Charlie Carrington always knew he wanted to be a chef. After leaving school at 15 and doing his apprenticeship at Stokehouse, he has worked alongside an inspiring range of chefs at restaurants including Firedoor and Marque in Sydney, Vue De Monde in Melbourne and various restaurants in London, Antwerp, San Francisco, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Bangkok, Singapore and La Paz. Atlas Dining is like a portal to the cuisine of other cultures; a faraway tree-type experience where every four months, the land swings around and you’ll find yourself amongst the flavours of another country. Right now it’s Vietnam but in the New Year it will be Israel.
Tell me about Atlas. It’s an ambitious concept.
Every four months we change the cuisine based on a different country. Throughout that time we change the menu as well. Our main goal is to make casual fine dining and make it fun and exciting and take away the stigma that it has to be overly expensive. What we do here is a four and a six course menu with a small snack a la carte option as well. We’re really just trying to make it an exciting vibrant kind of restaurant doing amazing food with great service and high standards.
Was this your idea or did you work with other people on it?
It was my idea. Then my brother and his really good friend and business partner, the three of us run the business together but I’m the one who is here all the time doing the cooking and all the other fun things that come with running a business.
That’s great. The countries you’re choosing are countries you’ve been to and experienced the food?
Yes. I’ve been to Vietnam twice this year and Vietnamese cooking is the one we are doing at the moment. The first trip I stayed down in the south and the second trip I went to the north. For our first menu we did food inspired by Sapa in the north and now we’re in the central region of Vietnam. By the time the sun is really nice and bright, we’ll be doing southern food.
Did you cook over there or just eat?
No. I ate. I was counting down the minutes until my next meal.
So did you document that and then work out how to do it?
Yeah, I documented it and did a lot of study, research and talked to a lot of people. When I was in Hoi An I spent four days with a chef called Duc Tran who owns a lot of restaurants in Hoi An. He took me to fish sauce factories and to all these different amazing places really off the beaten path. And when I say fish sauce factories, it was someone’s house an hour away with all these concrete vats. They were the experiences that really made it. That’s what I was able to get by really going out there and introducing myself and talking to people. That was awesome.
So when you came back…do you have to train up the staff each time?
It’s a lot of study before we actually start and then when we start we take a lot of the flavours and the ideas and then put our spin on it. It’s not like we need new people or new crockery every time, it’s really about…the whole concept came from wanting to learn.
You’re really challenging yourself all the time and stretching all the rubber bands in your brain. How amazing.
It really keeps us on our toes. Already from our first menu until now it has really progressed and it’s got more and more Vietnamese. We actually had some Vietnamese guests in and they thought it was really interesting and they hadn’t seen anything like it but it’s still got all the flavours of Vietnam. We are taking ideas and seeing what we can do with them.
We’ve got all the fire stuff as well. We don’t have any gas in the kitchen. That really adds another element to it.
Talk me through that.
When I was working at Fire Door in Sydney, the head chef, Lennox Hastie, is my absolute mentor. Prior to working there I had only ever worked with gas or induction cooking; a lot of sous-vide and stuff like that. When I was working at Fire Door, it was a completely new approach. They use wood for everything. We’ve brought that back here. The grills we use here are the same grills they use at Fire Door. They’re designed by Lennox. We also have a hearth and a wood-fired oven. We cook everything with that. It keeps us on our toes.
You’d have to be really down with cooking times and temperatures and so on.
Yes and we actually cook everything. For our four and six course menus, a lot of places I’ve worked in, you might have 35 fish in vac packed bags and you cook them all at 58 degrees for six minutes. We don’t do that here. We cook everything to order over charcoal.
That’s quite daunting.
Will that work for all the cuisines you’ll do?
We definitely choose countries that lend themselves to the fire side of things. Our next one is Israel, which will be perfect, using the wood fire oven and slow cooking. We’ll have Korean barbecue next winter.
And you’re going to go to all these places in between times?
Yes, I’m going to Israel at the end of the year.
It will be great for you to be there and talk to people about it all. I’ve heard that in Israel they talk a lot about food and there are discussions around the table as to who does the best falafel.
Everyone thinks they have the best way.
That’s right. That will be exciting.
Yes. Being in this area there is a big Jewish community and a lot of them have come in and said they can’t wait for our Israeli menu. It’s funny that we already have people who can’t wait to come in January. It’s exciting for us because we have to deliver but we also have people already keen to come and try it.
How are you getting it out there? Social media, word of mouth?
Yeah, social media, word of mouth. Our first two weeks were really good and this week and last week have been pretty good. But I think as the weather is warming up we are seeing bookings fluctuate. We’ve already had some repeat guests which is a good sign.
Good things take time.
Absolutely. Your fit out is pretty incredible. I love that you’ve left the wall like that; it’s a really rustic look.
This shop used to be an Indian burger restaurant.
No surprises why it didn’t work. The building was in a horrendous state. We took it over and took the architects out for dinner at The Town Mouse, they’re both from Sydney and we discussed our concept and they came up with all these ideas. The brass ring hanging from the roof represents a compass and the blue line running around the walls represents latitude and longitude. So instead of redoing the venue, which was an idea at one point, we thought why not just start adding coordinates to the wall so it’s going to grow as we grow.
I like that. It’s very well thought out.
There’s a lot of effort involved.
Absolutely. Now you’re one of those chefs who did start out young. A lot of chefs do. But a couple I’ve spoken to started later and wish they had started young, but you did so you must have always known that was what you wanted to do.
Yeah. Pretty much the day I turned 14 and 9 months, I got a job at Stokehouse.
Did you do your apprenticeship there?
Yes. Then I went to Vue de Monde and then up to Sydney.
You’ve really gone from strength to strength.
I’ve been lucky. It was definitely tough being young in those environments. But it was character building and I would recommend that any young chef go and work somewhere good. Don’t waste your time.
To get into those good places you must have a certain something to get them to take you on?
The only reason I got in to Vue de Monde…I think I’m one of the youngest people to have ever worked there. I was 16 when I got the job. But I had gone overseas and done a two week stage at Royal Hospital Road, Gordon Ramsay’s three star. That was for free and it was my own choice to go there. I just emailed them and told them I’d work for free. I was definitely picking chervil for two weeks but it was great.
Was Gordon Ramsay there?
He was there twice. Then I came back and got the job at Vue de Monde and I remember Cory Campbell who was the head chef there said I’m not employing you because you’re good, I’m employing you because you’ve got passion and you went and did this which created an opportunity.
Now you have your own place, which is pretty amazing. I don’t want to be condescending and say you’re young, so that’s amazing, but it is very impressive. So this is what you’ll be doing for the next while, pushing boundaries and growing?
Yeah. I wan to see where we can take this. It’s got the potential to be massive. We’ve got this idea that we can do something amazing in a unique way. A lot of places in Melbourne are really busy and they’re busy because they have this formula of doing similar food and we’re going to try and have the atmosphere of one of those places but presenting something unique that those markets don’t cover.
Are you here 24/7 or do you get down time?
We’re shut on Sunday and Monday so I’m not here then. Well that’s not true. I was here on Monday. And Sunday. Yes and no. We definitely get here early and we do a lot of cleaning after service. We are always working on new dishes and trying to progress, so we get here early to do that. The hours aren’t unreasonable.
I guess it’s a life choice.
Exactly. I wake up in the morning and I don’t really think, oh I’m tired or whatever, I just get up and go. It’s good.
133 Commercial Road, South Yarra
Tues – Sat 6pm – late