Welcome to 2015 MFMers!
The start of the new year can be incredibly joyous. It’s wonderful seeing people relaxed, refreshed, and bursting with optimism about the year ahead. I have lots of exciting plans for MFM in 2015 that I can’t wait to get into! But let’s kick off the year with an interview, and let me tell you – this one is special.
It’s difficult to believe that one of Melbourne’s mega chefs began his career washing pots at a South Australian winery. His hands slick with grease and covered in suds while someone else stirred the béchamel and glazed the roast duck. When you see the CV of this Melbourne chef you expect his start was somewhat more glamorous. With stints at a string of impressive restaurants (think three-hatted Ondine and two Michelin starred, The Square), and a swag of high profile mentors over the years, it seems only natural that Pickett has cemented himself as one of our city’s premier chefs.
I must admit, it has taken me a little while to get this article up. Since our chat last year it’s fair to say Pickett has been busy. Another hat for St Crispin (hoorah!), the launch of his first cookbook and plans for the soon to be opened ‘Estelle Bistro’ are just a few of Pickett’s achievements – and all in the second half of 2014. But amongst the flutter of awards and famous friends one thing is clear, for Pickett it really is all about the food. A love of quality ingredients, being creative and simply making people happy through food seems the key to his great success so far – and it’s obvious there’s more to come.
It was an absolute pleasure speaking with Pickett. I hope you enjoy the interview.
Tell us about your background and how you became a chef
My parents have got a farm in a little town called Kangarilla, that’s south of Adelaide about 45 minutes. I started working the kitchen there as a kitchen hand when I was 14. It was the way I could actually save for a car. In South Australia you get your driver’s license at 16. I wanted to save for a couple of years so I could buy my first car. I got some experience at the local winery starting in the pot wash like most chefs do but then moved to the kitchen. As soon as I started in the kitchen environment I felt completely at home. I loved it.
I finished my apprenticeship in Adelaide and then came back to Melbourne which is where I was born and where my parents are from. I worked at the Windsor for two and a half years and then worked with Philippe Mouchel for two and a half years at Bocuse and at Langton’s. Then I went to London for two and a half years. I worked for a two star Michelin restaurant called The Square with Philip Howard then I came back. I was Donovan Cooke’s head chef at Ondine, and then I did the Bocuse d’Or in 2005 which is the world’s largest cooking competition. I represented Australia there. When I got back from Bocuse d’Or I started at The Point where I was the executive chef for 5 and a half years before opening the Estelle and most recently St Crispin.
You said you were a kitchen hand and you loved it. What did you love about it when you started?
I loved the energy, the passion, the banter with the boys, the business of the service, the language, the slightly crazy lifestyle that I was introduced to very early on and of course the food – the exploration of dishes and food and produce.
Did your time at the farm influence that for you?
Yes definitely I still go back. My parents still live on the same property now and raise ducks, chickens, sheep and cows. They grow veggies as well. We have a little orchard, some vines and olive trees there. So yes growing up on the farm I always had a passion for produce and for food. That’s where my dedication for fine produce comes in today.
I have seen you be described as the meat man. Why is that?
Maybe I can’t answer that question in his interview! Joke – it was because at the Point we had a meat focus. We were owned by a family of butchers so we flew our flag on the quality and access we had to some of the country’s finest beef. We were very fortunate and it really brought in some of my country heritage as well. At the Point we were meat focused but we still ran a normal à la carte menu and a 9 course tasting menu as well. So we sort of covered all the bases. But because the parent company at that time ran King Island meats they had their own grass feed lots, their own grain feed lots, their own Wagyu, so we could really control the whole process from paddock to plate. It was good, it was really good.
You have obviously worked with some of the world’s most renowned chefs. Out of all the people you have worked with and worked under, who do you think has been the most influential person in your career to date?
That’s tough. I have been very fortunate and there are a few and they have done different things for me. If I could say the two they would probably be Phil Howard at the Square and also Philippe Mouchel who I am still in contact with today and who is still a mentor. Both for very different reasons. I first worked for Philipe Mouchel when I was 21 and now 18 years later he is coming to my restaurant we are cooking side by side so that’s sort of special. But then Philip Howard at the Square had such a major role to play in my life because at that time I was 22, 23 and I went to Europe. I cooked fresh foie gras for the first time, I saw great truffles and great game and different mushrooms and lots of things. He really opened my eyes to a different world. So I think both of those guys probably were a major influence.
I imagine you have brought quite a bit of what you learnt from Mouchel and Howard to your own two restaurants now?
Yes definitely. I think with Phil Howard his primary focus is produce and the marriage of flavours so what works really well and using what’s as seasonal as possible – then it just tastes delicious. You can use modern techniques or old school techniques it doesn’t really matter what you tools you are throwing about but it just needs to be tasty and I think that’s the important thing.
Talking about your restaurants can you tell us what you were trying to achieve with each of them when you started?
