Mauricio Navarro has always loved cooking and pours that love into the food he makes. He also has a heart for his team in the kitchen and wants to create a family all making good food together. Having studied cooking in Colombia, he has spent time at the Cradle Mountain Lodge and then working under Josh Murphy at The Builders Arms. Now, fresh from traveling around Europe he is running the kitchen at the iconic Prahran Hotel and has just launched a new menu.
Hi Mauricio. How long have you been a chef?
Ten years. I started really late. I was doing something completely different but d been cooking my whole life with my mum.
Where are you originally from?
What pushed you to make the change from what you were doing to being a chef?
I was in advertising. I went to Uni and did advertising for five years. Before I finished Uni I realised I wanted to cook. I used to cook with my family a lot. I was the one in charge of the food for special events with my family and friends. By the end of Uni I thought I should do that for a living, because I really enjoyed it. So I started studying French because my idea was to go to France and study at Paul Bocuse but then I went to the States and worked in something completely different. When I came back from the States, again I thought I should get into cooking. I was going to go to an academy and start learning but then I got offered a job in advertising and I went with that. But I was always cooking on the side with my friends. Three or four years into it, I thought, that’s it, and enrolled in a school and started a small catering company with a friend. I was working in advertising, cooking at night and going to events. It was pretty hectic. Four months in, I decided I just wanted to cook the whole time.
What do you think it is about cooking that you love so much?
Firstly, you have to love food and be passionate about it to cook. I still love going to the markets and picking out a tomato; talking to people. That’s what drives me. I’ve just been on holiday and that was basically what I did. I went to every city’s market and checked what was around. You pour your heart into cooking and then put that on the table. Knowing that people are happy eating what you cook is rewarding. When people come back and say the food was awesome, I think, it has to be because we put in so much effort and all our heart.
That makes me think of the story in Spanish, Like Water for Chocolate about the woman who cooks and pours all her emotion into her food so that whatever she is feeling, the people who eat her food also feel. I love that idea because it seems to reflect what chefs do.
It’s therapy for me too. Something went wrong in the kitchen this morning and I just stopped and thought, I cook here, I’m not saving lives. I’m doing something that’s really rewarding, so I turned my mind to what I was doing and enjoyed it
What brought you to Melbourne?
I came to Australia seven years ago. I had a girlfriend who wanted to move to another country to learn English and we checked alternatives and the best place to come was Australia because I could come and get a job straight up and be paid for it. She went straight to Brisbane, but I had to send CVS everywhere through an agency and I got offered a job at Cradle Mountain in Tasmania for three years. Coming to Australia straight to Cradle Mountain was weird.
It’s not really like Australia, is it?
It was beautiful because of the produce. It’s amazing. I was under a really good Korean chef who loved what he was doing. He tried to get the best of the best quality so we got a lot of good ingredients there. That opened my mind up to Australian cooking and what Australians eat.
When you were learning to cook in Colombia, was that a very different style?
You learn the French techniques, like béchamel and any normal cooking methods, but then there’s a bit of Colombian food as well which is a bit different. I had three or four years in Tassie and then I decided to come to Melbourne. I used to come to Melbourne quite a bit anyway. Every time I came I would go to Cumulus because I really loved the food and I wanted to work there. I sent them an email. By then I was sous-chef at Cradle. I sat down with Casey, the head chef at Cumulus. They didn’t have a vacancy then for my position but they sent my CV to The Builders Arms so I went to work with Josh Murphy for two years. It was really good. That opened my mind to Melbourne because that guy, produce-wise, cooks at another level.
I just had a chat with ArChan at Ricky & Pinky at The Builders Arms.
I stayed with them when they changed to Ricky & Pinky until December last year. It wasn’t really my thing. ArChan is great but Chinese food wasn’t my thing. I really like cooking Bistro food, keep it simple but there are a lot of things you can do. But for me, Chinese food…I had no idea.
It’s perfect for people who know how to cook Chinese food then they can experiment on that type of cooking. It’s difficult to do that if you don’t come from a base of Chinese food.
But now I know a lot more about Asian food and I’m more open to those flavours and style.
Andrew McConnell restaurants seem to be a really good breeding ground for chefs who then go much further. Thi Le at Anchovy, for example.
Anchovy is awesome.
It certainly is. How has the transition been from head chef to sous chef?
It’s hard work, but having said that I was trained very well in the last few jobs. Not only was I cooking, they also gave me a lot of duties that a head chef might do. It’s not easy but it hasn’t been too hard. It’s about managing your time, knowing how everyone works in the kitchen. Sometimes it’s like being a psychologist, you need to be aware of the attitude on that day, what the feelings of the people are and how to bring people together.
That is so funny you say that because no one had ever said anything like that to me before ArChan and she said just about the identical thing! It’s so true because as you say, you’re putting your heart and soul into your food so you want your team to be on that same wavelength.
ArChan is really good with people. Here, when you come to work and you’ve had a shit day, you have to put on your best face and you have to know if people in your team are low, you have to bring them up. You have to talk to people. Apart from the food, a head chef has to really manage the team.
Tell me about the food you’re cooking here.
I have a little bit of Colombian and Mediterranean influences. First of all because I’m Colombian but I also love Mediterranean food, s Spanish French, Italian. I try to take a little from everywhere without making it about a specific place. We have a couple of Colombian sauces but applied to lamb which is commonly eaten here. I uses spices in a way people will like. A ceviche made with Kingfish, which is an amazing fish. I have jamon. I love jamon over prosciutto and this jamon dish is a really nice one. It’s garlicky with tomatoes; it has a lot of Mediterranean flavours. I like to keep a couple of pub classics but make them my way.
When you go about putting together a menu, are you someone who reads books?
I do read a lot of books. I don’t copy them but I take my inspiration from them. I go to restaurants and see what other people are doing. I do check what’s available, especially vegetable and fruit-wise. I make lists. I want to change the menu. Not now but I’ve started making the list now of things that I’ve been wanting to do or that I’ve tasted. So then I do a special of that thing and see how people respond.
I was in the Netherlands three weeks ago and I went to a Michelin star restaurant called One and they had a dish using Skate. It was amazing; one of my favourite dishes and it was so simple. When I got back here, I asked the suppliers about Skate and then we had that as a special last week. Not the same dish but with things that I thought would go well with it. We sold out and there were really good comments about it.
I think that’s my way of doing it. My holiday was spent with a book writing down stuff and eating.
So when you go away or out in Melbourne, you’re always working?
Yes. But that’s the nice thing about our job. It is a job but it’s also pleasure. It’s easy.
82 High Street, Prahran
Monday 4pm – late, Tuesday – Sunday 12pm – late