The Vegie Bar is an institution In Fitzroy, a forerunner of the ‘vegie’ restaurants. Head Chef, Josh James, is a gentle giant with a huge amount of respect for his team and for the food they create together.
How long have you been at the Vegie Bar?
Since 2000. Vegie Bar has been open 30 years, I think. I was in high school and I came from Adelaide to Melbourne on an Art excursion to see a surrealist exhibition and the Vegie Bar was here then. That’s definitely over 20 years ago.
Did you always want to be a chef?
No, it was the part-time job I always had. I got a degree in Fine Arts. I was going to be a schoolteacher and teach art at secondary school but this job suited me travelling-wise. I got back from India in 2000 and thought I’d spend maybe three months in Melbourne, because I don’t come from here, and then go to Japan and teach English. But I never made it. Got married, had a kid, got a mortgage, all those things that I swore I’d never do. So three months turned into, “I’m still here”.
How did you get into the whole raw and vegetarian side of cooking?
I was vegetarian at the time. I’m not any more, not that I eat much meat, but I was vegetarian when I first started working here. A lot of the raw came from Lucky, the boss. To tell you the truth, I didn’t really get it or what the big deal was. So he took me over to LA and we ate in every raw restaurant possible. We ate raw for two weeks. I thought I’d be sneaking out of the room at night and grabbing a sneaky burger, but it was amazing. It totally changed my perspective and the way I looked at raw food. So we’ve been trying to bring raw to the masses. We’re not trying to make raw food for the raw foodists, we’re trying to get normal customers to try it.
So how do you do that?
What we try to do is something like an already famous dish, like lasagne, and then convert it so it’s easy for them to get their heads around it. What we’ve found is that raw itself is starting to fizzle, in the sense of being strictly raw. Now it tends to be a component of the dish rather than the dish. We use vegan techniques and it’s cool.
How do you create the menu?
I choose dishes from what has been put up by the crew in the kitchen. It’s a real team effort in here. I’ve got some really talented people around me at the moment. One thing I want to make perfectly clear is that it is a team. I don’t want to stand out and say that it’s my cooking because a lot of it isn’t. I’ve got guys from India and Nepal who’ve done dishes. I ‘ve got a fantastic Vietnamese chef who’s just starting to put up some amazing things. So all I do is pick from what I’ve got. It’s very different from most kitchens.
Some people put up the most amazing dishes. Mieng kham. A new chef started working here a couple of months ago. She made that for me on her second day and I said, ok, you need to make two more of these and I took her upstairs and said, Lucky, you’ve got to try this and it went onto the menu then and there.
Do you still get to travel and research the food?
Not so much any more. I rely heavily on the people around me. I try and work with people’s strengths and I promote people in a certain way and push people in other ways. That’s how I work. Rather than sitting down and coming up with these dishes myself, I find it easier to manipulate the kitchen in a way that brings out the best in the people I’ve got.
Food always has so many trends. Is there any pressure to keep up with fashion?
We keep raising the bar. It used to be just us doing vegetarian and raw, but now it’s gone crazy and I think there are five vegetarian restaurants in the street. That all just happened in the last two years. We’re still heaving, but we’re not as crazy as we were a few years ago. It’s not that we’re doing anything wrong, there are just so many places for people to go.
I’m old for a chef. I’m 43. Most of us burn out pretty quickly. There’s 20 of us in the kitchen. I have 8-10 on at any one time. It’s a lot to manage. I’m not a typical head chef. When you said you wanted to interview me, I found that tricky because I would never want to stand out the front and say its all me. These guys do such a great job for me, I want them to all be part of it. It’s about making an environment where you want to come to work. It’s a bit different here.
380 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy
Sun – Thurs 11am – 10pm, Fri & Sat 11am – 10:30pm