One of the reasons for the repeated success of Andrew McConnell's restaurants has been his wide and varied experience.
Born and bred in Melbourne he was apprenticed to Ian and Gerald at Capers where he enjoyed their knowledge of spices, gleaned from travels in India and S.E. Asia. He left after eighteen months did a stint with Walter Bourke at Maria and Walter's, moved to Tansy's in Spring St, then in 1988 to Bill Marchetti in the early days at the Latin. The beginning of the 1990s saw him with Greg Malouf during the establishment stage of O'Connell's in South Melbourne.
He left Melbourne for Europe, worked "nowhere special" in London for a while, returned to Melbourne, met his now wife Pascal Gomes McNabb and answered an advertisement for a position in Hong Kong with another melburnian, Michelle Garnaut. He landed the job at M at the Fringe where he was joined by Pascal after she finished her architecture degree. Three years later they went with Michelle to open her new venture in Shanghai, M on the Bund. "The hardest opening I've ever had to do. The english, corruption, bribery, produce - there were always problems". In spite of all it was a great success.
Eighteen months later he came back to Melbourne and started the excellent little Dining Room 211 in Brunswick St, Fitzroy. Did a year at Circa for the Van Haandels. That gave way to Three One Two in Carlton and towards the end of 2008, Cumulus Inc in the city. In early 2009 they open a new place in Gertrude St, Fitzroy. It will be a mixture of fine food, bar and the more casual approach of Cumulus.
It's been a fairly heavy schedule.
Andrew says of his Melbourne apprenticeship "The fact that I've worked for four different chefs, all very unique in their style, their delivery, is actually really important". All were strong he says and taught him a lot. As did China.
"In Shanghai the first round of chefs I pulled onboard were all via big hotels, understood western food, did all the basic sauces etc. but there weren't enough of those to go around so I started employing chefs who were Chinese trained, worked in Chinese restaurants, and within a couple of months they were running rings around the guys who trained under Europeans in hotels. Their skill, their palate, their work ethic, coming from these local Shanghainese restaurants, was just something I hadn't seen before." He talked about the chef "who could bone a quail with the heel of a cleaver and it was just a wonderful thing to watch - I learnt a lot from these Chinese guys".
The China years has left him feeling that a huge population allows for more interest and variety. "I love going to a restaurant at 3 oclock in the morning with 500 other people". Of course, Melbourne has Supper Inn and Sydney Golden Century, but 500 at 3am seems a little unlikely.
Back in Melbourne he says that the Chinese use of texture was a very useful addition to his culinary repertoire. He also feels more comfortable allowing some Chinese tastes to creep into his dishes, not that he looks back to the idea of 'fusion food'. Indeed, he sees Australian food being influenced mainly by Europe not Asia. Another chef, Tony Bilson, talks about the European palate working with wine and given the increased emphasis placed on the sommelier in high-end establishments, it's hard to disagree that this is the direction our food is taking.
Andrew's breadth of experience gives him a unique approach to cooking and running kitchens. Most chefs stand at the pass where they can see everything that goes out. Andrew doesn't work a station but floats between all helping here, correcting there, talking to customers as required - multi-tasking in the way that only women are supposed to do. He says it's important to keep the whole kitchen in his head. To do this he trains someone, usually the sous chef, to call and time the dockets freeing him to move around - "It's the best use of my time".
Chefs lead a high-adrenaline existence that is at its peak during normal mealtimes. They don't eat according to other people's patterns and it's difficult for them to step back and consider the position of you, the diner. Further, restaurant dishes are assembled from a number of elements, often prepared by different section of the kitchen. In high-end dining it's not hard to let trees obscure the forest. This is why Andrew, before he adds a dish to his menu, sits down and experiences it. "The only way you can gauge a dish is eat it - texture, dryness, temperature - there are so many components and how do you know if it's too big or if it's not enough".
It should also be noted that Pascal plays an essential role in setting up the restaurants. Being an architect much of their look and feel comes from her; with, of course, input from the man who's there untold hours each week. She also works part-time and is Andrew's "eyes and ears on the floor" - as well as it's stomach - they both taste all the dishes before they hit the menu. This, says Andrew, "maintains standards and our dining culture".
Andrew says "we compliment each other on a lot of levels". This degree of support in the all encompassing existence of a restaurant, is invaluable.
"Dining culture" may be an ephemeral concept but it's what decides the success or failure of a restaurant. It's the finger on the pulse of the city's diners and provides the context that makes or breaks the food.
Cumulus Inc, with its welcoming atmosphere, unstructured situation and good, straightforward food gives Andrew another way to face uncertain economic times. He has found it an interesting and enjoyable experience moving into dishes with fewer elements on the plate but supported by a menu of matching flavours. Less accent on garnishing and more on clean complimentary flavours. But, as restaurants are about much more than food, it's the buzz of customers perched at the bar overlooking the kitchen benches, seated at tables or standing waiting for a vacant seat, that is the sauce which makes Cumulus such a delicious experience.
It is the layering of this feeling with the prestige of great restaurant dining which makes the new venture, Cutler & Co, in Gertrude St one of Australia's best and most accessible establishments.
To be continued ...
You can find more photographs here