Dave Verheul has a way with food that makes you at once raise your eyes in delight at the cleverness of it as well as just sink down into the lovely, cosy deliciousness of it. Now dividing his time between The Town Mouse in Carlton and Embla in the city, Dave makes it all seem effortless.
First of all, congratulations on being awarded Best New Restaurant for 2017 in the Age Good Food Guide Awards. What does that mean for you? Do you get a thrill from that or what is your idea of success?
Yeah well, I think all those things when you’ve been around for a while, well, when you start out, I think you pay a lot of attention to them, now they’re just kinda nice. Especially when you’re a new business, it can fill in the gaps when you’re not busy. Our nights are always pretty busy, we have a really good restaurant traffic trade because everyone knew us from the Town Mouse but coming to the city is a really new environment so what it’s done is it has made our lunches busy too. It’s put it up that extra notch. It’s really cool.
It must be nice to be recognised for what you do as well.
Yeah. When you open something new, you put your opinion out there and hope you’re doing something people might like and put all your money in the world behind it, it’s nice to know you’re not going to be in the poor house for the rest of your life.
It’s good, it’s nice to be busy.
It’s interesting because when chefs make a name for themselves and everyone has an opinion…I was just reading a little bit about you and your food and I find it fascinating, because it seems the same as art, do the people who create the food or the art have the same intentions as the critics who say things such as it being “refined and fiddly, yet hearty and unfussy”, “casual yet mind-blowing” and “tweezer driven.” I didn’t quite get the tweezer driven part. Is that because it’s little and fiddly? All these terms. How would you describe your style?
I don’t know. I get asked this by Uber drivers all the time, “What kind of restaurant is it?” It’s a really hard question. Maybe it is tweezer driven, my hands are maybe not as nimble as they used to be. Tweezers are pretty handy. I don’t think we’re that fiddly any more. When I first came over here, there was heaps of pressure, I felt, to be good and I tried to do all this stuff and tried to get a lot of things on the plate, I think. Now it’s not really like that in either place. The Town Mouse is supposedly more fancy than here, but it’s not like that at all any more. I really like the contrast…I really like fine dining and I love really simple rustic flavours as well.
Well I’ve eaten in both places and I think you totally nail that and I think that’s what I like about it as well. There’s obviously that level of knowledge and technique but it just tastes really good and I’m not overwhelmed wondering what things are or how do I approach it, I just think, this is good food.
I spent a long time working for Brent at The Bentley and one thing that I really got from that other than a massive love for vegetables is that he was able to create a modern restaurant and present modern food and it was always delicious. At the time there were a whole lot of ‘modern’ restaurants and they’re all gone. He was able to do it and have it sell. The food I like having, I like modern food, I really like rustic stuff, but I like to do it in a way that’s approachable and isn’t scaring anyone off.
I like to have my palate broadened, but I don’t want to be looking up every second word on the menu and feeling a bit stupid.
For where the Town Mouse is as well, we took it over from a guy who did really well in there but it was very much degustation and we didn’t want it to be like that. It’s a great area and we always keep seats for walk-ins and just having that kind of approach where you can come in and have six or seven courses or you can come in with your partner or mate and just have a glass of wine, or a bottle of wine and a lamb shoulder or a whole fish and be gone in forty minutes or half an hour. It works because it’s not just a special occasion restaurant.
There’s a really good feeling in both places from the staff as well. The front of house staff must work really closely with the kitchen staff and I don’t think that’s always the case. They are really knowledgeable. It’s nice to be able to go somewhere and be led by the wait staff and to feel comfortable saying what wine will go with this? Obviously it’s a wine bar so they have to know that but what impressed me here and at Town Mouse as well is that they can tell you a whole back story of the vineyard or whatever and I love that.
Yeah it’s huge. Well that’s Christian (McCabe) and the kind of person we attract; we kind of pull them in. That whole old mentality of this is the restaurant and this is the sommelier and everyone else is a little bit scared and they just push the sommelier over towards the table, that’s not what these places are about. We find great staff, people who have great personalities and are a bit of fun and we teach everyone, so everyone knows what’s going on. We are growing people as well as staff members, we don’t want robots.
You mentioned Brent at the Bentley as being an important influence on you and over the journey you’ve made to get here, you’ve worked in some really incredible places and obviously you pick things up along the way, but you must have a certain something to have got to work in those places in the first place. What do you think it is that a chef needs or that your peers are looking for to keep someone going along the chef trajectory?
I think you’re looking for attitude. When you’re looking to employ a chef, you’re looking for someone who wants to roll up their sleeves and get it done, who can take direction. Every single kitchen you go into will do things completely differently down to how you peel potatoes or how you cook the meat. It’s always different. Finding a staff member who will say yes and it may not be what they were taught in the role before but if they are willing to take it on board, that’s how they learn. You learn four different ways of doing something and then you choose what you like and is best for you in the end. We look for attitude and teachability, to see if they can use their hands, which sounds like a silly thing but it does matter whether someone can get their hands into something and get it done.
I reckon too that coming from New Zealand is a good thing.
So do I.
That DIY mentality. Well, I don’t know for chefs but I think we feel as though there are less constraints and have a more optimistic, can-do attitude. Do you think that’s true?
I totally do. I think that the beauty of a lot of kiwi kitchens is they are very small so everyone often has to do everything which is kinda nice. It probably is a very kiwi DIY thing, we just kind of get in there and get it done.
