Believes, good cooking, like all the fine arts, is still a matter of doing simple things well
Philip Johnson is proof that great chefs are human after all. He really doesn't seem to aspire to the empire theory - the more far flung your territory is and the more people under your domain, the more successful you are. Since his Brisbane restaurant e'cco won the national 1997/98 Gourmet Traveller award, he has received many offers to be involved in other businesses. But he preferred to concentrate on his restaurant, to finish writing Philip Johnson's e'cco (published in October 1999) and to continue doing consultancy work for Air New Zealand.
At the end of September 1999 he took on another consultancy, but one which kept him close to home, at the Brisbane Hilton. It's been very hard to get a booking at e'cco, now his fans have the extra option of the plusher surrounds and slightly higher prices of Philip Johnson at Victoria's. He has recruited Dean Yorkston who worked at the prestigious Oak Room in London to run the kitchen at the Hilton. Philip designs and oversees the menu and divides his time between the two Brisbane restaurants. Philip really does not relish having to spread himself too thin. He is a chef who feels and senses what is going on with his 'children' - as he refers to the staff he depends on and who depend on him. "We have enough staff but I seem to find that there is this umbilical cord where they want you there. Maybe it is partly my own fault because I have always been with them doing the double shifts day in, day out. And when you say 'Well I am not going to be in here today, I have got to go and do stuff', they think that you are having a day off".
The 'stuff' he refers to are guest chef assignments which came flooding in when e'cco won the Gourmet Traveller award. When that happened his wife Shirley thought that it would be the death of them because people now came to their simply set up restaurant "expecting something that we are not." Philip said that there have been people who walked in to the unpretentious room and said 'you must be joking, this can't be it', but by the end of the meal would be happy and say they understood why e'cco won.
However the Johnsons choose not to display any of the restaurant's awards, as they want customers to come on the strength of their last meal or a friend's recommendation. And the meals are memorable, the flavours are very good and not too complicated, the tastes are sympathetic to wines and the presentation is striking. One of the perennial favourites is mushrooms on toast. The mushrooms are of the full-flavoured field variety, the toast is very good sourdough with tapenade on it, and the whole finished with a bit of truffle oil. So the plate comes with much more than is promised by the words on the menu. I think this is one of the secrets now of e'cco's success, it delivers more than you expect. There was a time when the service and timing of food was a problem, but this was sorted out about a year ago and now, even with the extra capacity which renovations gave them, they are able to get the food out very efficiently. They do this by having one person who just calls the orders and checks the plating, so the staff in each of the sections can keep their heads down and cook.
Philip is honest enough to admit learning and copying from others, particularly in London. He does have several dishes at room temperature, something he noted from working at London's River Cafe. But it was at dell'ugo, Anthony Worrall Thompson's Soho bistro, that he found the sort of food that he does now, which is "easy to plate and easy to eat,...so easy to eat that we have people returning two or three times a week." Such regularity is a bit of problem, "sometimes I wish that they wouldn't come so much because they wear you out. It's impossible to change the menu that much."
In his turn, Philip has taught many chefs and is conscious of being copied all the time. He admits that it used to worry him but now it doesn't, "I don't really resent people leaving their employment here and taking my ideas with them, because I have done the same. I have not copied them word for word, but I do think and learn from how it is done." And he also subscribes to the theory that your next menu is always your best one, so can your imitators ever keep up?
But Philip is not so pompous as to actually say that. Like others in this book he admits to starting in cooking just for a job, "I quite liked cooking but it wasn't a true passion". He did an apprenticeship in Christchurch, New Zealand, a three year City and Guilds course with English-style exams which he found quite helpful when he went to England. He worked at Menage à Trois and had friends working in London's grand hotels and in that environment developed "a much more intense interest".
After meeting Shirley, who became his wife, he returned to Australia in 1985 and wanted to open a restaurant but had no money. Four years later they bought the French style Le Bronx in New Farm, then a very rough area. The business flourished, the couple worked very hard and got tired. After selling, Philip helped set up some other businesses then decided to go back to England in 1994.
By the time they came back they had seen the labour-intensive, expensive places as well as the simpler, and decided that they wanted to open a "bistro or something that wasn't going to kill us". He talked about how in London, it is possible to sustain both forms - absolute fine dining and bistros. There you do have the choice but he believes that in Australia, "fortunately or unfortunately, people have moved away and supported the bistro". His vision for e'cco is to have a place with good food "which has been pared down sufficiently to allow me to have some sort of a life outside the restaurant."
Philip said this well before taking the position as consultant at Victoria's, a classic fine dining situation. It will be interesting to see how he now manages to straddle the two forms and to cope with the extra responsibility. But his role there, he is relieved to say, is just in the kitchen. In his understated way, he says "running a restaurant is a bit harder than it seems." I don't think any of the chef owners in this book would disagree.
Family life, Alistair Little, Anthony Worrall Thompson
A review of E'cco.
Salad of bug with pinenuts, red onion, southern golds and watercress
Quail wrapped in coppa with ricotta, sage and chard
Baked custard tart with toffeed mango