Kelvin and his wife, Michelle, run Altair Restaurant in Warrandyte, just a little drive from the city and right on the doorstep of the Yarra Valley. Kelvin describes his food as modern Australian with a twist; he uses native plants and spices to add that something extra and also to acknowledge and connect with the land he lives in and loves.
What do you love about food and cooking?
Mainly, which is a little bit strange, but it’s making people happy. Ever since I was a kid, I used to once a week make breakfast for mum and dad and it would be a whole family thing. It was just scrambled eggs and I was only tiny at the time, but it wasn’t the food itself, it was more people’s reactions to the food. That’ why I love having a window now, I can watch the customers while they’re eating, not that I stare at them or anything, but I can actually watch them and watch them enjoying the food, which to me is really rewarding. In life I feel we remember family, relationships, holidays and food. They are the four main ones and I get to provide one of them on a daily basis which is really cool. When you talk to people, they say, I remember when I went here and I ate this and it sticks in people’s heads. My staff and I all get to provide life moments for people on a daily basis, which is a major buzz.
It’s a beautiful place to do it too. I’ve never been to Warrandyte before but it’s lovely with all the trees and the river.
It’s a cute little town. I grew up at the bottom of Mt Dandenong and I’ve lived over this way for a lot of my life, although I worked bay side for a couple of years and we lived 5 minutes from the beach and I went to the beach three or four times in four years, it was just there but we never went. But to me the river, the town has a great vibe about it and we’re not that far from the city. It’s like a total escape without having to go too far. It’s a great little town; the river is amazing. On Sunday afternoons we like going for a walk or fly-fishing or whatever. It’s so relaxing and everyone is friendly.
Did you start your apprenticeship in Melbourne?
Yes. I’ve only ever worked in Melbourne. I started off at the Yarra Glen racecourse. Actually, I started off at the MCG before I started my apprenticeship, I started off as a pie boy there and worked my way up through the ranks I worked for Spotless, so did lots of major sporting events and the Grand Prix as well, then went to the Yarra Glen racecourse. The Yarra Valley had some very nice restaurants; Eleanor’s at Chateau Yering has always been amazing but it didn’t have the calibre of restaurants it has today. So it was a matter of going into the city to apply my trade. It’s a long drive and I was still living in the Dandenongs. I’d drive to the city and back every day. So I started out this way and it was always the intention to move back at some stage. It’s great now because with the expansion of some of the wineries out there and with Levantine moving out here and Ezard, and you’ve got Matt Stone at Oakridge and Neil Cunningham at Punt Road. You’ve got some really good chefs at some really good places, which means it’s not just a wine region any more, it’s a so a food region, which is great. We’re not quite in the Yarra Valley, but we’re on the doorstep of the Yarra Valley and you can pretty much find any cuisine you want out here, from fine dining like we do to a casual lunch and you don’t have to go as far.
That’s great. Do you have anyone in particular who has been influential along the way?
A fair few. I was recently part of the Electrolux Young Restaurateur of the Year and they asked me that question and it really got me thinking about it. A lot of my inspiration comes from my Grandma. She was a great cook and I spent a lot of time with her when I was a kid. My grandpa was a builder and my parents were building a house so they’d all be building the house and then we’d have a family meal together. Most of what she did was baking; scones and relishes. I used to love the food, love the smells. To me a lot of my love for cooking has come from smell. I remember a lot of my really influential food moments, where I’ve gone, that’s amazing, have come from smells of food. I remember that the kitchen always used to smell amazing.
I always wanted to be a chef but didn’t want to work chef hours, didn’t want to miss out on seeing my friends, most high school kids have the same feelings, so I actually went to University and did a psychology degree. I thought that was a better use of my time and my education but I just kept finding my way back to food. All my part time jobs when I was at Uni were food-related and everything was food.
Yeah so Grandma was a massive influence and then through my career I’ve worked on and off with a couple of chefs; one in particular, Paul Tingay, who grew up on Jersey, a little island between England and France and classical old-school chef; terrines, pâtés, all those thongs we don’t make any more and we’re not taught any more. He really taught me how to do a lot of those things. With any chef, if you know how to do the basics properly, then you can evolve ad create your own signature but you can’t skip that step. I worked with him for a long time at Sails on the Bay. He was the larder chef and he taught me heaps.
