Saint Crispin is named for the patron saint of cobblers, tanners and leather workers. It’s appropriate given the building originally housed a cobbler’s workshop. Run by Scott Pickett of Estelle in Northcote and Joe Grbac, former executive chef of the Press Club, Saint Crispin is now a Melbourne institution. I had a chat with Joe Grbac.
What made you become a chef?
I grew up in a family of twelve – six brothers, six sisters. My father is Croatian and my mother is Australian. Everything revolved around the table. In many European families, the food gets put down in the middle, you break bread, you laugh, you cry, you eat around the table. Any kind of event was all about the food. It’s phenomenal how important food is in European culture. So it came from there, watching my mother cook. Then I started dabbling in it.
I first worked as a waiter. I was 13 when I started work. With so many kids, you had to go out and get a job as soon as you were able and help support the family. So I started first as a waiter, on the dark side (laughs), in a reception venue. I used to work Friday, Saturday and Sunday. From there I got a job as a kitchen hand in a restaurant that my sister had worked at in the city. I was probably only 14 and still at school. I used to be doing the dishes and watching the chef and it grew from there. So part of it is in my blood and also seeing it and doing it.
I’d heard a lot about not going into an apprenticeship too. So I finished Year 12 and was still working. By then I’d moved from being a kitchen hand to being a commis, doing the larder. I went to university and it’s not that I regret it, but as soon as I got there I thought, this is not for me. So I started my apprenticeship with Qantas halfway through the year. I did a year and a half there and then I moved to Marchetti’s Latin in the city, an old two-hat Italian restaurant, and finished my apprenticeship there over 4 or 5 years.
Did you have a particular mentor or was it about learning from experience?
I think it goes in stages. When I was at Marchetti’s my head chef and really good friend Dom was someone I looked up to because he had been in the industry longer than me. We were the same age and had come from the same background. We really saw eye to eye and it was quite easy and fitting to have him as someone I looked up to.
Later when I went to The Press Club, I was at a different stage in my career so I was looking for different things. When I was there I was learning more about managing. I’d been through a massive change after being overseas and learned a lot about cooking, refining it and coming to terms with where my style would end up. You never know enough about cooking. You never know enough about anything. Whether it be life or food. So at The Press Club I moved more from just being in the kitchen to working between the two and liaising with front of house staff. There I looked up to Glen Tobias. He was an ex-chef and was then the General Manager for the Press Club group and oversaw George’s eight restaurants.
Saint Crispin is described as modern French. What are the characteristics of that for you?
I’d probably say we are more modern Australian. What is Australian cuisine? It’s a melting pot of Italian, Middle Eastern and Asian. We are classically French trained and using modern Australian ingredients. We’ll dip into little bits of Asian or Middle Eastern ingredients, however the technique we use to get the dish comes from our experience in French cookery. It’s more about the little touches that give it an Australian feel.
When people dine at Saint Crispin, what’s the experience you want them to have?
Amazingly welcoming. Dining has become more about the experience, and rightly so. The focus 10 or 15 years ago was all about the food and the food could get you anything. Now it’s about delivering an amazing product in food, wine and service in an amazing venue. I think we are really fortunate to have amazing great venue here without having done anything. But it needs to be entertaining. I want it to be fun. It’s about our personality, not only on the plate, but in the whole environment. I want amazing tasty food, lots of fun and waiters who understand the customers.
300 Smith Street
Collingwood, Victoria 3066
Fri – Sun lunch from 12 noon, Tues – Sun 6pm – late