During the Taste of Melbourne 2010 event, I braced myself for a rejection, approached Nicolas Poelaert and requested meekly, for a quick Q&A session with him. I mean, I’m only a tiny unimportant blog out of the many better food bloggers out there…
The rejection came…
But it was because he said that he was much too busy working at the event and rather than a hurried conversation, he invited me instead to his restaurant for a proper chat the following week…
This of course turned out to be a great idea and opportunity, but it got me a bit flustered (being my first real interview with a chef and all), and the Boy doing an extensive research into interviewing chefs…
|Embrasse @ 312 Drummond Street, Carlton|
Embrasse pronounced as Ehm-brass or Ehm-brace, began a year and a half ago today on a quieter street of Carlton (parallel to the famous Lygon Street directly behind Lygon Plaza).
So I’d like to take the opportunity to dedicate this post and wish a very HAPPY ONE & A HALF YEAR ANNIVERSARY EMBRASSE!
According to Nic (as he humbly likes to be called), the inspiration to name his very first restaurant ‘Embrasse’ was always in the plan. Inspired by the very French culture of kissing and embracing, Nic said, “When you kiss someone, you have this personal connection with that someone. It (kissing) is a personal connection with new found things, with people, places, food, producers and farmers (alike).”
The name Embrasse is just to showcase that whole level of personal connection. Nic states that his inspiration for cooking the dishes he cooks now (in Embrasse) stems from his time working with Michel Bras. Michel Bras is one of his idols and helped Nic change the course of his career and has inspired him to do what he loves the most now.
|The interior of the restaurant with the 3 signature art pieces|
Nic’s other idols are unsurprisingly the two people he worked for whilst building his cooking repertoire in Australia, Shannon Bennet (from his stint at the original Vue de Monde) and Matt Wilkinson (from his time at Circa). The latter is now one of his best friends whom Nic fondly insists on calling him by his full name, Matthew…
Originally from France, (he fondly calls himself “a country boy from France”), Nic and his family currently reside in Donvale, where they have a vegetable garden and a beautiful park behind their home. Just like most people, he gets his inspiration to cook from reading books and seeing pictures, happily announcing that he loves art!
Of course, for a big foodie like me (and a great sticky beak/ busy body), I had to ask what his favourite cuisine apart from French was. Nic replied that, “I like everything. I really like Malaysian, Vietnamese, Indian, Japanese…”
|Steamed King Fish with mussels cooked in cream with purple and white cauliflowers and borage flowers|
To which I gleefully interrupted and announced that I was Malaysian… and he then said, that I had to cook for him one day!… One day… after I conquer the world Nic =)
I asked him if he’d ever go down the path of turning into a fusion restaurant of French Asian, as there are a few out there doing quite well (namely Tetsuya’s and Jacques Reymond). And this is what he said,
“I don’t know. I cook what I like to cook, I cook with the produce I like. And after that, it [the creation] just comes up. We are classified as a French restaurant, but there are a few bits and pieces. Like at the moment, we are doing a smoked and roasted (lamb) sweetbread, which I serve with a slow poached egg, corn puree, with goats milk on the plate and with some black sesame seed and black mustard, which I crush into a paste. And we add a little bit of French dressing to it, which is just oil, brown vinegar, salt and pepper, just to make it a bit lighter.
So it’s a little bit of [Asian], you won’t see much black sesame seed in French cooking. It’s just adding a little twist, we don’t really… that was just because it works really well for the dish. It’s not something that I think, “Okay, what are Japanese people using? What’s Malaysian [for the dish]?”
It is just elements that get together. And if it goes together, it works. And if it works, it works.”
|Bread served on tree bark and butter on wood with a wooden knife/paddle|
Nic mentioned that he was initially inspired to learn to cook from his mother who is a really good cook and that she is amazing in the kitchen!
