MALCOLM WILLIAMS | QUEEN OF THE SOUTH

Dedicated to expanding Melburnians’ knowledge of and experiences in Mexican dining, you probably know of Malcolm Williams from his previous incarnations at Senoritas, Rice Paper Scissors, Touché Hombre Melbourne and Bangkok. This was one of those lovely conversations that kinda launched in at the middle and spiralled outwards. Wonderful!

 Hi Malcolm. It’s such nice weather out there; perfect weather for Mexican food.

Oh it’s great. We have a really nice outdoor area that people are loving on theses great days.

When did you open?

We opened late last year but only just to put the systems in place. It was more of a friends and family thing for a couple of weeks, just to see what the lighting was like at night, the old sit in every table scenario. Then we closed for two weeks over Christmas and we’ve been open since the second week of January.

I’ve spoken to a few chefs lately who have done exactly the same thing and have done a soft opening before Christmas. I guess it does give you that time to sort things out when it’s quieter over the holidays.

It’s really hard. If you’re not opening in July, everyone already has all their Christmas plans and if you’re not going to your on Christmas party, you’re going to your spouse’s Christmas party or the kids have a break-up, so you have that five weeks where every Friday or Saturday night there’s something on, so we weren’t really too keen to open before then. So we just thought we’d open and invite some family and friends down. We had some issues with the lighting and wanted to improve a few things, like the sound and so on. It’s a funny venue for acoustics.

You were at Touche Hombre in Lonsdale Street before here. When you go about opening a new place, there must be so much to think about. Your sole focus isn’t just food any more.

 Definitely not. You’re always looking to stay on trend, I guess. This end of town has always appealed to me. Chapel Street has grown up a bit, I think, and with Hawker down the road and what’s happening across the road with Hanoi Hannah, Saigon Sally and Tokyo Tina, it’s a big investment. I was speaking to the guys at The Smith and they’ve just put in a huge investment there. They’ve renovated, knocked walls out and gone sideways so they are doubling capacity and they are stalwarts of the industry. So when this site came up I thought this would be the perfect place for us.

It’s becoming a food destination down here.

Exactly right.

 The way you talked about all that just then, it sounds as though it is a bit of a community amongst the restaurants. Does it feel like a community or is it too competitive?

It does, but obviously we are all fairly competitive as well. There’s a cliquey community with chefs anyway and because we have a late night license, we’ve had a few people drop by; the Mr Miyagi crew have been up, and the Morris Jones guys, so we pop down there for a drink and they pop back up here, which is nice. It’s hard though. We all work the same hours and you think you’d have time to go to all these amazing places, but you’re generally standing behind the stove.

That’s it. And it is hard too because as you say, you want to stay on trend and you probably see the photos of all the other places and you want to get out there and taste it.

 Why Mexican food?

 I love Mexican. I fell in love with Mexican a few years ago on one of my trips down there; I’ve been down there a few times. It was right around the time when it was just starting to kick off in Melbourne and I wanted to expand my skills and learn a new language. I’d cooked a lot of classic French food and a lot of Italian food, I’d owned my own restaurants and I was looking for that new challenge, that new burn. Mexican was it. We achieved some success at Senoritas which was lovely and unfortunately that didn’t keep following through, and then I was just waiting for the next time to showcase my skills in Mexican food because it has always been a passion of mine.

I think we have only just scratched the surface with Mexican food in Melbourne.

It’s interesting that you say that because when I said I was talking to you, someone said they were interested to know more about it because, ‘hasn’t Melbourne done Mexican food already?’ Is here a feeling that you need to be doing something different with it, or, as you say, going deeper with it?

We are in the same place we were in with Italian food 20 years ago. You’d just go to an Italian restaurant; you’d never have thought you could go to a Northern Italian restaurant like Emilia or something that specializes in a particular region. That’s something we’d like to do. We’re going to start doing regional dinners here. Mexico is a huge place. There are so many different microclimates. from the east coast to the west coast, from the mountains to right down south at Oaxaca, the food is so different. Melbourne has very much had the quick ad easy grab a beer, grab a taco, which is all lovely but five out of the top 50 restaurants last year were Mexican restaurants and one achieved a Michelin star, so it’s not going away. This is a cuisine that’s fun and exciting and I think Melbourne is the place to do it.

