Former head chef and co-owner of The Merchant’s Guild, and now at Jethro Canteen, Paul Davies was born in my home town of Christchurch, but lived in Auckland and then overseas. He exudes a passion for cooking and, while I usually abhor the word ‘exciting’ when used to describe a menu, Vietnamese roasted cricket salad sitting nonchalantly alongside smoked trout with crispy capers and waffles with burnt maple cream, renders his latest menu pretty exciting, don’t you think?
Paul, I read that you’re one of those chefs who started young?
Yes, in New Zealand. I got in fairly young. I was still at school and I did my apprenticeship in New Zealand when I was 15.
Was that in Auckland?
Yes. When I was at school I got a job working in a fine dining restaurant in Cockle Bay which is in a little bit in the ‘burbs, called Windross and worked my way up to sous chef at the tender age of 19, working ridiculous hours and weekends, lost all my friends and I put on about 20kg. I learned quite a bit and then I had a bit of a break and went overseas and was over there for a while.
Was it something you always knew you wanted to do or did it just happen?
No, it didn’t just happen. When I was really young I was always eating. Mum and dad couldn’t feed me enough food. I was ravenous. I loved to bake as well. Going through school, it wasn’t pushed on me, but it was something that I just always knew from an early age that I was going to do it and I did. I did fall out of love with it for a wee while when I was overseas. But only for about two years and then I went to Italy and fell in love with food again. Since I moved here, I haven’t done anything else.
Did you cook overseas?
No, I worked as a nanny.
Wow. That’s great.
Yeah, it’s a bit different.
Did you have to cook for the children?
I did, yes.
Well that would get you used to pleasing particular palates.
It did, yeah. It was a nice little break. Working Monday to Friday, cooking for a family. It was good.
You seem to be very much into cooking with sustainable and ethical ingredients, and using things like micro greens you’ve grown yourself. Is that a passion or a trend?
You can see that it’s becoming a trend. In modern days in society, lots of big restaurants like Attica here and round the world they’re trying to find sustainable ways of using local and seasonable produce. We got approached at Merchant’s Guild to have the urban cultivator machine. It was a bit of an experiment but we got there at the end.
What did it actually do?
I bought in all the seeds from Queensland and we’d get a tray and line it with special dirt; coconut peat, it was made from coconut fibre. You’d line the tray with seeds and then put them on the rack and the water flooded the rack but from the bottom so it meant the soil only soaked up what it needed. Then the water drained away. You never watered from the top. The roots grew faster because they were searching for the liquid that was down below and then with the special UV light on for 20 hours a day, the shoots came up really fast. They had more colour and more nutrients. So you had to work on such huge levels and harvest them every morning. We used them as garnish on the food.
There are two different sizes and we had the larger size. There were only two of those in Australia. One was with us at The Merchant’s Guild, the other, I believe was in Perth. It’s a Canadian company. They were actually first produced to grow medicinal marijuana.
Why aren’t there more people using the urban cultivator? Are they too much work?
I wouldn’t say work. It’s not cheap. The actual unit itself is about $10k, then you have to constantly buy the soil and the seeds. Then there’s electricity, so there is a bit of cost factor to consider. It brought in a bit of talk. Lots of people, especially the kids like to watch. I had to label everything. I bought in flowers and lettuce and was experimenting all the time.
Is here the first place you’ve cooked using insects?
The idea of cooking insects isn’t new. it’s been around quite a long time, but slow to take hold in Australia. So how do you know how to cook them or what to do with them?
We’re quite lucky. The insects come to us pre-fried. They are just in a bag. They come from a New South Wales company.
Do they farm them?
They do. They look smaller than I predicted. But I guess if they are smaller, they are easier for people to handle. We had one lady scream a little bit when she got her meal. In a nice way. I saw her straight away mix up the food. So sometimes, it’s a visual thing. You have to get your head around it. They don’t have an aggressive flavour. They’re quite palatable.
They are all ethically farmed. For 10kg of grain, we get 1 kg of beef, but for 10kg of grain fed to insects, we get 9 kg of bugs. You ‘re getting a lot more food for a smaller amount of feed.
Nutritionally, they are high in protein?
Very high. They’re low in sugar. In America, they are incredibly popular.
Yes I was reading about that in The New Yorker.
Oh really? Ok. Apparently they’re even grinding them up and putting them in protein shakes. So you’re not really seeing them but you’re getting the benefit.
Do you think you’ll try other insects?
Yeah, I’m very keen.
What else can you get hold of?
They sell them raw, bur I’m more a fan of them pre-cooked. It saves me time. I’m not sure what else there is. I know in New Zealand you can get huhu grubs. There must be things other than crickets. It will evolve. People can’t just wander into the garden and pick up bugs and cook them so it needs somebody to grow and harvest them. I guess crickets are easy to do and that’s why they are being done. But it’s educating people from that side.
You have a varied menu in terms of healthy and different cultures. Where do you get your ideas from?
My style is worldly, I like to call it. For example, the Louisiana Plate. I love to just focus on an area and pick out cuisines or different food that comes from that area. The same with the cricket salad, I knew that crickets were eaten a lot in Asian countries so to me it made sense to make a Vietnamese style salad to go with the bugs. I know it’s very important with clientele that we always have a very healthy option. a gluten free option, a sugar free and dairy free option, but the also people like the naughty stuff so we have to offer that too. And I love to eat it and cook it too. I am quite health conscious myself but I don’t stick to an extreme health diet, so that comes into play in my menus.
Is there anyone along the way who has been a particular mentor for you or is it more of a collective?
Good question. Probably a collective. My last business partners at Merchant’s Guild really helped and inspired me and pushed me. I do absolutely love Melbourne. It’s such a fantastic [place. I’m forever searching for new places and there’s new cuisine everywhere. I think it’s fantastic. So maybe Melbourne is my influence.
That’s a pretty good answer. Being a chef is such a demanding job and you mentioned you lost your love for it briefly, how do you keep the passion alive now?
You do have to have a strong passion. I’ve found in this industry that so many other chefs don’t have that passion which I find quite sad. They just see it as a job to do Monday to Friday. I don’t know where it comes from. I just continue to do it. I think it’s a young person’s game. I’m 33 and I don’t know whether I’ll continue doing this when I’m 40.
It’s so physical and mental as well.
It is both those things and there’s a lot of stress. But it’s good, it’s fun.
Is it different being an owner to being a chef?
Yes it is. I obviously run this place as if it’s my own. Billy and I are very good friends. I even tell him off sometimes if I need to if I don’t like a photo on Instagram or whatever. But that’s just from me being an owner for a while, I just got into that groove. But you do stress a lot more about staff and cost of goods and quiet days. This café is a bit smaller than Merchant’s Guild so at the moment I’m finding it really enjoyable.
387 Burnley Street, Richmond