When you talk to Paul Jewson about food, cooking and his restaurants Fitzrovia and Roxborough, his eyes shine with enthusiasm, but this is a man who gives the impression that he approaches everything in life with the same enthusiasm. Having done his apprenticeship under some of Australian’s finest chefs in the eighties before travelling to the UK for a whole host of extraordinary culinary adventures. Now, very happily co-running his St Kilda gems, Paul continues to push boundaries and bring happiness to the Melbourne dining public.
So, Paul, you’ve been a chef for quite a while now.
Yonks. Absolutely yonks. I started my apprenticeship in 1986 at a place called Fanny’s in the city, under Gloria Staley who was a bit of a doyenne at the time. There was her and Tansy Good and Stephanie Alexander and Hermann Schneider from Two Faces who were the movers and the shakers at the time. So I did my apprenticeship in Melbourne and worked in a few places and then I thought, if I want to be really good at this, I have to go overseas. I thought there was no point in being a chef unless you aim high. So at that point I decided to move across to the UK. I went across there ostensibly to work for Antony Worrall Thompson at a place called 190 Queens Gate which was very posh and very nice at the time. I ended up meeting my partner over there after a few months and didn’t come back for 20 years.
Wow. Amazing. Did you always want to be a chef? Growing up, that was always your plan?
Always. Even in my work experience in Year 10 I did at the Dava Hotel, down on the Mornington Peninsula. I did chicken kiev for the masses and thought, this is really good.
My parents always used to do loads of dinner parties when I was a kid so I started off washing dishes for them and ended up cooking a bit, that sort of wanky stuff. But it was just always the direction I wanted to go in. I loved the notion of hospitality and I’ve always been quite a crafty sort of person. I like using my hands, I like getting dirty. And so it just seemed to be the line I was heading in.
And starting off in the eighties here and working with such great people, did you still need some adjustment when you moved to London? Was it a different style of cooking?
Not necessarily. When I was at Fanny’s, our head chef had just come back from the Waterside Inn, the famous Roux brothers’ restaurant in the UK so he brought back all of that culture with him. And there was Greg Brown at the time and he was very much that staunch kind of chef. Even Melbourne, at the time had that very Eurocentric style of cooking. It had all of the baggage that came with it, that kind of kitchen mentality, that type of kitchen brigade and hierarchical type of thing. It’s really only been since I’ve come back to Australia that I’ve noticed a massive change in the freedom and creativity and lack of constraint in cooking technique. Australia is quite unique in a way in that it throws together European techniques with North African, with Asian and we sort of throw away the rulebook and have fun with it more than anything else.
Do you think there was any one thing that allowed chefs to do that? It’s the same in New Zealand; there was a tipping point when suddenly the food industry gained its own identity.
I think it’s about turning away from the Eurocentric community in general. Australia is a very young country and we always struggled with our culinary identity in the same way Britain has always looked at France and has always looked at the old bastions of cooking technique. When I went to the UK, it was all French or Italian and then it was only really in the nineties that it started to change and it happened there maybe at the same time as here.
The River Café was a big turning point for me where I learned about provincial cuisine and very ingredient focused cuisine, things that didn’t require a lot of process, things that didn’t require a lot of reduction. It just involved good cooking techniques that brought the best out of simple ingredients and sticking with seasonality and being very strongly involved with seasonality, where before the type of cuisine we were doing here and then in the UK under Antony, I don’t think there was the seasonality that there is now.
I was talking to Matt Wilkinson at Pope Joan and he was saying that he thinks there are still a lot of chefs that don’t give seasonality enough of a chance, so if there’s a dish they like on the menu, they’ll keep using the ingredient even if it’s out of season. Whereas your menu would change to adapt to whatever is in season?
That was always the way with Fitzrovia. We always wanted to do that with Fitzrovia, however when you subscribe to the café mentality in Melbourne, people want to have avocado and sautéed mushrooms, regardless of what time of year it is. There’s nothing worse than serving thyme roasted field mushrooms in November. It’s ludicrous. But if that’s what people want, we’ve found that it’s really hard to step away from that. So with Roxborough, we’re doing quite the opposite and not subscribing to that café mentality at all. The lunch and dinner menus are fiercely seasonal and then we’re launching brunch on Friday and that’s a whole new ballgame for us. We’re going to very much try and stick with seasonal produce.
