I really like Chef Ron O’Bryan’s attitude to food. After he sent me a Twitter message to say food is all about making people happy I just knew I had to interview him … and here it is …
Ron, can you recollect your first taste memory?
It would probably be mashed pumpkin made by my Grandmother. Either that or her golden syrup pudding.
Looking back, what do you think first got you interested in cookery?
I’ve always had a fascination with food and cooking. I grew up in the country, a fair bit of my childhood was spent on a farm so seeing where food comes from from an early age set the wheels in motion so to speak. Couple that with a mother who can’t cook and a stint at boarding school, so I guess I figured there had to be more to food.
What inspirations did you get from your childhood?
Obviously growing up on the farm, growing our own food set me up with a very healthy respect for produce and its origins, seeing how long it took for things to grow and the realization that something had to die in order for us to eat meat. Food didn’t just happen. Also my grandmother’s food. The cliché of cooking at my Grandma’s apron strings could apply I guess. I loved her food more than anything. It’s still a very large part of what I cook at home.
Do you have a favourite dish Ron and what would be your last meal if you could choose it?
My favourite dish on the menu at Church St Enoteca is still the three cheese tortellini with sage butter, raisins, pine nuts and 30 year-old balsamic. It’s been on since the day I started and has taken on an almost a cult following. It’s the one the few things that I cook that I can never get sick of. Outside of work though, I like anything slow cooked. Give me an ox cheek or a proper Sicilian lasagne and I’m a happy man. That being said, I do love a good steak too.
My last meal? It would have to be a Degustation featuring Paul Wilson’s sticky pork salad, Peter Gilmore’s pig belly with silken tofu, Jeremy Strode’s boudin blanc with apples and sherry (from his Pomme days), Geoff Lindsay’s red duck curry, a steak from Rockpool Bar & Grill (in Melbourne of course), Justin North’s yoghurt pannacotta with coriander jelly, pain d’epice and pineapple granita, Matt Moran’s chocolate delice, finished with a chocolate soufflé made by Phillipa Sibley. Served at either Quay or Aria.
Who have been your mentors in your professional cooking career?
Probably one of my biggest influences to this day is Glen Tobias from the days when I worked for him at his 2 Hatter Onions in Prahran. He was one of the best cooks I’ve ever worked with. And a chef’s chef too. It was all about what went on the plate. Nothing but the best. The extra virgin olive oil we used was $100 a litre. And that was 1998! That being said, nearly every chef I’ve worked for has had a big influence on my cooking, as well as guys like Greg Brown, Jeremy Strode, Donovan Cooke, Marco Pierre White, the Roux Brothers and all the rest whose food I love to eat or have admired from afar.
How do you approach food and cooking with the changes of the seasons?
The seasons dictate nearly everything I do. I try for light, crisp food in summer, earthy food in autumn, rich, nourishing food in winter and vegetal, fun food in spring. My menus are always evolving. I change dishes often. As soon as something comes into season it goes on. Things that last only a few weeks are the best. They make a brief appearance on the menu, get people interested and then they’re gone. The number of people that ask to be contacted as soon as a particular item becomes available is amazing. For me, it’s the best way to cook. I don’t believe in year-round ingredients. For example, I’ll only use tomatoes in the first three months of the year, and then I try to only use heirloom varieties. Tomatoes that taste like tomatoes. Then in late March I get all my tomatoes delivered to make sugo. We buy as many good tomatoes as we can get our hands on, make the sugo for the year and when we run out, we run out. When it’s a good year for tomatoes, that’s not a problem, but when you have a season like the one we’ve just had, we only managed to find about 600kg of good quality tomatoes. The sugo’s gone for this year already. But that’s part of the deal.
Do you have any advice to home cooks about sourcing produce?
Shop around. Buy a little from here and a little from there. Ask them questions. Look at their prices. The cheapest won’t necessarily be the best, but neither will the dearest! If you find a regular butcher, fishmonger, etc, give them feedback. Tell them what you want to do with what you’re buying and tell them what you thought of it, politely. If it was no good, tell them why you thought it was. You need to build up a relationship with them. The more you interact with your suppliers the better the produce you should have access to. Then, if you find they’re taking you for granted, shop somewhere else for a while. That will have them bending over backwards to get your custom back. Or at least it should. If it doesn’t they probably weren’t that good to begin with.
What currently is your greatest inspiration for cooking?
Probably produce. We are so lucky in this country to have access to an amazing array of foodstuffs. Sure we can’t get fresh foie gras and the like, and food is expensive here, but our standard of living is so high, you are always going to pay a little more to buy Australian. But it’s well worth it. I’m experimenting a lot with texture at the moment too. I’m a very textural person. Flavour is only one element of the dish. Texture, to me anyway, is far more important. The food I’m eating may have the most amazing flavour, but if the texture is wrong, I won’t be able to finish it.