Kam McManamey has become something of an expert chilli wrangler. He can do things with Thai flavours that are rarely seen outside Thailand and he does it with style. Having previously strutted his stuff at Botherambo and BangPop, his focus at the relatively new Rock Sugar in South Yarra is on the street food of Isaan and Chiang Mai.
Was there a defining moment when you knew you wanted to be a chef?
No, I just fell into it. I started off in kitchens just washing dishes and worked my way up.
Was that in Melbourne?
Yes, I did my apprenticeship in Melbourne. I worked at a restaurant called Halcyon which is no longer there, it’s now Bistro Thierry. It was a modern Australian fine dining restaurant.
Now you’ve found your way into being known for your Asian food. How did that happen?
I’ve always gravitated towards south Asian flavours and started working with Geoff Lindsay. There has always been Asian flavours in modern Australian food anyway so I just gravitated towards it organically, I guess.
You’ve got a name for it. How do you get good at something that doesn’t come from your cultural heritage?
A little bit of experimentation, but you also need to learn the correct recipe or the authentic way to do things before you can break the rules. I was fairly self-taught.
So that’s from traveling through the areas where this kind of food is prevalent?
Yeah, traveling and research.
Research from people or through books?
Books, the internet, people, other chefs. It’s amazing what you can learn even from a brand new cook, even a young cook. Some of the Thai guys and girls in the kitchen might have their mum’s recipe that they’ve adapted or worked on or somehow modernised. So influences come from all over.
When you’re sourcing the ingredients, how do you discover what’s out there and what you might like to use?
Walking around markets, also once again, through research online, what’s available, what’s coming in and out of season, what suppliers are bringing in, so building strong networks with suppliers. That’s how you keep your finger on the pulse.
Would you say it’s still a passion for you?
I still love it, of course. I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise.
True. Who were some influential people along the way for you?
I guess Andy Ricker and David Thompson have been massive. They’re white guys who specialise in Thai cuisine. They’ve been trailblazers along the way and given people like me an amount of legitimacy.
What does that mean, though, to have legitimacy? Is what you do authentic Thai or more of a fusion, or is it your take on it?
All of the above. It’s based on authentic recipes but then it’s modernised, so I guess it’s all of the above.
So I guess the legitimacy part of that means that you know enough about you’re doing to be able to play with it.
Exactly. You have to learn the rules and then you can break them, I guess.
What do you think new, young chefs should know about becoming part of the profession?
It’s hard work, for a start. You have to want to do it, for a start. It’s not all glamour and tv shows and photo shoots and all that stuff. So you’ve got to want to do it, first and foremost and then you’ve got to work hard to get anywhere.
And when diners come to Rock Sugar, what’s the best way for people to approach the menu? When I was here I just asked the waiter to choose for me.
That’s a really good idea to get an overview of things. But I’m a bit of a control freak, so I’d want to decide for myself. The kingfish is a great dish and the spring rolls are pretty popular, that’s one of those fusiony type of thing.
Oh that’s the slow-cooked lamb?
Yes, so that’s Flinders Island saltgrass lamb and we slow cook that in a Massaman stock. We make all the curries from scratch. People love the sour orange curry. You don’t really see that outside Thailand usually. Very rarely. It’s all pretty good.
How often will you change the menu?
Seasonally. But there will be little incremental challenges here and there just to freshen things up.
So your ideas come from what’s in season?
I’ve got a pretty big back catalogue of ideas; things that you jot down along the way, ideas you’ve refined over the years. So I’m always playing around with something and trying to make something better than last time.
You’ve got a niche style of cuisine. Do you still feel as though you have to conform to food trends because Melbourne is so big on that?
Not really. If you look at people like…I read an article about Chris Lucas the other day and he was talking about staying ahead of the trends and I like to think that way too; stay ahead and be a bit more progressive. We like to use all kinds of methods that aren’t Thai, so water bath cookery, smoking guns, low temperature cooking, so low and slow, so everything I’ve learned is focussed in what I do now, it’s not necessarily just Thai food, but it has a Thai flavour profile and is presented in a Thai way.
477 Malvern Road, South Yarra
Wed – Sun 5pm – 11pm