After 18 months of running a once a month residency at Persillade in East Melbourne, as well as several other pop up dining experiences, expat New Zealand chef, Peter Gunn has a place of his own on Smith Street. Ides is all about flavour; and lots of it. Peter has a no rules, no holds barred approach to his food. When you book at Ides, you’re allowing Peter and his team to take you on a taste journey through the six dishes they have chosen for that week.
I ate at your Ides pop-up in East Melbourne in September last year. I really loved the idea that you had gathered together a whole lot of sous-chefs to collaborate outside your usual kitchens.
It was necessary because I worked at Attica with Ben where there was a strict style and ethos and that was my outlet to do my own thing even though I contributed quite heavily to Attica, I had other things I wanted to explore. It was a little bit of a relief to be able to do it one way. I got to use my brain quite differently. Monday to Friday it was going one way and then the rest of the time it was going another way; using different types of creativity. It was pretty exciting.
That’s where the art can come in, I guess, in adaptation, knowing one way and then being able to play with it and not be confined to that one thing.
It was a big learning curve for me realising that. Just realising that there’s not really any rules in what I was doing. I don’t stick to any tradition or style of cooking so we are able to incorporate flavours and just go with what tastes good.
That’s interesting. When you learn to be a chef, it’s the French classical way, and it feels as though there are lots of rules around food.
Well there are. As soon as you decide I’m going top keep doing this French-esque style food that’s when you can’t really add soy sauce or you can’t really add Chinese five spice. That’s when you have to work with clove and thyme and stuff like that. If you go down the Italian route, you have to add basil and again you can’t add soy sauce or fish sauce. It’s not that you can’t, but you shouldn’t. There are hundreds of years of tradition in that cooking. Whereas we try and play off this being a Melbourne style of cooking, or a Melbourne restaurant and cook Melbourne food, meaning we take inspiration from wherever we want. We’re in a very urban setting; you know the use of ridiculous looking flowers to pretty up dishes is something that I’m not interested in. It doesn’t make any sense to me. We don’t have organic gardens so we deal with one main veg guy who sources everything for us. We don’t really play off the natural, organic side of things. It’s not really us. There is nothing natural in the restaurant. You know, this is fake leather (rubs table). There aren’t any fresh flowers on display anywhere. Everything is manmade. Well, there is real leather on the menus. I should show you the menu so it makes sense.
We use a variety of spices, for example, but in reading a menu you shouldn’t feel as though you’re going from one area to another area to another area.
The whole plating up aspect then. I’ve heard what you do described as performance art. Is it performance art for you?
That’s a bit dramatic. I think if you met all these guys individually. We’ve been working together for a number of years through the pop up and we’re a pretty sort of grounded bunch so anything that’s on display or on show is practical from our point of view. We plate the first course and dessert here on this bench in the restaurant but that’s because our kitchen is so small. To meet the level we’re aiming for, you need room and a streamlined process. That’s why we use this bench over there, not so much to say, look at us, but because we actually have to.
So rather than having the extra fancy bits you’re allowing the food to speak for it self?
That’s right. It’s a hundred per cent flavour focussed. Sometimes there are things that look really pretty but they don’t really taste like much, Sometimes it’s hard to make something that’s so flavoursome, look really nice. For example at the moment we’re serving a braised beef cheek. You see just the beef cheek and it doesn’t look very nice. So when we serve it with pumpkin and sunflower seeds and pomegranate, and black lentils. And each of these things have their own individual flavours so it’s layered. There’s cumin on the pumpkin seeds and the glaze is apple balsamic and the lentils are compressed in an apple vinegar and then there’s fried parsley on top and some cumin oil. So there’s a lot of flavour going on but it’s quite an organic dish. We haven’t cut the piece of cheek to look like the perfect square and then piled things off to the side; it’s a raw style; flavour focussed. And, well, it depends on who you ask, we’ve either got the best restaurant in town or the worst restaurant because of that fact.
On this menu we change one dish every week. Six courses are the core menu but one dish changes every week. Because we are constantly changing, we are working for two things; one thing is to make an impact on a person who is only going to come here once, but also to entice and encourage people to come back because they – fingers crossed – enjoyed the meal, and want to come back for something else.
So how does it work at Ides?
I liken it to a Rubix cube; there are six sides to a Rubix cube. You’ve got the staff and the guests, you’ve got the food, the wine, the ambiance and the service. It’s a matter of constantly working all the sides around to get it right. SO when I say that some people think we are the worst restaurant, little by little, we can wean those people out of the equation and out of our future.
Do you care?
I care when we have really upset someone. I don’t care if someone says they don’t like that dish, it’s too much for me. The difficult thing about a six course menu is that one table might really not like a course and another table will love it. But you have to let go. Once we get the staff right, the food right, the environment, the music, everything. Once that all comes together, then I like to introduce something that messes it up a little bit. I like to be in this constant ‘don’t know what’s going to happen’ state.