I know Matt’s a huge advocate for seasonality and he has really spearheaded the way for a lot of people in Melbourne having personal contact with farmers and I think Twitter, for example, social media is a fantastic tool for having that sort of access to farmers without having to go through a third party supplier. You get into the habit of ordering the same items every day whereas if you have a communication with your producer, it’s a two-way communication. We deal with Glen Ora quite a lot, near Bendigo, and they grow on appro for us quite a lot of produce, so we stay in communication and he gets excited about his stuff and sends us photos, saying, look at this, it’s two weeks away, a fat hen that’s just come into season now. It’s a foraged vegetable that’s absolutely beautiful, so healthy and full of iron, absolutely gorgeous. But it only comes up when it wants to, it’s not every year and he sent us a photo two weeks ago saying, this year it’s going crazy.
What is it?
It’s called fat hen. It’s got another title as well but that’s what he calls it. It’s a foraged leafy vegetable and it’s absolutely delicious. I wouldn’t necessarily know about that unless I had that two-way communication.
And how great that he is so open to discovering new things as well. That would be so important for you to be able to have those conversations with him. How do you discover things otherwise?
Well particularly when you start running your own place and I’ve talked to Matt about it as well, it’s quite difficult. When you start running your own thing, you have to start looking for inspiration elsewhere. You’ve always had mentors and people you’ve looked up to but once you’ve got your own gig, you have to look elsewhere for inspiration. Cookbooks are one thing but it becomes producers who are fantastic for inspiring you to create dishes around specific items.
The dinner we had at Roxborough blew me away. I really loved it. There were some really different ideas in there. I loved the pipis and clams with the pork hock and I wouldn’t have imagined that combo but the saltiness of the pork hock with the shellfish was perfect. There’s a lot on that menu and lots of different flavours and ingredients so how do you manage that? Do you go in deciding you’re going to have a particular sized menu? How does it evolve?
We always wanted to have a lot more entrees than main courses because the notion of the menu is to delicately guide people to share and to have six or seven items amongst a table of four and all have a little bit of it. But I know there are a lot of people out there, my parents included, who want to have a three course dinner and they might do a bit of, how’s yours darling? But they don’t want to necessarily share. So we are offering people that option as well without sticking it down their throats to say no, no we’re a share restaurant. So we always knew that we wanted to have, let’s say, 9 entrees to 5 main courses but at this time of year there is so much cool stuff out there, that turned into 14 entrees and it will change quite regularly. And it will be forced to change as well because all of a sudden produce will become unavailable. Where you can always get bulk standard produce all the time, the producers we use are very happy to say, the season is finished, let’s move on to something else, which is great.
You still seem so passionate about being a chef and I’ve spoken to other chefs who are tired and thinking about what they might do beyond chef life, but what keeps the passion going for you?
I think having your own business allows you the freedom to explore. There are so many different caps you have to wear running your own restaurant and I find that my passion ebbs and flows, like everything. Sometimes I really want to be in the kitchen and for a couple of months I can be in there 6 days a week pouring my heart into it and then there are other times when I want to focus on other parts of the business, whether it’s marketing or front of house or work on a juice bar and develop a whole range of juices that are seasonal so there are lots of different things and I like that variety. One thing that burnt me out when I was working for other people was the sheer consistency of the role. So I make sure that our kitchen team swaps sections all the time and it does make it a little bit harder; there’s nothing easier than having someone who knows exactly what’s in their fridge but it’s good for them to share roles around. They have a week in one role and a week in another so that they are always being challenged in different ways.
I was going to ask you about that. I think that nowadays the more experienced chefs have a really important role in terms of being a mentor to younger chefs and that seems a lot more available than when there were the brigades and the hierarchy you talked about where there seemed to be a lot of shouting and having to work your way up from picking over herbs.
