At home, in a dark cupboard somewhere, Mike McEnearney has boxes of starched white chef's jackets. Their pockets are embroidered with the names of some very swanky restaurants, including Sydney's Rockpool and London's Pied à Terre, Pharmacy and Scott's, but there they sit, silent shrouds from another age of dining.
In a move akin to that of a priest leaving the rich confines of the golden cathedral and going out among the people, Mike McEnearney has rejected the world of fine dining in order to feed people simply and well.Mike McEnearney and staff at work in Kitchen By Mike's open-plan, factory canteen-converted kitchen.
Since opening Kitchen by Mike, a self-service industrial canteen in a former Rosella cannery in Rosebery in February 2012, there has been little call for tablecloths, polished silver, gleaming crystal, printed menus, or even waiters. Needless to say, there are no bookings. The bare, communal tables are set with tin cans full of help-yourself cutlery. What's on offer is what's in season and what's at the market; the daily dishes posted every morning on Facebook - everything from pizza margherita to wood-roasted chicken.
You stand in line and wait your turn, then point to the food you want from a long, buffet-like display. You pay, you eat, you go.Award-winning chef Mike McEnearney.
So why write about a chef who doles out his food onto enamelled tin plates in a canteen? Who is no longer winning chef's hats or Michelin stars? Hell, who doesn't even have a TV show? Because, to this long-term restaurant-industry observer, Mike McEnearney is the future of dining. He is one of a growing band of chefs who are rejecting the status quo and going off to do their own thing. His food is clean, wholesome and generous; his produce is ethically sourced; and his house-baked bread is some of the best in the country.
"I just thought it was time to get real," he says over a Five Senses coffee at a long share table in the sprawling, high-ceilinged, open-plan space. "I wanted to find a way to enjoy cooking without the pomp and ceremony and the expensive garnishes."
Funnily enough, it was a photograph of a chef resplendent in crisp whites and chef's toque in the employment pages of The Sydney Morning Herald in 1990 that first inspired the then 18-year-old to become a chef. "I thought it looked exotic and exciting," he recalls. (Ha! exclaims every beaten-down, aching-kneed chef in the country reading this.) He soon found himself knocking on the door of Chez Oz in Kings Cross, a ground-breaking modern Australian-Californian bistro set up by the Staley family, Melbourne culinary royalty. They hired him on the spot, and on his first day the chef handed him a hand-written recipe book and a copy of the menu. "You're on cold larder and pastry," he told the newbie. "Get on with it and have it ready for lunch."
Having done little more than cook dinners for his parents and two sisters in their Glenhaven home, and hold down a part-time job washing dishes at the local Black Stump, this was a baptism by fire.
"I worked 100-hour weeks for just .25 an hour and cried all the way home for the first two weeks," he says. "I made every mistake in the book. I over-whipped the cream and turned it into butter. I did everything wrong."
Eventually, things started to click and, before too long, fellow TAFE apprentice Angel Fernandez suggested he join the team at a hot new restaurant by the name of Rockpool. "At the interview, Neil Perry asked me how many hours a week I worked, and I told him I did six doubles," he says, referring to the killer workload of both lunch and dinner shifts on six consecutive days. "He immediately said, 'How soon can you start?' "
Neil Perry remembers the interview clearly. "Mike was a very serious, clean-cut man on a mission," he says. "He struck me as very focused and very keen."
For McEnearney, Rockpool changed his life. "Neil was someone who turned the light on for me," he says. "He was very approachable and passionate. I decided then to be a chef, and I that I was going to make something of it."
He was reading British chef Marco Pierre White's game-changing book White Heat on the bus home every night. "I was taken by his drive and his attitude - 'f... the establishment, this is how I do things, this is how I cook.' "
Empowered by White, McEnearney spent his annual leave doing "stages" (unpaid stints in restaurant kitchens) in Melbourne with top chefs Stephanie Alexander, Greg Brown and Bill Marchetti, culminating in a week at Florence's three-Michelin-starred Enoteca Pinchiorri with chef Annie Féolde. "I worked with them, I lived with them, and in our breaks we'd go and play soccer in one of the piazzas," he says. "It was a whole new culture for me."
He returned to Rockpool with a passion for Italian pasta, producing riffs on agnolotti and goat's cheese tortellini that became signature dishes. Rising steadily through the ranks, by age 24 he was appointed second chef to Ross Lusted, fresh from cooking at Perry's Wokpool and David Thompson's ground-breaking Darley Street Thai. Lusted, recently named Chef of the Year in the 2014 Good Food Guide for his cooking at The Bridge Room, looks back on the period with great fondness. "We were all so passionate about food and we all brought different elements to the table," he says. "Mike was really great with the staff and generous with his knowledge; a great educator."