With Estelle primarily I live just five minutes down the road and I wanted it to be the best restaurant on High Street. I wanted it to be a really good local restaurant where people could come and just have a great dinner. There was nowhere I could do that in Northcote. Now I have probably moved away from that vision over time because we have developed a tasting menu that we have become renowned for but still primarily our focus is to have a really good product at a really good price point in a really cool, funky environment. I think that would be the whole thing with Estelle and to take people slightly outside their comfort zone. Having a tasting menu restaurant where there is no choice is quite a responsibility in itself. I think we need to remember that. Our goal here is to take people slightly outside of their normal comfort zone where they say wow I never would have ordered that but I really loved that. Whether that be an eel dish or a modern technique or something a little bit different or a strange combination, but that’s really what that’s about.
With St Crispin what we wanted to do again was to have a really good local restaurant in Collingwood. We have never had delusions of grandeur or of doing the best restaurant in Melbourne or whatever. We started off with a small dream and with the aim to just do all the basics really, really well. We wanted to have an affordable price point at St Crispin. The Estelle has probably become slightly a special occasion restaurant but with St Crispin we wanted somewhere people could go once a month or once a week if they want to.
Were you surprised by the first St Crispin hat?
Yes completely. It was just like everybody seemed to want to eat there and be there and keep coming. It was unbelievable. We didn’t think that many people knew we were opening and all of a sudden we were doing 100 every night in our second week. It was crazy but also very humbling. I just think it’s a good testament that a good product at the right price point in the right location will always do well.
What do you think it is about St Crispin that people love?
We have had lots of conversations about that because if you could bottle up that recipe and sell it you would be a billionaire! But I don’t think it’s just one element. I think it’s 10 or 15 things you know. I think it’s Joe’s profile and background and experience. I think it’s the same with me. I think it’s the location. I think it’s the building. I think it’s our price point and the standard of food we produce. You know two courses for $50 is pretty good when you know a lot of top restaurants are doing main courses for 38, 40, 42 dollars. It’s also the feel of the building, the fit-out, the tables, the chairs, the space, the energy. Also probably the fact that the Estelle was quite local and over three years had built up a little bit of a cult following. Then rather than at $100 or $120 a head Estelle clients could pay at $50 or $60 a head. So I think all those things, everything aligned really and rolled into what is a great restaurant.
What’s been your career highlight to date?
Probably when Joe and I won best new restaurant. I think for me that has been a lifelong dream and you know sometimes you don’t think these things will actually ever happen to you or that you can do it. That’s what other people do, that’s what other restaurateurs do, that’s what other chefs get, that’s not what you get. So the fact that we received that in such a short time frame and that it was so well received and everybody loved what we were doing was special. I mean if I go back to when we started the Estelle I mortgaged everything I had to go into it, and then I did it again to go into St Crispin. When you go double or nothing twice it’s pretty scary. I’m just happy that we are busy enough that we can pay the bills really.
How did you celebrate it?
I smoked a couple of big cigars, a couple of big Cubans I got off a friend of mine.
Tell me about Masterchef. How was that experience for you?
Yeah it was great. I did Junior Masterchef a few years ago and that was different to the one with grown-ups. To have Joe by my side it was lots of fun. I have known George and Gary for many years as a lot of the boys have. So we feel pretty comfortable when we go to see them. Obviously Joe worked with them for a long time and you know I have known George since he was an apprentice, since he was 17 at the Sofitel in the late 90’s. So it’s nice to go and see the boys and they are pretty relaxed, they are professionals at this sort of thing and Joe and I have done a bit of it so it’s pretty relaxed and it’s fun and exciting. For me it’s good for the kids, I have three children and the kids sit at home and for them to see dad on TV makes them understand a little bit more why I’m not home five nights a week.
What do you think about shows like that?
I think they are a double edged sword to be honest. I think they are great for our industry in one respect. They are great for getting the voice out there, promoting chefs, promoting industry. It’s great for finding young talent. But I think on the flipside sometimes unfortunately these shows give people an unrealistic view about what the industry is really like. Not everyone gets a TV show and a cookbook deal and a quarter of a million dollars. There are a lot of young guys out there who are really good cooks and aren’t earning much money. They are working 80, 90, 100 hours a week. So I think it’s good and bad. Look obviously it’s very good for our industry but there is always a flip side to everything.
What’s your philosophy on food?
Again like with the restaurant I try to do all the basics right and I try to have the fundamentals of our entire cuisine really rock solid so we can build from there. So I like great produce, like great meat that’s cooked properly, that’s seasoned properly, that’s served at the right temperature, that’s served at the right time of the year – I wouldn’t do wagyu cheeks in summer, we do those in winter we do lighter beef dishes in summer. Cooking with the seasons, and then serving a great garnish and accompaniments whether that be a puree or a sauce that’s made properly or puree that’s seasoned properly, herbs or vegetables. Then we run the gamut of textures and flavours with different combinations and marriages of flavours and flavour profiles. We try to come up with dishes that might seem quite simple on the plate but are actually quite complex.
Since this interview it has been announced that The Estelle will be breaking into two with a new ‘Estelle Bistro’ opening in early 2015. You can check out details here. Enjoy!
Photo Credits: The Estelle website and Starlight Five Chef’s Dinner