Well of all the Instagram photos I’ve seen from Queen of the South, I don’t think I’ve seen a taco, I’ve seen fish and vegetable dishes…

There aren’t any tacos on the menu. We’ve got one taco on our bar menu and that’s it.

Oh [laughs] Cool. So how do you come up with your ideas?

A lot of it is self-driven. It’s not fusion food, as such, it’s more, I call it Melbourne Mexican. Instead of lard we use olive oil, things like that. I draw on my techniques that I’ve learned from other cuisines and put them together with the ingredients. I play around with the recipes and substitute what I can. It’s not authentic food and it’s not designed to be. But it has been very well received and it’s fun tasty food with ingredients thy might not be familiar with, but techniques that they’ll recognize. We have a cured salmon dish, which is just a gravlax by any other name, but we’re using tequila and some really savoury chillis and coriander seeds. It gives it a real fruitiness and subtleness that people haven’t experienced before.

Nice. That sounds amazing.

We’re lucky too. I’m forever watching what other people are doing around the world. There are always people posting mazing pics.

Have you been to any of the five out of the 50 top restaurants?

I went to one of Enrique Olvera’s first restaurants many years ago, he’s the guy who has Pujol in Mexico City. It was amazing. I’ll have the menu somewhere. But no I haven’t. I’m due for a trip actually. I’ve got two little ones at home; a 10-month and a three year old.

Good grief. And you’ve just opened a restaurant?

That’s why I sold the restaurants because we wanted to start a family but I’ve bee drawn back to the dark side.

How long have you been a chef?

Over 20 years.

Did you always want to be a chef?

No I was going to be a marine biologist. But I was working in kitchens to put myself through Uni and fell in love with it.

It’s obviously an addiction.

I love food. I love making people happy and the whole customer service thing. It’s about putting smiles on faces. I like the interaction and the teamwork. One of my sous-chefs has been with me for quite a few years and at quite a few restaurants and there’s stuff I couldn’t do without him. We work well together as a team. While I’m out here doing things like this, the boys are in there in the kitchen making sure everything is on point.

Yes I saw when I came in that you were in a discussion with them all and it seems as though you nurture your team. You probably started in a climate where that didn’t happen so much, it was probably all brigades and shouting.

Lots of shouting. It’s interesting. I was just at a wedding at the weekend of a young lady who was an apprentice of mine and she has since gone on to work at NOMA and The Lake House and she married the boy who was the head chef at Cumulus and Supernormal, Ben Piggott, who has just taken over at Stokehouse. So to see her go from working under me where she couldn’t hold a knife through to somewhere like NOMA, it’s just a buzz. It’s mentoring; it’s like teaching junior sport or anything like that. You get something back form the industry.

Do you think everyone can make it as a chef?

It’s not for everyone. I’ve told some people that it’s perhaps not for the. It’s a stressful thing. Sometimes it can be tedious and repetitive and sometimes it can be really chaotic. Things don’t always go according to plan. So unless you can think on your feet and you’ve got a level head…Gone are the days of the heavy drinking, smoking, drug-taking chefs. Everyone takes what they do pretty seriously these days. You’d never even think of turning up hungover in any of the professional kitchens in Melbourne these days.

And that arrogance has gone too, I think.

Yes. If I wanted to make a lot of money, I wouldn’t be a chef and own restaurants. You’ve got to love it. If you think it’s a get rich quick thing or if you think there’s all this fame, you have to peel a lot of potatoes before you get to run a kitchen. There’s such a risk in opening a venue too. I heard some shocking statistics the other day, something like 40 restaurants open and close every week in Melbourne. That’s huge. There’s so much competition.

Melbourne eaters are a good crowd. They’re diverse. They like to try new things.

When people come in here, what’s the experience you’d like them to have? Do they need to understand the food?

Not at all. I’ve trained all the staff. It’s all shared. Or it doesn’t have to be. [laughs] There’s nothing wrong with solo diners these days. All the staff are very well trained. They can walk everyone through the menu. There will probably be words in there that are tricky as there are on every menu. So if you want to learn something new you can and if you just want to come in and eat good food, you can do that too. The staff are able to talk about the regionality of the food, the methods, my inspiration for certain dishes. We just want people to come and enjoy themselves. We don’t want it to be a hurried environment. We want people to come and sit and savour the food.

 

201–209 High Street, Prahran

Wednesday – Saturday, 5pm–late

www.queenofthesouth.com.au


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