Then Perry appointed McEnearney head chef of Star Grill, a brave, new modern Mediterranean bistro-brasserie at Darling Harbour's IMAX complex. "I loved the food we were doing there," says McEnearney. "Cooking ducks on the wood-fired rotisserie and roasting vegetables in the duck fat that dripped down from above."
Even so, he decided he needed to stay on the learning curve, and headed for Europe with his girlfriend. The trip had lasting repercussions, the relationship not so much. "I packed a tent, but I packed a suit as well," he says. "So I'd walk out of the tent with my suit on and spend what I'd saved in some of the world's greatest restaurants."
When the money ran out and the relationship ended, McEnearney dusted off his I-have-British-grandparents ancestry visa and knocked on the doors of Marco Pierre White's Oak Room, Chez Nico and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London. Eventually, he landed a job at the Michelin-starred Pied à Terre, where chef Tom Aikens had just been appointed head chef. It was a tough kitchen to love, with Aikens ruling the roost with an iron hand.
"I saw some things I really didn't like," he says quietly, his hand running through his soft beard. "It was constant barking, screaming and abuse." Aikens was later obliged to resign as a result of an incident in which he allegedly branded a stagiaire with a hot palette knife. "I saw far worse than that," says McEnearney.
Following the safety-in-numbers rule, he swapped the 34-seat Pied à Terre for Sir Terence Conran's vast Mezzo gastrodome in Soho, where head chef and fellow Australian John Torode was serving 700 people a night in the main dining room, and up to 1000 in the upstairs noodle bar.
"Mezzo taught me how to run both a kitchen and a business," says McEnearney. "Here I was, a sous chef with 110 chefs under me, learning my way around numbers and food costs and how to order." The secret to feeding so many people, he says, is Three Point Cooking. "Protein. Garnish. Sauce. One, two, three. It's not about hiding an overcooked piece of fish with a cloud of this, a foam of that, and 21 different ways with artichoke. If you overcook the fish, you start again."
John Torode, now the British face of MasterChef, says McEnearney is simply a great cook with a brain.
"He is able to turn his hand to anything and be bloody good at it," he says. "Play him at golf, and prepare to be beaten. Discuss Machiavelli and he'll hold you hypnotised."
McEnearney was soon headhunted for the head chef position at artist Damien Hirst's ultra-hip "nutraceutical" Pharmacy restaurant and art installation in Notting Hill. Designed to resemble a pharmacist's shop complete with cabinets of medicines and prescription pill wallpaper, Pharmacy was a magnet for the arty '90s London crowd, including the Clash's Joe Strummer, playwright Harold Pinter, artist Roberto Matta, gallery owners Charles Saatchi and Jay Jopling, and celebrities including Hugh Grant and Nigella Lawson.
"Those were the penis years," says McEnearney. "Damien Hirst used to stand on the banquettes and pull his penis out; he was a crazy man in those days. It was all that mid-'90s rockstar London lifestyle."
It was in London that McEnearney really began to believe in simple cooking based on great ingredients. "Give me a beautiful artichoke and I don't want to purée it, I don't want to deep fry it, I just want to eat it in its pure form." He became a regular visitor to the fledgling Borough fresh food market, striking up relationships with high-level provedores such as Randolph Hodgson's Neal's Yard Dairy and artisanal butcher The Ginger Pig. He also struck up a relationship with the "door bitch" at Pharmacy - Joss Best - who he would later marry.
Hirst then sold Pharmacy, the pill bottles were auctioned, and McEnearney went to work at a handful of high-profile London restaurants including Scott's of Mayfair (London's oldest fish restaurant) and Oliver Peyton's award-winning Inn the Park. Then Australia called again. Neil Perry was opening Rockpool Bar & Grill in Melbourne and needed someone to take over the reins at Rockpool in The Rocks.
"It was time," says McEnearney. "We had two little boys by then (George and Alfie), and Joss and I thought it might be nice to live by the beach and have a really wonderful life for a couple of years."
