When Chefs Cook for Themselves

When Chefs Cook for Themselves

The people who cook for a living are often the worst at actually eating. With the help of Estrella, we spoke to three of our favourite chefs about their go-to meal at the end of service.

It’s shocking, I know. But the awful truth is that the best chefs in the business - regularly and with great relish - eat the worst food imaginable. At 7-Elevens after midnight they’ll scarf stuff “cooked” in perforated plastic bags. At unnamed burger chains, they’ll order deep-fried globules made from lips and… er… beaks.

Of course, it’s perfectly understandable. Chefs work in high-pressure environments where they don’t have the time to scratch, let alone sit down for a nutritious meal. And, by the time they finish, restaurants are by definition, closed.

But, very occasionally, some chefs take the time to cook as well for themselves as they do for you - or at least eat something halfway nutritious.

We spoke to three of our favourite Australian chefs about their go-to-meals at the end of service.

Josh Niland

St Peter, Sydney

Splitting his time between St Peter and his brand-new Fish Butchery, Josh Niland admits he’ll often skip a meal. “I’d by lying if I said I didn’t find it difficult to eat well,” he says. “I don’t think about meals, I just know I should probably eat food because I’m running low on energy. Eating becomes a by-product, which is a shame. You start cooking because you like food, right?”

Run off his feet all day, and by the time he gets home, it’s hardly the right time to begin banging around the pans. “When I get home, I’m walking around the house like a ninja just to make sure I don’t wake anybody up,” says Niland.

But, almost everyday, Niland does find the time to consume one thing: an avocado. “If somebody cut me in half, there’d be an avocado stone in the middle,” he laughs.

Since moving to Sydney eleven years ago, Niland has made himself the same meal: an avocado, on really good bread, with really good salt, and really good oil, with a cup of Earl Grey tea for good measure. “It’s more ritualistic than a necessity. Sometimes I’ll come home and I’m not really that hungry, but I’ll eat it anyway because it’s just part of what I do,” he says. “You do some pretty good thinking, and menu writing and pondering. Whether the old avo’s got some juices in it that make the cogs fire up in the head, I don’t know. But it’s certainly not a bad thing to be eating.”

There are some rules around Niland’s avo-toast, however: firstly, when he says good bread, he means good bread. “At the moment, I’m eating the bread from Pioik in Pyrmont. He’s an Egyptian chap, and he makes really good sourdough and rye. It’s all sourdough and natural fermented,” he says. “If there’s something that looks better out of the oven, then he sends that. We just throw cash at him and he sends us the best. I take whatever’s left from that.”

Secondly, no butter, and no oil on the avocado - though oil is acceptable on the bread. A sandwich press must be used, not a toaster.

Thirdly, the salt must be Olsson’s: “The crystals are delicious,” explains Niland. “They’re a good size, and they’ve actually got a sweetness to it. They’re not acrid, and they don’t make your mouth foam.”

Finally, and perhaps must importantly, Niland decrees that when it comes to avocado, Thou Shalt Not Smash. “Never smash it, always cut it,” he orders. “Don’t cut it too thin, always thicker.”

Shannon Martinez

Smith & Daughters, Melbourne

It’s not a secret, exactly, but it’s a little-known fact: Australia’s best vegan chef is not, herself, a vegan. When Shannon Martinez is done making delicious dairy-free pasta and meat-free beef carpaccio at Smith & Daughters, she’s off the vegan clock. Still, her go-to meal might surprise you. “I eat Instant Ramen and Spam,” she admits. And she’s not joking.

“It’s like my guilty pleasure,” she laughs. “I put a bag of baby spinach leaves over it in the supermarket so no-one can see that I’m buying it.”

Martinez reckons her attraction to Spam might come from its bad reputation; Forbidden Fruit for the Ferran Adria generation. “I never grew up eating it, which is why I think I like it. Everyone I know, my mum and that, couldn’t stand the shit. I hadn’t had it before until I was in Korea, where I had it in a hotpot. I was like, what is this salty, smoky, awesome stuff?” she recalls. “Now it’s this weird thing that I’m really keen on. It’s not good; but it’s the best.”