I don’t think you get the best out of people that way.
No, you do want to build a team who stays and it seems to be that a lot of young chefs get into the industry and very quickly become disillusioned because of the long hours and stress so I guess you want to nurture them and keep them. What would be your advice to young people who want to become chefs?
We get a lot of chefs coming to us who have had bad experiences in the past and I know myself when I think back over my career, the people who I really class as mentors who have had a big impact on me, for example Rose Gray at River Café, have been a very nurturing person. Or even Stephanie, for example, are just naturally really nurturing people and they have a real love of produce and a love of the industry and rather than not wanting to do anything wrong and get bolloxed, not wanting to do something wrong because you’ve been encouraged to respect the produce you’re working with. Those sorts of people are the ones who have had an influence on me. I try and challenge that thought when I’m dealing with young people coming up through the industry. There’s an awful lot of influences on kids if they think they want to join the hospitality industry, it’s really easy for them to be driven by the wrong motivation and I’m talking about the MasterChefs of the world; the chef as celebrity notion. It’s hard work but it’s very satisfying. It’s a real hard graft but you need to not be afraid of getting your hands dirty and not be afraid to be part of a team that’s larger than yourself. I think that it’s an incredibly rewarding industry. The further you go on into it, it really starts paying back, but you need to have…I don’t really know how to describe it…it’s important to realise that it’s not a celebrity game and it never has a celebrity game really. If you do the media thing in order to promote your business, that’s part of running a business rather than being a celebrity for the sake of being a celebrity because that’s pointless.
That whole media, especially social media, has such a big role to play in the food industry now and this whole idea of chefs being annoyed when people don’t just eat their food when they come out but take their time photographing it, I guess you just have to allow that to happen.
Isn’t it hilarious that on one hand you have chefs who get annoyed with that and on the other side you have so many chefs who respond to that and produce the most spectacular looking dishes, like flowers abundant, but without substance just for the Instagram generation. Look, it works, but I think it’s a really transient thing. It’s working right now but I’m not sure of its longevity.
I think it works on a level because it might get people in or alert them to that place, but it’s always going to be the quality and the service and the whole feeling that will get people talking about it and get people back. Word of mouth is still really important.
Absolutely. Social media creates immediacy in a business. Nowadays soft openings don’t really happen, you open hard because everyone hears about the new place and everyone wants to see it. So you open hard, but you’ve got a six to eight week window to get your regulars. Word of mouth is always going to be the thing that creates a business.
It must help already having an established place that’s done well to then open a second place.
In a way, that’s true.
And great location on Acland Street. Especially when the sun is setting and you can look across to Luna Park through the palm trees.
We love the building. Marco found the building actually. We’d been looking for ages. Fitzrovia is architecturally quite beautiful, it’s a gorgeous building and so we were looking for somewhere that was a beautiful shell waiting to happen. We love St Kilda, we know it and we understand the clientele here very well, so we’d been looking for a long time and Marco found it and I was so delighted when he did.
Well it’s got such lovely bones. I loved that you’ve made the most of the art deco detail.
Paul Hecker who was our designer and who has done a fantastic job on it…the brief was to strip it back, simplify it right down and let the bones of the building speak for themselves and I think he’s done a really sympathetic job.
I love the story behind the name as well. I looked up Johnny Roxborough after Marco had told me about him and it’s a very lovely tribute to somebody who is obviously such an inspiration.
He’s such a wonderful man. He used to introduce himself and say, hello I’m Johnny Roxborough, and it always occurred to me that it was the coolest name in the world. Johnny Roxborough…it’s a name that will go far.
He has gone far. He’s still going!
Very much so. I think that was the most exciting job I’ve ever done. We did parties from Marrakesh to St. Petersburg and all over Europe for 2000 and 3000 people and it was great fun. And every one of them was completely fun. You didn’t know what you were going to be doing next time. It was a fantastic time in my life and I really enjoyed spending that time with him. He’s a very good man.
2/155 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda
88 Acland Street, St Kilda