That sounds nerve-wracking, but is it fun?
It’s fun for me. It’s not so fun for them sometimes. I’ve never been one for routine. In my younger years as a chef, the routine ran me down, wore me out. My alarm would go off at 7 in the morning, I’d have breakfast and go to work, and I knew what my day was like all the time. I’d get home at the same time and go to sleep. It was just like that’s when you see these chefs crumbling. They work so much and they have a relentless routine. I have a small scooter and a family car and I live in West Footscray so I can get the tram or the train. So I make an effort to get the tram three days a week, riding my scooter once and then bringing my car once and then taking different routes. It’s like with food, when you find yourself in a different situation, you have to make it work. One day if I come through Carlton and there’s traffic then I have to deal with that. I’m never sure what I’ll face.
That’s a very intentional approach towards chaos.
Yeah, yeah. It’s the same with Ides. The change happens on Thursday, so it’s Saturday today and we still don’t know what we’re going to change it to. We’ll have a few ideas by the end of service tonight and then on Monday or Tuesday when we’re closed, I’ll think about it some more, and then every morning on Wednesday the kitchen team catches up and we talk about what was last week and what is this week. What issues did we have, who did we have in, what was the feedback? We look to address those things in the coming week, change what needs to be changed, improve what needs to be improved. We take all the feedback on board constructively.
By that point, I’ve got something. Then I feed it to the guys and they fill in the blanks.
Where do they ideas come from? When you say it’s flavour focussed, I see there are a lot of flavours on the menu and it made me think about the lecture I went to last week at Melbourne Uni and they speaker was saying that we can only recognise or know of a flavour if we have eaten it before. So how do you decide on flavours? How does that work for you?
Well that comes from trying new things, coming across new ingredients. We are always trying to think of something new we can do with something. Flavour-wise, sure you can walk into a spice shop and taste a flavour and it will trigger an idea for something. But it comes from everywhere and anywhere. I plan the menu around flavours I like.
Did you always want to be a chef?
Not really. I started off painting. That was my first job out of school. It was pretty shit. Then I started working at a fried chicken and Chinese takeaway shop. And I was also working at a poolside café. It was pretty rubbish really. The takeaway joint was a nighttime shift; Friday and Saturday nights 11pm to 7am then the café started at 9am to 3pm. I was just working at the weekends, but I’d catch a train to the city – I was in Wellington – then catch a train back and go to the pool, then go home and cry and then go back and do it all again.
And that’s when you thought, this is the life for me?
No, well then I don’t know how it happened really. A friend of mine suggested we apply to polytechnic to do a chef’s course. There were three of us applying but I was the only one who get accepted, so I just rolled with it.
Once I started getting a bit more of a feel for it, I got a job in a restaurant as a kitchen hand. Of course we ate food as kids and mum and nan cooked, but I didn’t ever have one of those moments where I thought, yeah I’m going to be a cook.
Initially I was just doing it to get paid, and then I worked through that and bounced from place to place until suddenly I’m here.
Well done. Melbourne can be a hard town to produce food in.
It is hard. We’re still finding that out and everyone is an expert these days. For me, it takes a lot of work to be able to block out the noise. Especially when you’re trying to do something that’s a little bit different. We only offer the one menu, and if you’re not happy to provide your credit card details at the time of booking, that’s it. We have to protect ourselves as a small business. To be able to do something different, fly by the seat of my pants and be creative in all aspects of our offering, there’s got to be some sort of security. You have to make sure the business is working. It takes a lot of work not to take everything personally.
And when you have a number of people working below you, you have to stay motivated for them. It’s another challenge on top of it. But I enjoy it.
We did lots of pretty difficult things with our pop up but I like the processes that go with all that. After the first pop up we did, I thought, I don’t want to do that again. Because it was really good and you think why would we do it again? But we did.
These days more than ever, and it was like that with the pop ups, I hope to inspire other chefs. I don’t do anything traditionally. I hate rules and hate being in situations where I can’t be myself. And I’ve only put this piece of the puzzle together lately, but looking back of some of what I’ve done, I do hope it inspires younger chefs that feel like they have something but don’t know the first step to take to do it. Whereas I just do it. There are a lot of people without confidence and they can only see the difficulties.
I get very humbled when I see my name up against other well-regarded brands. For example when Price Waterhouse invited us to do a dinner. I thought, well, ok, I’ll just do what I do and turn up. We prepped a lot of our pop ups from out of a shed. So we did all of this work for 100-odd people and then I went to this Price Waterhouse function where they ushered me in and said, “here’s your car space,” and I had to say, “well my wife has just dropped me off.” Then I got inside and there were these huge kitchens and seven chefs ready to help me, and I had already done it all. I hadn’t been able to quite believe that I was going there, so I thought, I’ll just do what I normally do.
But I’m getting more comfortable in my skin. This is mine. It’s what I do.
Wed – Sun from 6pm
92 Smith Street, Collingwood