To her credit, Martinez does have something that resembles a recipe when it comes to her post-service snack (she’s not eating it straight out of the can - we think). “When the water’s all in there, I’ll dice up a couple of chunks of Spam and throw in, if I’ve got a zucchini or some bok-choy in the fridge, I’ll chuck in whatever’s not dead. If I’ve got some gruyere, I’ll grate that over the top of it. And maybe add an egg if I’m feeling fancy,” she explains. “See, cause I’m posh.”

Unlike some other chefs, Martinez doesn’t want to stop cooking once she closes up the kitchen. “When I went to Thailand on a holiday, I got so bored I asked if I could volunteer to cook in the hotel kitchen,” she laughs. “They let me.”

Sam Cheetham

Cumulus Up, Melbourne

Unlike many of his culinary siblings, Sam Cheetham won’t stoop to a burger. “I'm definitely not that person,” he says. “I think the only time I ever have McDonalds is maybe when there's no other option, and you're on a road-trip, and it's early morning. But I definitely don't hit the burgers after work.”

Still, he’s not exactly itching to get back into the kitchen once he’s finished a shift at Cumulus Up. “I think after work, to be honest, I definitely don't eat every night,” he admits. “By the time I get home from work I definitely don't feel like cooking.”

He will, however, stretch to a jaffle or, if the mood takes him, packet Mee Goreng with a soft-boiled egg. “Something like a ham and cheese toastie is pretty elaborate for that time of night,” he says. “A jaffle would be something I would do, maybe with whatever's in the fridge already.”

Cheetham’s toastie recipe isn’t fancy, however: he recommends that home chefs stick to the basics. “I think the good old classic white bread is the only thing you can put in a jaffle, right?,” he suggest. “If there's some bolognaise knocking about in the fridge, then that's ideal. If not, it's just cheese and ham and mustard. And buttered on the outside.”

When it comes to Mee Goreng, Cheetham’s advice on ingredients is less specific. “I have a favourite brand, but I can't remember exactly what it is - I know what it looks like,” he says.

The one chefly tip that Cheetham imparts is to be prepared for not feeling like cooking: “The key is if you've got a lot of good things that are there, like oils and vinegars, a good base range, then it's pretty easy to adjust certain things,” he says. “It might just be a matter of getting a few vegetables or whatnot. If you've got a well-stocked pantry, it helps.”

Ali Curry-Voumard

Agrarian Kitchen Eatery, New Norfolk

Ali Curry-Voumard still loves cooking. But often it’s, y’know: work. “For just myself, yeah, I find it difficult to cook,” she says. “I cook for my partner sometimes, and for friends whenever. But when it’s just myself coming home, it’s pretty rare that it gets better than toast.”

After cooking all day at the Agrarian Kitchen Eatery, she approaches making a meal at home with a utilitarian aspect. “Certainly, I don’t find cooking every meal relaxing. The other day I was making a spanish potato omelette, and I found that really relaxing because there’s a lot of technique that goes into making that perfect,” she explains. “When you’re doing that at home, it’s relaxing. But making a meal just to feed people at home, I don’t really find that relaxing anymore. It’s more: OK. Get this done.”

So, it’s understandable that when Curry-Voumard makes something for herself, she usually takes the path of least resistance. “I always have rye crackers in the cupboard, and a couple of tins of anchovies, and some good butter,” she says. “So, I have rye crackers with butter, anchovies, parsley and tabasco. I sit down and snap open a cold one, and it’s pretty good.”

When it comes to anchovy brand, she rarely lashes out on a can of Ortiz. “I buy Cuca anchovies for affordability. I live in Tassie, so we can get Ortiz, but it’s a rare deal,” Curry-Voumard says. “Especially if you’re going to make a habit of it, you’ve got to keep it to ten dollars or under for a tin.”

The appeal of such a simple meal is self-evident. “It’s just bloody delicious,” she says. “And it’s quite salty, so if you’re having a little wine, or a beer, it’s a good treat.”

When it comes to takeaway, Curry-Voumard is somewhat frustrated by geography - there aren’t a huge amount of late-night options in regional Tasmania. “However, we do have National Pies down here, which are a pretty good treat if you’re feeling a little dusty at 6am and you have to come out to work,” she says. “I steer pretty clear of McDonalds. But if there were some dirty Chinese restaurants down here, you’d better believe I’d be there.”