Whenever he goes back to France for a visit, she’ll be cooking up a storm. For instance, he recently went back to France for a visit and whilst he was getting ready in the morning for breakfast, he said that the smell of lunch cooking is already on and it’s always a 3 course meal, with a soup, a meat or fish dish and a dessert. Noting that this behaviour is completely normal for his mum =)
“So you’ll sit down and have your breakfast, lunch is on, and my mum says, “What do you want for dinner?” And I say, “I haven’t even started my breakfast yet, lunch is already on, just give me a bit of a break!” [laughs]. But no, my mum, she always loves being in the kitchen.”
Nic started cooking in a professional kitchen when he was 15, attending a chef school where the curriculum for the semester involved a constant rotation. He worked for 3 weeks in a real (commercial) kitchen and studied for a week (learning subjects such as mathematics, history, geography, etc). He acknowledges that he learnt a lot whilst doing the practical stint in the real kitchen environments.
And I think (personally), that he is imparting that knowledge he gained and giving it back to society as he currently has an apprentice (James) who works for him. Being such a passionate chef and a great lover of fresh produce, I think James will be able to learn a lot from his time at Embrasse.
Of course I had to ask the great reality TV show question. You can’t go by a day without someone mentioning shows like Masterchef and My Kitchen Rules (the former more than the latter). So I wanted to know what Nic really thought of these type of shows and if life has gotten more difficult with it, as more and more consumers become more judgmental in the way food is prepared and cooked.
|Roast Chicken Breast with heirloom vegetables and various condiments from the Sunday Lunch menu|
Nic acknowledges that shows like Masterchef showcases the reality of working in a commercial kitchen. However, he also acknowledges that it glamourises the industry and makes people believe that life as a chef is cool, which is often not the case and it overshadows the real story of pressure, stress and heartache. Chef’s often put in a lot of hard work and long hours in the kitchen and chef cum owners put in a lot more, including a lot of (personal) money.
He mentions that a lot of people do not realise that running a restaurant is just as hard as running a business. Most people only think of a restaurant of a place where they can go and eat, where if something bad occurs, they should be compensated with a free meal.
(I guiltily admit to this kind of behavior).
Nic says, “But it is a business, we have bills to pay like everybody else, and we are trying our best to give the best service we can.”
“He goes on to say that , “A chef can spend a 110% of his time in the kitchen and can concentrate on what he has to do. But a chef-owner can’t do that. For example, yesterday [Wednesday] was the first day of the week for us, I come in and open the door in the morning. I have to be careful and make sure that the side door is open. [Because] if the side door is not open, we won’t be able to receive the deliveries and flowers for the restaurant; we are not going to get anything.
And if at 5 o’clock [p.m.] we realise that there are no flowers in the restaurant, [and we try to] call the florist at that time and the florist is going to say, “I’m sorry it’s 5 o’clock and my day is finished, there’s not going to be any flowers”.”
Lightening the atmosphere, I asked Nic what is the one meal he would want to eat if he knew that tomorrow would be the last day for him. He said that it’d have to be his mother’s version of a roulade with slice ham, witlof, cooked gratin with a béchamel sauce and served with sautéed potatoes.
His favourite ingredient to use would have to be red vegetables, such as beetroots and carrots.
And when asked if he’d ever do a guest cameo or a guest spot in a cooking show such as Ready Steady Cook!, he said that he’d probably say no.
Nic is very passionate about Embrasse and would rather showcase what Embrasse [and him] can do.
“I don’t think people come to a restaurant to know me. They want to know about the food I’m doing. They don’t really care who I am. If I can cook, people will come. But if I’m ugly, or have black hair, or…[laughs]
If I have the opportunity, it would be to showcase Embrasse.”
And that Nic is currently doing. Partaking in events such as the Taste of Melbourne 2010 and doing cooking demonstrations and talks… (most recently with Tony Tan and Alla Wolf-Tasker)
He doesn’t want to be on TV, just to be on. “I don’t think I’m good looking”, he says. I laughed and countered, asking him, wouldn’t he like to be a celebrity chef??! He visibly shuddered…(hahahaha)
I next asked him what he thought about the Chefs that have worked in Circa, including him, as most of them that have had the chance to work there have all gone their successful ways.
