you are a chef because you are being judged all the time, so you are being judged on Urbanspoon, Tripadvisor and everyone had an opinion. If you are working a hundred hours a week and you are getting judged on a single moment in time, that’s tough. But I think food bloggers have a little bit of authority because they do eat out a lot and therefore I think they help to filter the public voice a little bit.
Photo Credit: James HH Morgan