When Michael Baker went to El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, he walked into the development kitchen, and the walls were covered in whiteboards. He felt like he was at design school, and loved the way they’d take certain ingredients, research them, break them down, and create a dish. He thought, that was the place he wanted to be. And now he and his business partner, Daniel Mason, have their own place, Henry Sugar, and the glory continues.
Hi Michael. So, with a name like Baker, did you have to become a chef? …I’m joking…
I definitely hadn’t always planned on being a chef, that’s for sure. I studied something totally different then got into it about 10 years ago, probably not even that long actually.
What made you become a chef then?
I think it has a little bit of everything that I really like; a little bit of pressure, a lot of problem-solving, experimenting, creativity, there’s a lot of logic, science and chemistry behind what you’re doing, so it’s got a really nice balance. I enjoy the satisfaction of perfecting things. It’s a good feeling.
Certainly the style of cooking that you’re doing is a very particular style. You make it look really easy. It’s hard to define, but it feels, at the same time, rustic and sophisticated. You manage to produce something that’s really appetising and looks incredible and you know that there has been a whole process behind it but it’s not overwhelming. Is that the style you’ve always done?
The first high level place I worked in had a very rustic sense to it, and you can’t take that out of your style when you’ve worked for someone who has been so influential. That was Jacob Brown at the Larder in Miramar in Wellington. He’s done very well for himself. Eight years on a lot of what he taught me has stuck with me.
Is that where you did your apprenticeship?
I’m not really trained. I knew I wanted to be as good as I could at cooking and see where that took me. I knew I wanted to go to Spain, but I knew I couldn’t get there without first getting a base at a high level. So I worked with Jacob for a year and a half and he really pushed me and saw something in me. He gave me a really hard time, which I’m grateful for. He really drove me to understand the necessity for perfection and that care and love for the produce and for what you’re doing. So I had a pretty good understanding and I responded really well to be pushed that way. I had just enough to get me through starting in Spain. It was pretty challenging as well in terms of language when I first got there. But those places were much more refined, Michelin star restaurants. It’s a very different style of cooking but I think I’ve taken things from both of those styles. And I just try to use my own style, logic and sense to realise when it‘s important to use certain techniques. I’m not against any technology, or any style or anything gimmicky as long as there’s a reason and a concept for why something is there or why it’s done that way. I can’t handle things that are just there because someone has just learned that technique and wants to use it for the sake of it. If it doesn’t make sense then I just don’t get it.
And the place in Spain…?
There were a few that I worked at. The main one the one I was at for the longest, was Alkimia, it’s a really famous restaurant in Barcelona. I worked for Jordi Vila, a very high level chef. Then after that I went to El Celler De Can Roca. I was there a few months and I could’ve worked there, but I’m so impatient and always really want to do my own thing, so I decided I was ready. I did five months on a yacht to get some money to do this thing, which is what I really wanted to do. There were moments when I thought it might have been a mistake to have not stayed working there, but I thought the best way for me to learn was to teach myself and do my own research.
I love to read and understand the chemistry of things. I have a lot of chemical and mechanical engineers in my family and I talk a lot with my little brother who is a chemical engineer. I find it really helpful and that’s the fastest way for me to understand the chemistry and can fast track my understanding so I can experiment. Not all chefs are like that. A lot of chefs create from experience. I don’t have the experience other chefs have had if they’ve been cooking since they were 15.
That makes sense to me. I was watching Bon Appétit, a food show where French actor Gerard Depardieu travels all over Europe with the chef from one of his restaurants and they chat to producers and chefs and so on. Anyway they were talking to Yves De Guel who makes the only ham still made in Paris and he had been a chemist before becoming a charcutier and that helped him to refine the process and make a better ham. I love that you are so passionate about the process beyond just putting ingredients together.
A lot of chefs aren’t interested in that and that’s fine, but I really enjoy it.
You were saying that you’re a bit impatient when it comes to getting on with things but you must have a lot of patience with the food you make, for example, the black forest with the blown sugar cherry. Did it take a long time to perfect that technique?
I learned it at El Celler and the way they do it there, it’s an apple rather than a cherry, so they say they put people on ‘apples’ and you’re basically on apples for a week. The first three days are a nightmare and you can’t do it very well and after about three days you start to get a feel for it. I’m very impatient but now I can do one in 1 minute 20 seconds.
And you originally wanted to have a dessert bar?
That was the original concept for a place. I spent so much time doing desserts that I feel comfortable doing them and it’s a lot easier for me. I thought it would be fun. But it didn’t take long for me to realise that I’d struggle to get that many people through the door. It’s not New York here or a city of 15 million people. Maybe in the future once we get a name for ourselves.
By not restricting ourselves to desserts, we can be a lot more flexible in what we do. There are no restrictions. We can put anything on the menu we want and which makes sense to us. We are part of a neighbourhood vibe and that really appealed to us. I mean, we could be in the city and we’d be among 100 other places, but we’ve already been open for six weeks and there are locals who come in regularly and that’s really nice for us.
Desserts can be so artistic but some of the savoury food you’re serving has a lot of thought behind it too, like dehydrating the pumpkin or the way you make the bread, they are almost artistic because of the process behind them.
The bread has been a big journey. The flour here is so different to the flour in Europe. Nothing was behaving for me like it did in Europe. I probably spent two years here just trying to bake bread so many times and it was just never right and it’s only really in the last three months of really playing around with it that it has changed up and it seems to be working really well.