He mentions that it’s a really passionate kitchen where for a young chef to go, would be a great opportunity. It had the best and freshest produce, the most passionate and professional staff with excellent training. No one ever cared if they had to come in and work on a Wednesday or a Sunday, they just enjoyed working there and he reckons that for a young chef, it is a good place to start.
I also question him on his use of Twitter (as that was how I first came to know him)…
He tells of a story of how Matthew (Wilkinson) was constantly telling him to get on Twitter and that he would say to Nic, “You should do it, you should do it.”
Not being very interested at first, after a night of good food and a few too many drinks, Nic announced that he would finally get on Twitter! Saying that it was a good decision as he got to meet a lot of different people, myself included!
|Awwwwww…. Nic and I 😛|
When I asked him what he would be if he wasn’t a chef. He quickly answered that he’d probably be a farmer, being a country boy and loving the outdoors.
“If one day, for some reason I’m not a chef anymore, for some reason, I have to stop being a chef or whatever. Still in the hospitality world [probably], maybe growing some herbs, supplying flowers and produce to other people, other chefs.”
Upon being asked if he gets much sleep now (Nic and his wife Tara are proud parents of a 5 month old baby) with his new regime, he mentions that it is getting better. On his days off now, he spends time with his family but not as much as he likes as he has to manage the restaurant still.
A normal working day for Nic starts with him being at the restaurant at 9 o’clock in the morning until midnight. So he says, he only gets to see his baby in the morning before he leaves for work and on Mondays. On Tuesdays, he goes shopping in the markets and then it’s back again preparing the produce for the week ahead.
I congratulate him on maintaining his 1 chef hat status in The Age Good Food Guide (bible for foodies), and other good reviews.
“Yes, the reviews are good. Reviews are good, except with the horse situation.”
In summary of that situation, Embrasse had about 30 people with picket signs and microphones protesting outside after Nic announced that he was serving horse meat in his restaurant and at the Taste of Melbourne event.
He received a tremendous amount of emails and letters. And fearing for the safety of his staff, family and restaurant, they cancelled the plan to go ahead. Some were a show of support, some were against the serving of horse but respected the decision and others were mostly hate mail and death threats.
“We were the first restaurant to ever (in Australia) do it. There were a couple of restaurants in Perth who bought the meat before us, but they never used it. So we were the first restaurant to be able to do it.
I grew up eating horse, my parents, especially during the mad cow disease a few years back. My family ate more horse than beef.”
I mentioned that perhaps some of those [negative] people, might be associating serving horse meat as the same with a dog or a cat due to personal experiences of keeping pets or horse riding.
Nic readily agreed with me and mentioned that he completely respected their opinion and that he understood what they were saying. He said that he always knew that it was going to stir up controversy, because anything that is new usually does that. However, he wasn’t expecting death threats from certain quarters of the population.
We ended our conversation casually chatting on about my plans for the evening and when I was going to return to dine at Embrasse. I was constantly reminded, throughout our conversation, how humble and friendly Nic was.
He’s definitely just another person trying to get by in this big big world and is utterly unfazed by the whole glamourising of the industry (as he liked to put it).
Thank you again to Chef Nic Poelaert who kindly gave up his time (in his very busy schedule) to have a chat with me for the purposes of this blog.
Nic has accumulated several distinguished awards:
Winner Best New Restaurant – Saviour Awards for Excellence, Restaurant & Caterers Association of Australia
Winner Nicolas Poelaert – Young Chef of the Year 2010, The Age Good Food Guide
Nominated Best New Talent – 2010 Restaurant Guide Awards, Gourmet Traveller
Winner Best New Restaurant – Awards for Excellence, Restaurant & Caterers Association of Victoria
**Pictures used are from my own experiences with the restaurant, event and chef**