Man has been cooking with fire since man first started cooking, but Mike Patrick really knows how to cook with fire and how to use smoke to his advantage. Now enjoying a fancy new art deco venue on Bourke Street, he and his Fancy Hank’s team show us what barbecue is all about.
You’ve been cooking for a while now and you seem to have really gravitated towards cooking with fire and meat, but how did you start off?
Yes, 20 years as a chef this year. It has been a fair while. As a little kid I always wanted to be a chef. My mum always entered sponge cakes and baked goods into the Melbourne Show and I always loved cooking. I did my apprenticeship with Italian and European food. Then in my twenties I started to discover what I liked to do more and started doing wood-fired Italian food at a place called Ladro and I ran their restaurants for five years and then I went to America and South America and started as Head Chef at San Telmo which is Argentinian and then I got into American barbecue. So anything over fire, especially cooking meat has always been a thing of mine.
I feel as though fire is the essence of cooking. It’s where it all started, I suppose. It is a bit more of a challenge nowadays perhaps, compared to cooking with gas or electricity, to get the right temperature and timing.
Yeah sure. It’s a lot more difficult. A lot more attention is needed especially when smoking meats for long periods of time. It’s not an easy way to cook but the end result is far better than using electricity or gas. Every culture I’ve ever come across has originated its cooking from fire. It’s how we started. There’s a barbecue cuisine in every culture of the world.
That’s so true. It’s so interesting. So you’ve been to South America and to the States. Do you think it’s necessary for a chef to actually go to the country whose food he’s cooking? Or does it just give another element to it, but isn’t important?
I think it is important. Definitely. There’s not really any excuse these days. It’s really easy to travel. Everybody can go anywhere they wan these days. Maybe 40 or 50 years ago it was a lot harder. I think you need to get an understanding of where it came from; the roots of the cuisine. What we do may not be a hundred per cent traditional to a pit master in North Carolina, but to know why they do what they do is really important.
I guess, though, there is an adjustment that needs to be made for Melbourne, or Australian eaters. I was reading that at San Telmo there was an absence of gratis sides or the extra things that people were expecting and you were quite true to the Argentinian way. Sometimes the public are willing to go with these things, but generally you have to make concessions.
Yes you do. As with anything you have to work with what you’ve got and in Australia we are spoiled for products and we can get pretty much anything we want. The majority of what I use and have always used tends to be locally self-farmed meats and vegetables. Even the timber we use is sourced locally. I’ve got a farm in Gippsland.
Is it chestnut you use?
Yeah, we use a bit of chestnut, a bit of wattle and a bit of ironbark. So basically whatever we’ve got we have a play with and see how it works. There are certain things you change. But also if you’re going to do a cuisine you have to dive right into it and do it as legitimately as you can.
The different kinds of wood aren’t just for flavour are they? Are they also about the heat; the different temperatures the wood produces?
Definitely and how long the wood is cured for. So once you fell a tree, if you let it dry out too much, it burns too quickly and doesn’t produce enough smoke. If it’s too wet, it’ll be too smoky and won’t burn properly. So there’s a lot of different bits and pieces. When we started out doing American barbecue here everyone said you had to use mesquite and hickory, because everyone knew that’s what they smoke with in America, but it’s very hard to get that timber here without importing it which doesn’t make any sense to me. On subsequent trips over there I found that the reason they use mesquite and hickory is because that’s what they have growing in the paddock. It’s not for any flavour profile reason, it’s because that’s what they have. We’ve found you can replicate anything you like. Maybe we use less timber if it’s greener or more if it’s drier. You really have to just make adjustments and have a taste and a play.
Do you decide on that once the wood comes or do you ask for a particular thing?
We collect it all ourselves. I’ve got a couple of chainsaws and a few mates go up to Gippsland and chop a tree down. We’ve got a big shed up there that’s got about four different timbers in there right now and they’re at different stages of curing so every time we go past we grab a trailer load of whatever’s good and we throw it on the pit and smoke up a brisket and a pork shoulder and have a taste and see what we think. What I’ve found is that there’s not a lot of difference between timbers. It’s more about how much you use. We use a bit of charcoal as well. That’s just for heat and then the timber for flavour. We can up the amount or drop it, depending on what we’ve got.
I read somewhere that your wife is vegan. Is that a little bit incongruous with what you do?
Yes. Chloe has been vegan for seven years now. I thought it was a phase when she first said it to me. I was like, this is a really funny joke, honey, but she was pretty serious about it and it has stuck. I think it’s a good balance. I couldn’t be vegan. I love eating meat and animal products, but all of us could eat less meat. I don’t eat much meat at home because we generally cook vegan. There’s only the two of us and our little girl, so it’s not like I cook up big steaks just for me. It’s different. It’s good.
I guess it informs the way you choose the meat. I’m sure you have always gone for ethical and sustainable meat, but it would make it more imperative, perhaps, given Chloe’s veganism.
Well that’s why she is vegan. For ethical reasons. And I agree. That’s why I love this sort of food because we’re using the ribs and the brisket and the secondary cuts of meat which in the last 50 years in this country have been wasted or used in dog food or fertiliser. If we are going to farm and kill animals, we should use every part of them. It’s really important. I’ve seen the whole process and it can be quite confronting. There’s nothing wrong with it as long as it’s done properly and we use nose to tail…I hate to say that but it’s a real thing. We should be using all of it.
Absolutely. I agree. Now, as a chef, you seem to get asked a lot for recipes. There are a lot of Mike Patrick recipes out there online. Once you become well known as a chef, you seem to be public property for food writers and recipe hunters. Do you mind that?
Not at all. I first came across that at Ladro which is close to a decade ago. People would say that they knew what the pizza bases were about and how we cooked them and I was never ever secretive about it. If someone wants to try and replicate it, I think that’s awesome and they should. Often, even with this cuisine here, equipment is really important and good produce. What we do is really quite simple. We’ll get some beautiful beef and put salt and pepper on it and put it in the smoker with some timber. There are no secrets or trickery. It’s really straightforward stuff.
Is it still interesting to put a menu together in a place where people come for a certain type of food; slow cooked meat and American sides. How much play do you have with the menu?
I guess the reason for the new Bourke Street restaurant was that we could expand our menu a little. Where we were at the Mercat in Vic Market, was a little limiting, just having the meats and sides. We are never going to take brisket off the menu but we’ve got a whole snack menu here that’s based around traditional cold cuts, belly ham, dry cured leg ham and a lot of preserves and pickles, so that sort of stuff is really only getting started. We’ve been curing legs of pork for nine months now and they’re just about ready to start serving so we have a backlog of that stuff that’s only going to get better with time. Every time new produce comes in we’re pickling and fermenting batches of it and making different hot sauces so I think there’s a lot of scope there to keep playing.
And is it different being an owner/chef as opposed to being a chef in a restaurant?
Definitely. I think the last couple of years have been a really eye-opening learning curve for me. Not only overseeing the food and the staffing but now overseeing the financial control and marketing and all the rest of the stuff that goes on in a restaurant. It has been really rewarding. There has been a lot more pressure and there’s a lot more to keep an eye on but when it does well, it can be a lot more rewarding as well. I’m enjoying it.
Level 1, 79 Bourke Street
7 says midday – 11pm