By this time, Rockpool had very publicly lost its third chef's hat, and McEnearney was determined to win it back. In the first review under his charge, The Sydney Morning Herald awarded Rockpool 18/20, the equivalent of a three-hat rating. Everyone in the kitchen was on a high - until the awards rolled around and the 2008 Good Food Guide introduced half-points for the first time, giving Rockpool 17.5. That half-point meant the difference between three hats and two. "It was an emotional time for me," he says. "We went to the awards night all excited, and then ... we were just devastated."
Perry rebooted the restaurant as Rockpool Fish, but his chef felt too scarred. "I knew then that I had to cook for myself, that if I was going to go through all that heartache and pain, it had to be on my terms, in my restaurant."
After the birth of their third son, William, the McEnearneys went back to Britain "to find our utopia". It was the time of the global financial crisis, however, and utopia was priced out of reach. They pitched up in Joss's mother's house in Wales, where the kids went to the village school, and McEnearney built a brick oven in the back yard, baking bread which he sold in the local village school. "It was a beautiful oven," he says. "I built it with the help of Pythagoras's Theorem, using the ellipse formula to get my oven arch."
The joy of baking was to save him. The family boomeranged back to Sydney in January 2010 ("for the kids to be closer to the beach and the sun"), and McEnearney virtually apprenticed himself to acclaimed baker Igor Ivanovic at his bakery Iggy's Bread of the World in Bronte. "I went from being a heavily paid chef to being paid very little," he says.
Such a nomadic cheffing career was never going to lead to a profitable property and superannuation portfolio, but from making-do, comes derring-do. When the need to cook as well as bake returned, his wife Joss said, "Mike, you don't need a big fancy restaurant. All you need is a stove to cook on, and a table to eat from." He zoned in on one of the most charming spaces in all of Sydney, his friend Andrew Forst's ici et la Frenchy-chic found-objects showroom in Surry Hills, and proposed a 12-month series of pop-up dinners. "Andrew made napkins from striped canvas offcuts of his French deckchairs, and I borrowed plates and brought in the beautiful silver cutlery my grandmother had given me." The Mike's Table Dinners, as they became known, were held every second Sunday evening for exactly 12 months. Mike says now that that was when it all changed for him.
All I wanted to do was cook," says McEnearney. "I realised I didn't need the million-dollar fit-out, instead I could think outside the box. Once I did that, there was no box. It became about the food and the people enjoying the food."
Then he heard that the forward-thinking Russel Koskela and Sasha Titchkosky of Koskela design team had taken over a vast factory site in Rosebery. "I didn't even know where Rosebery was," he says. "But it was a factory, and a factory always has its canteen." Koskela and McEnearney went into partnership. Former Rockpoolers, head chef Jeffrey de Rome, sous chef Kim Gastmeyer and manager George Hatzis, came on board to oversee all those things that must still be overseen even when you don't actually have any table service, and Kitchen by Mike opened - raw, untested and with a queue on opening day.
The canteen business model is right for the times, he says. "The only costs you have are for supplying and cooking the food." It also appeals to his socialist side. "People have to line up, and everyone is treated the same. Rich man, poor man, student, lawyer, everyone is in the same queue."
As Ross Lusted says, "What Mike is doing may not be fine dining, but it is deeply considered cooking, and that's equally valid and appreciated by our community today."
Like the design side of the business, the kitchen showcases many of the country's finest producers.
The roll call includes ethically sourced fish from Tasmania's Mark Eather, meat and poultry from Grant Hilliard's Feather and Bone, Gary and Jo Rodely's Tathra Sydney Rock oysters from the south coast, goat's cheese from Tongola in Tasmania and prosciutto and local vegetables from Martin Boetz's Cooks Co-op in The Hawkesbury. "I worry that everyone is looking to screw the producers, that they can't afford to stay alive," he says. "Running a canteen means I can afford some incredible produce."
Added to this bounty are herbs and vegetables from Mike's own kitchen garden and honey from the restaurant's own hives, recently installed by Tim Malfroy. It's all so damn Zeitgeisty, there's invariably a fixed-gear bicycle leaning against the wall of ironbark ready for the wood-fired oven and, yes, there are jam-making sessions on the agenda.
According to John Torode, Mike "gets it". "He gets that if you organise and innovate, you win. He does what I believe Australians do well - create environments rather than temples of gastronomy."
As for the aprons, they've changed from clinically white, monogrammed symbols of status, to thick, leather-strapped, indigo-denim pinnies. "A cotton apron just wouldn't stand up to what we do here," he says. "Especially not a white one."
Lead-in photograph by Gary Heery. Grooming by Samantha Powell.
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