Stuart Cole was another one who really taught me what being a chef was. Not what cooking is but what being a chef is; manage your staff, look after people, how to run a business essentially. You can work with lots of great chefs and they can teach you styles and you can go to business schools and TAFES but it’s the actual experience of other people that’s set up well to run our own business. It’s things they don’t get paid to teach you but they’re willing to pass on, I think it’s really important and that’s what we try and do here with the guys. Essentially when you work here it’s an open book, I’ll show you what the food costs are, I’ll show you what the wage costs are because these are things you need to know about. This is the knowledge you need that you won’t learn in school.
I think it’s lucky you had a mentor who showed you these things in that way because I think some of the old school chefs were quite hard on their staff and it has been evolving away from that now.
Definitely. I was one of those chefs. My first Head Chef job, I wasn’t ready for it in hindsight. At the time I thought I was, everybody does, but I wasn’t ready for it. It’s not that I misjudged, I knew the job was going to be hard, but I didn’t realise the emotional toll it takes on you. I was one of those Gordon Ramsay type chefs and very quickly learned that it just doesn’t get you anywhere. You lose the confidence of your staff. If you’re got everybody on board, everything works better; the food is better quality, the people are happier at work, you have greater staff retention. That’s the main one because it’s so hard to get staff in hospitality these days, especially where we are.
A lot of people are in the industry but not a lot of people last. Pay conditions, work conditions and the whole romantic idea that’s presented on tv. Sarcasm comes into it a fair bit still but there ‘s just no place for yelling in the kitchen any more. It’s the old way, it’s not the productive way. We deal with things, we understand that we have customers to feed and we’ll deal with it and the end of service and appropriately. I think that the boys and girls in the kitchen respect that. Because of that, I think, we’ve had great staff retention. We have staff here who have been here since we opened three and a half years ago. We really want to treat people with the respect they deserve. And the hours too; none of my staff do 80 – 90 hours a week, it’s just not feasible long term. Otherwise people are only in the industry for about five years rather than staying in it.
Does your psychology degree have any bearing on that?
Considering how much it costs to get a university degree, I’d like to think it does. What it has taught me is that everybody is different and that’s the best way to deal with your staff. I remember when I was an apprentice, a couple of times, and when I get yelled at I just shut down, I don’t respond well to be yelled at. But if someone came to me and told me that they were disappointed in me, that would cut me so deep and I would want to fix it and that would be my sole purpose. I think that gone is the era that the chef’s way is the only way. All your staff need to be treated differently; we are all different people and respond differently to criticism. I’ve got one young chef who doesn’t respond well to compliments, it makes him feel nervous. So, what it has taught me by doing that degree, how to treat people and get the best out of them and also to help them get the best out of themselves. As long as they are happy with themselves and happy in their workplace, they produce good quality food. I probably don’t use my degree enough.
These things are never wasted though.
Yes, and I also I was pretty immature as a kid, so coming into it a little bit older was better for me too.
So your food here is modern Australian?
Yes. Essentially it is, but with a twist. It’s a question we get a lot and it’s hard to answer. Three things happened during my upbringing which got us to where we are now. The first one was that I had a local wurundjeri elder come out to my primary school – I would only have been about 7 years old, but it’s stuck with me. He cooked rainbow trout in bark over the coals and it was the most amazing trout I had ever eaten. I don’t remember all that much about what else he taught us but I remember the fish and I didn’t think of it for years to come. Then during my apprenticeship I was looking through a cookbook and saw tempura acacia blossoms, I think it was done by Alain Ducasse and I thought, that’s wattle, it’s a wattle dish. I thought, this is growing all around my backyard. I went out and tried it and most of it isn’t edible, there are lots of different types of wattle and some of them taste disgusting. But I realised that a lot of what is around us is edible. I thought what else is native Australian that’s edible and I got working with a lady called Jude Mayall, she’s from OutbackChef and she sells native Australian ingredients. I discovered a whole entire world I’d never heard of before; Kakadu plums, Davidson plums, rye berries, warrigal greens, wattle seed; all this stuff that is native to our country and is edible.
What we try and do here is to take contemporary dishes and then give them a bit of a twist. At the moment on the menu we have a beef tartare and instead of serving it with frites or bread, we season it with wattle seed, and a little bit of blood root then we wrap it up in warrigal greens and then serve it with native macadamia, rye berries and Kakadu plum. So you have all these Australian flavours going through a traditional dish. So when we call ourselves modern Australian, we are using Australian products and ingredients.
It doesn’t get more Australian than that!
Yeah but people get scared. I actually did a radio interview this morning with a radio station in America, an ex-pat doing an Australian show over there. We were discussing native Australian ingredients and I think when people hear native Australian they think they are going to eat emus and kangaroos and witchetty grubs where we are more focussed on the shrubs, trees, bushes and spices that we can put into food. Pepper berries from Tasmania have this amazing aroma and flavour almost like juniper, they go great with gin and so it has not only found its way into the food here but also the cocktails. So we have more of a twist than other places that call themselves modern Australian.
