Here, he chats to The CEO Magazine about food trends, his principles as a chef and businessman and Sunday evening dinners in the McEnearney household.
One distinctive thing about your restaurants is that, unlike other executive chefs, you’re very visible and hands-on. Do you think this is important as leader of the kitchen?
It is, I can’t be everywhere, every day, but if the customers get the chance to see me involved, it gives a sense of ownership and integrity to the restaurant. As businesses get bigger, you spread yourself thinner, so certainly, while I can be, it’s very important to be a visible part of the business.
It also speaks to who I am and if I’m not around, then my fabric gets lost. It’s really important to me that I’m over all aspects of the business in some way.
When did you develop your ideas around the importance of seasonal produce?
That was developed when I’d been cooking for a long time. When my wife and I had our third little boy, William, we decided we needed to take a sabbatical to work out where we wanted to spend the next chapter of our lives. Did we want to start something in Sydney, Australia? Or did we want to go back to the UK, where she’s from?
I threw in my job running Rockpool [!in!]. We took seven months off and lived at my mother-in-law’s farm in Wales. We lived off the land there. They are totally self-sufficient, they grow their own meat and vegetables and make their own power. That was quite a revelation to live there.
We sent our kids to the local village school, where they were learning Welsh of all languages. I built a brick oven from scratch, started making 30 kilos of hand-kneaded sourdough twice a week and sold it in the school carpark just to try to get back to roots. That was where I fell in love with seasonal produce in its prime.
Also, at that time, there was a local woman who grew a Hippocratic garden. That really lifted my interest in medicinal herbs and what food does for your body in all senses. I’m very focused on seasonality because that is when food is at its best medicinally and in terms of flavour and appearance.
Also, as a businessman, that’s when food is at its cheapest! I’m not going to buy asparagus from California and pay A$10 a bunch, I’m going to wait until it’s in its prime in Australia and reap the benefits for all angles of the business.
The physic garden at Kitchen by Mike was unique at the time, but do you feel like idea of food as medicine has gained some currency now?
I think it has, but let’s look at where people are. Some people just latch onto ideas. People come in here and say: ‘I’m gluten free, but I’m happy to eat the bread’. They’re not really gluten-free, they’re doing it because their neighbour is gluten free. So, there is a lot of traction, but whether it has integrity or not, I’m not sure.
I’m a big believer that everything you eat contributes to how you are on a daily basis. We all need to think about that. When I set up the physic garden in Rosebery, Sydney it wasn’t about being a money spinner. It cost me quite a lot to run that garden, but I wanted it to be an educational space. I wanted people to spend some time there and to see how everyday food, not just supplements, contributes so much to who they are and what they are. A healthy balanced diet doesn’t mean kale every day! It means eating everything. We are supposed to eat 25 food groups a day.
I’m a big believer that everything you eat contributes to how you are on a daily basis.
A balanced diet is the only way forward; it will be better for farmers, better for the economy, and everyone will live a little bit longer, or be a little happier at least.
You’ve always got multiple projects on the go; how important is it to never stand still in your work?
I do work better when I’m busy (laughs). Like when I sold Kitchen by Mike, I had my creative directorship at Carriageworks Farmers Market start immediately, so I went straight into that. I still do that and I absolutely love it, I’m close to the ground with that work, I’m visiting farms. That’s always part of me.
It’s wonderful to be busy, but the most important thing is whatever project I do, it has to tick all the boxes of my core values. If it doesn’t tick any one of them, I leave it alone. It has to satisfy all components and that’s really important to keep myself and the business honest.
What personal qualities are you looking for in recruits at No 1. Bent St?
Loyalty is very important. Any business owner or anyone in a high management role would realise loyalty is the most important piece of the jigsaw. If people haven’t worked for me before, I will look at their CV and if I see if they’ve jumped around a bit, that will show me that they’re a little bit unsure about what they’re looking for. They need to settle, refocus and learn.
For me, attitude is also crucial. I can teach you skills, but I can’t teach you an innate way to look after a customer. That comes from your heart and soul. Unless you have that purpose of wanting to give and to do better, I can’t help you with that. So, in interviews, I test heavily on that trait.
Attitude is crucial. I can teach you skills, but I can’t teach you an innate way to look after a customer.
We have a great team at No 1. Bent St, and a lot of them have followed me across from Kitchen by Mike. We have three beautiful apprentices. Two of them were lawyers before. They were people who had worked hard and applied themselves, but realised that in their heart, law wasn’t what they wanted to do.
The third apprentice, he was a boy that gave us his time every Saturday for free. He did that for nine months of his last year at school. We looked after him and we would shout his family dinner in the restaurant to reward him. Qualities like that is what you really want. He is with us full-time now and it’s wonderful.
Once you start looking for mechanical things in your business, that’s when you lose the soul. We look for the simple things and we want to keep that soul.
Once you start looking for mechanical things in your business, that’s when you lose the soul.
What is your ultimate comfort food?
My favourite thing is what we have every Sunday night at home; boiled eggs and soldiers. We’ll pour some red with it, we’ll come together and just chat. If we’re feeling comfortable on say a Saturday lunch, we’ll have a roast chicken.
We dined at Grillid in Iceland which also has seasonal produce as a focus. Read our review.