Internationally acclaimed chef Chris Rendell, 39, was born in Adelaide and trained in some of Australia’s top kitchens in Melbourne and Sydney. He has spent the past decade redefining national cuisines across the Atlantic, skipping between London and New York; he now runs three kitchens in NY. This summer Rendell headed up the Aussie inspired Byron at the Surf Lodge in Montauk, Long Island. Billabout chatted to him about ‘NY being a city of 8 million foodies’ and how he’s avoided ‘throwing a shrimp on the barbie’.
What has Byron at the Surf Lodge been like?
It’s been like cooking back at Donovan’s back in Melbourne on St. Kilda beach. We came up with the idea of Byron with the location – it was an easy fit really – but we wanted to still keep the brand of Whitehall and Highlands. *Rendell is executive chef to both West Village eateries.
How did you build the menu?
We’re by the ocean, so the idea had to be fresh seafood. We started writing dishes that were based around seafood and what people want to eat, but also you have to build in the fact that we’re doing 450 covers a night… so then how can we execute that beautifully, tasty, consistently, and not have people waiting? — the kitchen isn’t big at The Surf Lodge.
Have you been making the most of the summer being out here?
It’s been fantastic. I feel like I’m back home; it’s hard work, but there’s something satisfying when halfway through the day you can go for a quick dip and then you’re back at work – you’re like ‘Hang on a sec…it can’t be all that bad!’
Chefs notoriously work long hours. You included?
Seven days a week pretty much, between the City and Montauk. The Hampton Jitney is turning into a bit of a sh*t show, fighting for seats…
How did you end up in America?
I realised I wanted to travel; my father’s English, so I had a British passport, so the classic port-of-call next was London. I was lucky enough that when I got to London David Thompson from Sydney was opening up Wasabi Etai and I went to work at The Sugar Club – the first real fusion restaurant in London that Peter Gordon had brought in.
I had worked at The Sugar Club in London with my old boss from Public, Brad. He had heard that I was interested in moving over so I got the phone call and I jumped at the opportunity. I was part of Public’s opening team with Brad and Adam from AvroKO; they’re from Pittsburgh. They really brought in not-so-traditional ingredients into the mainstream– brought kangaroo in, used Australian berries and different ingredients; it’s been 10 years now. I went back to London for a couple of years and then came back to [the US to] open Double Crown, Highlands and Whitehall, and now Byron.
How do you define ‘Australian food’ as a genre?
There’s not one definition and there are no boundaries. We’re lucky that we come from such a place where there are so many different cultures. It could be Greek grandparents making a laksa or a Thai family having a classic Aussie BBQ. We’re close to beautiful produce, seafood, and we have great meats – poultry, beef, lamb – so we’re lucky. We’re also an island, so we’re lucky that we can keep it safe and somewhat protected.
What do you make of the New York food scene?
New York is a place of 8 million foodies. Where to go for the best bagels, the best donuts, the best this and the best that. It’s great. You can ask anyone, ‘Where should we go around here?’ and five different people will give you five different places and they’re probably all awesome – from the cheapest to the most expensive meal you’ve had in your life.
How does that competition effect you as a chef?
Competition is great; it’s good to see restaurants open because it brings in a different market and people come in and try your ideas. It’s interesting opening a restaurant in NY as opposed to London – although they’re both great. I’ve found in NY that your neighbourhood restaurant is more approachable, they’ll tell you where to get the best cheese from. They want the neighborhood to grow and to be great. There’s also the idea here that a hundred people are doing exactly the same thing that you’re doing, so if you’re not constantly at it and pushing yourself and putting yourself out there, then every day you just end up going down the list. The business evolves, the restaurant industry evolves and it just creates a better business environment.
What do you like about being a chef in NYC?
I think that we have a point of difference, people sort of say ‘You’re a chef from Australia? You must be throwing shrimp on the barbie!’. I don’t think I’ve ever thrown a shrimp on the barbie to be honest [laughing]. You can thank Paul Hogan for that one I guess. But there’s a different approach to cooking and attitude in the kitchen, and the way you deal with the staff. Our way of approaching situations and ideas is different which is really good. Other chefs enjoy working with you because you have different ideas, different ingredients and they’re constantly learning.
What do you make of the TV shows like MasterChef and Top Chef
You have kids that leave culinary school and have this concept that they’ve done 8-12 weeks of study and now become a sous chef, which it took me 8 -11 years to get. They’re walking out of school saying, ‘Why can’t I get $80,000 a year and run the kitchen?’ – that’s a little frustrating at times. Some of those guys that come out of there are awesome cooks, but the idea and the concept behind it has kind of jaded the industry a little bit.
Who are the chefs you look up to?
Robert Castellani at Donovan’s, I worked with him at Carmine’s when I was a young cook and he was Stephanie Alexander’s head chef in Melbourne – he was a hardass, but at the same time, he was a very gentle cook and he kind of really nurtured young chefs. The stable that he’s developed out of Carmine’s and Donovan’s is just incredible; there’s Brad Farmerie, myself and Adam Woodfield. Working under Christine Manfield at Paramount in Sydney was such a great learning curve, it was hard but she’s such a perfectionist that it was like a kind of finishing school for me.
It’s hard to buy groceries in NYC. Where should we go?
The Union Square Market is an amazing spot, especially during summer when the produce is just amazing, and the berries, the strawberries, the fruits and corns. There’s even a good little fish purveyor there, duck and poultry from upstate. With markets you can buy what you need so it’s more economical. The market is on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Will you move back to Australia at some point?
If you put this in and my mum reads it, she’ll be bloody all over me! Definitely at some point, I think once kids become involved, it changes the ballgame a little bit.
Interview by Pete Maiden.