What’s Jude’s background?
Her parents owned a farm growing up and had a stall at the Vic Market and she got into produce, so she got in that way but she does work very closely with the aboriginal community. She’ll bring an ingredient in and she’ll say, we’ve just got this from South Australia or the Northern Territory or wherever it may come from and I’ll get it and look it up online or in a recipe book and there’s nothing about it. That’s where it’s a little bit scary but it’s also exciting because it’s a blank slate. There are a few chefs out there using them; Amaru in Northcote use native ingredients and Shannon Bennett and ben Shewry have played around with some of it as well but it’s very new and people like Jude are like pioneers in this area. So we often try boiling it and frying it and we’ll try it in several different ways and try and work out which is the best way and then we create from there. It’s really cool because in cooking there’s not much that is new. We reinvent the wheel so many times but using native ingredients is something that is a little bit new and we can play with it and it slowly gives something, not just to the restaurant, but to Australia in terms of what is our national cuisine? We don’t really have one. If you say to people, what are our national ingredients or dishes, we turn around and say lamingtons and pavlovas and barbecues and prawns. And pavlova is from New Zealand, it’s not even Australian to begin with.
Yes but Australia claims everything from New Zealand and calls it its own!
It’s slowly giving us an identity. People aren’t as scared any more. We do an indigenous dinner once a year and we now have people ringing two or three months in advance to book for it whereas the first year we did it everybody said, you’re not going to serve me witchetty grubs are you? We are slowly educating without being preachy about what is actually out there.
I think it’s great to have a nod to all of that. The indigenous people really appreciated the seasons and what was available and sustainable and so I think it’s nice to acknowledge that as well. I think with colonisation we threw a lot of that out that we really shouldn’t have.
A lot of what they had was ripped out and replanted with Europeans vegetables and fruit trees. It got lost for a while. But we use a lot of warrigal greens which are a bit like spinach, it’s slightly more herbaceous botanical, slightly more textural. We use it as a substitute for spinach and Captain Cook used it to treat scurvy. We were using these things years and years ago and then they became forgotten. It’s a native Australian version of spinach which is brilliant. The French even took it and planted it and they grow it over there with a different name but it’s native to Australia and they’re now using it. So it’s great that working with Jude and other suppliers who work with indigenous communities we can get this stuff back out there. A lot of it is going straight to the US for medicinal purposes and facial creams; Kakadu plum, they can’t get enough of it. It’s actually hard now for Australian chefs to buy it now because it’s all going straight to the US.
So when diners come in to Altair, that’s the experience you want them to have? To try something a little bit different?
Definitely. The first menu I ever wrote as a Head Chef I gave to the owners of the restaurant and said what do you think and one of the owners said she couldn’t eat anything on the menu. I asked what she meant and she replied that she owns a restaurant but her tastes were fairly basic. I sat there and thought but I would love to eat everything on this menu and she said but you need to do, not only what you like to eat, but also what your diners want to eat. You have to have something for everyone. We try and do that here, so yes we have some safer options on the menu but we do have those dishes that will hopefully challenge people as well. We try and suit every diner who comes through the door. We have options for those who want to come out but aren’t overly adventurous but we also have dishes fro those who want to challenge their tastebuds. We do try and pack a lot of flavour into our food and texture is a big one for us. We just put a new dessert on last week which is a doughnut with black garlic jam and lavender. We do a native lemon myrtle sorbet with it. It sounds really whacked but we had a pastry chef in last night who works in one of the city restaurants and she was amazed by it, which was great for me because I’m not a pastry chef by trade. So things like that that read a little weird on the menu, we don’t just put it on to be weird, it has to work.
I think we’ve gone past the stage now where we go out just to have the food. You don’t come to a fine dining restaurant just to be fed, you want dinner and a show. It has to be great service, great wine service, the food has to taste great and it has to look amazing, because it’s very much a visual thing. We also want to be taken on a journey and have an experience. That’s what we really try and do. We have a tasting menu where we take you through different things we try and achieve through our food so it becomes a culinary experience. It seems to work. People are saying you have to go to Altair for the experience and that’s what we really try and achieve. I don’t think there’s a place for fine dining restaurants unless you can provide that extra level.
Beef tartare, Warrigal greens, wattle seed, native fruits (finger lime, riberry, muntries), macadamia, Kakadu plum
152 Yarra Street, Warrandyte