So, jumping over, you were in Sydney before you came to Melbourne…?
I was in New Zealand, then I went to London, then went to Sydney and back to Wellington and then back here.
That’s right. So, in each of these cities, how do you adjust to the city you’re in, or is it just about adjusting to the kitchen you’re in?
You definitely have to take in your surrounds. It’s interesting, I moved back to Wellington for a while because I really wanted to be close to my family. My brothers and sisters were having kids and I wanted to spend more time there and I quite like fishing so I went fishing in a clean river that was close and so did a lot of the things I love. But that was a hard adjustment in the kitchen, trying to get people to share their food.
Ok. When was that?
Ah. I ran a restaurant called the Matterhorn for three years before I came to open Town Mouse so that was about seven years ago.
Um, I’ve eaten at the Matterhorn as well.
Most of New Zealand has eaten at The Matterhorn. It’s a crazy place.
It’s quite similar dark timbers and so on to here (Embla).
It’s the same architect; Allistar Cox. He did the Mouse as well. He’s a super talented guy.
Would you have imagined that this is what you’d be doing? Did you start off as a young chef…oh no, you did a degree first…
Yes, I wanted to be a psychologist for some reason, but I figured out most of the way through that degree that it wasn’t for me. It was too dry. I couldn’t really imagine sitting in an office every day. I was working in a restaurant and then I started cooking there and I was cooking at home. It took me a really long time to work out what I wanted to do, to be honest. I didn’t start cooking until I was 22. I would have loved to have been the guy who started at 15 and knew exactly what he wanted to do the whole time. But I think starting late gives you a massive kick in the arse as well.
Oh I think like anything, if you have more experience behind you in life then it gives you an added layer.
A lot of the kids I went to tech with in Wellington, well it went from a class of thirty down to seven at the end of the year. There were a couple of older students who were just getting it done.
It’s funny that you did a psychology degree. I just spoke to a chef out at Warrandyte, Kelvin Shaw, who also did a psychology degree before becoming a chef. It’s a bit fascinating. Do you think it has any impact on how you run your kitchen?
No. I’m not manipulating anyone. It was a hell of a long time ago.
How do you run your kitchen?
I don’t know. A lot differently to how I used to. I took over a kitchen years ago from a guy who was a massive prick. Lovely guy, but very hard to work for and I inherited a culture that was just so bad that I just really didn’t want to be part of that. It took a lot of time to change that culture. It was one of the harder things I’ve ever done; just trying to stop people from walking out of work and trying to grow a good team. Now it’s really good. I run two teams. I have Jasper Avent who is my Head Chef at The Town Mouse and Peter Cooksley is my Head Chef here. It’s nice. We’ve got good relationships between them and they have good relationships with the team. I do alternate days here and there.
That must be a little bit of a giving up of power in a way for you? I don’t know if that’s the right way to frame it.
A little bit. You need to find someone for that role who you can form a working relationship with and that’s a lot easier said than done a lot of the time. But getting onto the same wavelength is the key.
Where do your ideas come from? It’s a place I want to come back to all the time because there’s just so much to eat here. It’s the same with Town Mouse. I came here the other day and the three of us sat here for hours drinking beautiful wine and sharing lots of plates. Things like the aged flounder, how do you come up with these things?
That’s not just solely my idea, I mean I didn’t just go, well, we’ve had this flounder in the fridge for a few days…Things like that you read about. That’s an old sushi technique. Not all fish is good fresh, like meat. Some things need to hang and to rest and to dry out. It’s just a technique that I had heard about but it’s almost impossible to find anything that’s written down because most of the Japanese guys don’t write anything down. It’s just trial and error. I like to do things a little bit differently hopefully. It keeps it interesting.
I went to a university lecture recently and it was about the senses and apparently a scent can only trigger a memory if you’ve smelled it previously. I’m not sure what that means for flavour but how do you come up with your flavour ideas? There’s reading and tasting but you must also do a lot of wondering about how would it be if I do this thing…?
I don’t know. I haven’t talked to other chefs about this before but I’ve been cooking for seventeen-odd years and you eat, you taste, you eat at other people’s restaurants. I think you just build up a flavour memory. You definitely need to taste things to be able to figure out what works. Sometimes they’re disgusting when you taste them. Some things work and some things you know, if it works with that, maybe it will work with this other thing. There are connections. Once you start coming up with dishes, they all just feed into each other.
Ok. And when upstairs opens, you’ll be super busy.
How’s that going to work?
I don’t know yet. (Laughs).
Well we have the same space again upstairs. It will fit 50 or 60 like downstairs. We haven’t locked anything in yet. We have a few ideas. It’s still very much revolving around wine; the bottles and the cellar stuff and we will have a big wine room up there and a big wine list. From our side, I think we’ll do something that’s not sharing. I think we’ll give people their own plates of food. Something different. Town Mouse is shared, here it’s shared. Upstairs it needs to be…
Everyone out for themselves.
A restaurant. It’s beautiful up there. We’ve got planning consent to cut seven huge windows that were the original ones. The five windows along the laneway look out onto a beautiful deco stairwell and the Russell Street windows look out onto treetops. It’s kinda like a treehouse. There will be separate street access and a separate name which is going to be painful but we’ll get there in the end.
122 Russell Street, Melbourne
Mon – Wed 8am – 12am
Thurs – Fri 8am – 1am
Sat 4pm – 1am