In the sixth interview in our series we catch up with Mike McEnearney. Over a chat with Mike we learn about how he came to conquer canteen style dining, about his ethos of serving simple, honest and generous food, the importance of seasonality and knowing where your food comes from, his new role as Creative Director of Carriageworks Farmers Market, and find out which three people, alive or dead, he would invite to a dinner party.
Tell us a little about your background – where did you grow up, what was it that drew you to cooking and the food and restaurant industry?
I wish I had a romantic story to tell you about how cooking is in my blood and that I feel it is my responsibility to carry on the legacy, but I don’t.
I grew up in the north-western suburbs of Sydney. Both of my parents worked so there wasn’t a huge amount of time dedicated to eating. We ate very simply. It was because of this that I started cooking at home from about the age of 14. Mum was smart and bought me a few cookery books to keep me inspired, so it was often that I would be cooking the family meal. I never, ever dreamed of becoming a chef, I just happened to be cooking at home because I wanted to eat different cuisines. When I finished my HSC, I had decided that I wasn’t going to be happy at university. I love learning, but I’m not an academic. So after mooching around wondering what I should be doing with my life, I read on the cover of the employment pages of the Sydney Morning Herald about a chef. It looked glamourous (how mistaken I was) and that was it, I haven’t looked back.
Your ethos of serving simple, honest and generous food that celebrates seasonality and ethically sourced produce is valued and appreciated by our community today. How important is creating meals with integrity in 2015?
I don’t want to put a date on it. For me it shouldn’t be a trend, these values should have always been paramount and should always be paramount in the future. Today I tasted some milk from a farmer in Kiama. He milks 18 cows per day. His family have been farming the land for generations. He believes in the same ethics that his father did: using the same cows, not becoming too large, not over heating the milk at pasteurisation, and not disturbing the milk to keep the structure the same. He has all of the stress and bother of modern society such as the bank etc., however he doesn’t want to change, because he believes what he is doing is the best he can do. Now that’s integrity.
If consumers knew more stories like this, I truly think it will change the landscape of food and markets in Australia. It’s an investment for the future. It must be our responsibility to buy ethically, seasonally and locally. It will support the producers, perhaps bring the prices down so it is more accessible to all, and certainly will help our own economy instead of someone else’s.
What is your approach to creating a recipe?
The first step is to go to the market without a shopping list. Take the plunge and be inspired by what you see and the things around you. Once the produce has attracted you to buy it, then think “less is more.” Think that if you buy a globe artichoke, its not about boiling it, frying it, pureeing it, and cooking it within an inch of its life, its about honouring the ingredient. Serve it as simply as possible maybe with a little sauce. Take inspiration from the French with their Artichoke Vinaigrette.
Who (or what) do you look to for inspiration?
Nature inspires me. I love the market as I am usually bombarded with colours, smells and textures. The markets in Europe are the centre of the community. It is where everybody meets to buy their food. And in doing so they chat over coffee, talk to the growers and forge relationships that can last a lifetime. The story behind the product is often the most inspirational, and you can only get it from the producer instead of walking blindly down aisle 4 of your local supermarket. There is so much more than meets the eye.
You’ve used social media to build community and share information very successfully with over 15,000 followers on Instagram and more than 13,000 on Facebook. How important is the digital medium for food culture in 2015?
I am no Tech geek. My grasp is very simple when it comes to computers and most other technology. However, we have always used social media at Kitchen by Mike. From the very first day of trade we have always published on Facebook a list of dishes being served on that day at Kitchen by Mike. So if you looked at Facebook right now you could go all the way back to Feb. 2012 and see what we have cooked everyday since.
Facebook was huge for us for about 12 months until they changed their business model to having to pay to reach all of your followers. We certainly don’t have the same reach as we used to due to having to boost at a monetary cost. We never really believed in that. So our biggest success by far now is on Instagram. It is instantly gratifying. Besides being great for sharing news and food shoots well it immediately gets people’s tummies rumbling. It’s far simpler than Facebook and is the perfect marketing tool for your iPhone or android.
Congratulations on your new appointment as Creative Director of Carriageworks Farmers Market. What is your vision for the market?
I’m on a mission to bring Carriageworks performance space and the farmers market together into a food and cultural precinct. To inspire and educate people to do their weekly shop from brilliant local producers and to try and make the Carriageworks Farmers Market the centre of the community where people meet and chat and form relationships with food and the people around them.
What’s next (tomorrow or 10 years from now) for Mike McEnearney?
The million-dollar question!! Besides enjoying my family, I’m opening a restaurant in the CBD in early 2016, and will also relocate Kitchen by Mike in the later part of 2016. Besides these exciting things I have a number of other projects on the go of which I’m afraid to say you will have to “watch this space”
LOCALS KNOW BEST QUESTIONS
Where is your favourite place to share a meal with friends in Sydney?
The Golden Century Chinese Restaurant in China Town. It’s big enough to get a lot of people around a large table, share lots of live seafood from the tanks and not worry about being too loud.
Do you have a favourite Sydney neighbourhood? Where is it and why do you love it?
Besides loving the beach of my own neighbourhood of Bronte, I love the edginess of the inner west. I lived in Newtown for nearly 10 years when I moved out of home in my late teens and loved the eclectic community. I can still walk through there today and recognise old friends and meet new ones. It feels like I haven’t left.
We want to show our out-of-towner friends the best of Sydney. Where should we take them for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late night drinks?
Breakfast at Three Blue Ducks in Bronte, Lunch at Catalina for the oysters and the view, Dinner at The Bridge Room, and a quick drink on the way home at Icebergs watching the moon over Bondi Beach
Where in Sydney (or Australia) could you spend an entire month’s salary in one hit?
Rockpool Bar and Grill. I’ve always wanted to buy a bottle from their Domaine de la Romanee Conti Vertical wine list
You’re heading away for the weekend. The car’s packed, you’ve got a great playlist ready, where in NSW do you like to escape to eat and drink yourself happy?
We (My wife Joss and thre boys George, Alfie and William and I) love to drive south four hours to Rosedale for a long weekend away. It’s a very quiet surf location that is close to Moruya for the sage farmer’s market to buy great local produce. On the way down we stop in Bateman’s Bay to pick up some incredible oysters from Ewan McAsh. Picture this; sun is low, kids are playing beach cricket, there’s a small fire ticking away, sitting on a rock shucking oysters with a beer or a glass of chilled rose with Joss. Life doesn’t get much better.
RAPID FIRE FINAL 10 QUESTIONS
What is your solitary food? What do you most enjoy eating on your own? Mouldy cheese and a glass of red for a midnight snack
What’s your signature dish? I love baking bread
What food trend are you a total sucker for? I hate the term food trend. I prefer things with integrity that are built to last. Then they can’t be called a trend
What food trend can’t you stand? If you twist my arm, Paleo. What’s wrong with having a balanced, whole food diet
Coffee with milk or straight up black? Short Macchiato (I’m on the fence)
Sweet or savoury? Savoury
What do you love most about food? It changes with the seasons
Favourite food destination? France/ Italy
What profession other than yours would you like to attempt? Cartographer. I love maps
Which 3 people, alive or dead, would you invite to your dinner party? Jesus, the Devil and Escoffier. I love fireworks at a dinner party and could imagine it to be very intense between Jesus and the Devil, Escoffier can cook and I will watch, eat and listen.
Did you know that Mike created Australia’s the first urban physic garden. We sat down with him to find out a little about what exactly an urban physic garden involves and his motivation for creating one. Find the full story here.