So does it start as a batter rather than dough?
It’s a very high hydration dough. I’ve settled on 80 – 85% water and there are hydrated linseeds in there as well which adds to the hydration. It doesn’t have a lot of structure when it starts off, so if you poured it onto the bench after five minutes it would run off the side. But then when you fold it over four or five hours, it starts to develop a lot of structure and strength. I wanted bread that was really light. I love a sourdough but it’s not the bread I wanted for here. It’s just too heavy. An actual loaf can weigh 800 grams. I wanted people to really enjoy the bread and enjoy the texture and the contrast between the crackly crust and the lightness but still the strength of the crumb. That’s the prefect restaurant bread for me because it soaks up sauce, it’s a great vehicle and it doesn’t fill you up too much.
The caramelised onion butter you serve with it is incredible.
We played with so many butters. I had it in my head that the way to go was to find the biggest umami flavour possible with butter so I had a huge board with everything we could think of and we tried all these butters and some of them were great, but we realised that they were just too strong in contrast to many of the dishes and it wasn’t working. We had to go back to the drawing board to find something sweeter and more neutral and that’s how we came up with the caramelised onion.
So the different flour was an issue but are there other ingredients here that are inspiring for you that you didn’t perhaps work with in Spain?
Kangaroo. Didn’t see too many of them around. [laughs] But yeah, definitely. I’m still learning about native produce. I have a few friends who forage and bring things. A lot of them are more of a trend than anything and some people get carried away and say, “I’ve got this thing you’ve never seen before and it’s great,” and then I taste it and it’s just not very nice. Obviously there is a lot of stuff that is and I’ll give anything a go. There’s probably a lot for me still to see, to be honest.
Where do you get your ideas?
Sometimes I read and get a little bit of an idea, sometimes I’ll eat something and a little light bulb will go off for a combination of flavours and I’ll take that to a totally different place. Sometimes I just sit around with Dan. More than anything it’s a thought process. I really like to look at what’s good and in season. Like the pumpkin dish, for example. The pumpkins that are around at the moment are banging so we got a few of those and played around with them. I just get stuck into the whiteboard. I’ve got a couple of huge whiteboards in the kitchen and I wrote down all the different elements we could use with the pumpkin, different processes we could apply and how we could concentrate the flavour. There’s so much water in a pumpkin so that’s how I came up with dehydrating them and that worked. I didn’t do anything else to them and there was a syrup that came out of the pumpkin once it was dehydrated and it was almost a candy-like stuff and we’ve added nothing to it. The skin gets all crispy.
That’s generally how I develop dishes. One boss said to me in Spain, I often think of this story when I’m creating dishes, I tried to make a rice pudding and I thought it would be really good if I infused it with roast hazelnuts and so I did it for him and I thought I’ll see what he thinks of this and he said it was ok, but he explained to me that when you want to get a flavour out of something, you have to break it down and think about the best way of getting that flavour. In the case of the hazelnuts, infusing them in milk isn’t the best way. A better idea would have been to have ground them or made them into a paste and that’s how you get at their oil or essence and get the strongest flavour. That set off a huge light bulb for me in creating. It made me stop and think before just trying all these things.
I was always so eager because of my designer background and I always wanted to run before I could walk. I’d always be coming up with ideas. The bosses loved it because a lot of people just don’t do that and I’d be getting them to try everything and they’d try it and say, what you’re doing is pretty cool but it tastes fucking shit. [laughs] I was never really deterred, but a few things bosses have said to me that have been really helpful in my process.
How does your way of creating and working translate in a team context?
I try to get people on board with that way of thinking. I try to get everybody involved. It doesn’t matter who someone is or their experience, sometimes they can just happen to see something I haven’t seen. People feel a lot more valued when they are involved. That’s another reason I have the whiteboards in the kitchen so people can put up their ideas.
Dan is really creative in the bar, is there a crossover between bar and kitchen?
A massive crossover. It works really well with us. He has an amazing palate. He’s the first person I consult on a dish. Especially if something isn’t working, he can often see something I haven’t thought of. And the same in the bar and I see them doing something with fruit and I ask why they’re doing something a particular way. I don’t know anything about cocktails so it’s a fresh side, like the kalamata ice cream ball in the spritz. I just thought that’d be interesting and nicer than just an olive.
That’s so Willy Wonka. I know Henry Sugar is Roald Dahl, but it all felt quite Willy Wonka too.
We had to rein in the PR people on the whole Henry Sugar story thing because that’s not really what we’re about, it’s just a cool name from a story and that’s where it ends. We like to have fun and play around a bit and surprise people.
Often when we’re consulting things we have to scrap things because one thing that’s really important to us is that sometimes things can fall into the category of interesting rather than just straight up delicious. And that is real problem for us because there’s a lot of that around. For me I someone says, “hmmm, that was interesting,” it’s not the reaction I’m looking for. So if something looks as though it’s falling into that category, we start again.
Will you always keep the relatively small menu?
We want to keep it small for now and focus on those things and do them really well. We’ll do specials as well. I really like the idea of a small, minimal menu. It’s everything we stand for. The wine menu is tiny too, even the spirits are minimal. We want to keep it so that you can look at the menu and instantly know what’s going on. I like a menu where my eyes and brain don’t need to figure things out. To me, that’s a good piece of design, you don’t need to stop and think what’s going on there? A well communicated message in a poster is one where you look at it and get it straight away. That’s how I feel about the menu.