Name: Chef Russell Armstrong
Establishment: Social Kitchen & Bar
Q. How would you describe your style of cooking? What inspires you?
A: I would describe it as simple and well-crafted. I love to create food that I love to eat. I suppose that’s why I do what I do – to be able to make the ingredients stand out for themselves and still be technically created.
I am inspired by people who care – from a client, customer and staff point of view – because then I feel that whatever effort I’ve put in is well worth it and appreciated.
Q: Describe a typical day in your restaurant?
A: I usually start at 8am. My mornings are all about paperwork and making sure each section of the kitchen is preparing for the day. I check both the quality and the quantity of the prepped items – to make sure we have the right amount for service. I would rather we cook to order with what we have and get to the ‘edge of as fresh’ as possible. Around 11h30, I do a final check and taste most dishes and then we’re ready for lunch service.
After lunch, we start all over again, and we’re ready for dinner service by 17h30. After dinner wraps up around 21h30 / 22h00, we clean up the kitchen and head out at about 23h00. I enjoy the consistency of my day – it gives me a chance to work towards making things better, every day.
Q: What have been your proudest moments as a chef?
A: You can’t ever deny the feeling of elation when you win what you feel is an important award. I’ve won lots of awards in the past, including the Order of Australia Award – presented to me for my contribution to the hospitality industry in Australia – and the QLD Restaurant and Catering’s Award for Excellence: Best Chef Owner Restaurant. All awards are important for different reasons.
When I first started working, I was voted as Best Apprentice for two years running in Australia. At that stage that was pretty amazing – but when I look back, I knew nothing!
One of my stand-out proudest moments actually happened on the day that I left the renowned Connaught Hotel in London, after three and a half years of grind. I went back into the kitchen to say goodbye to everyone and the Chef, Michel Bourdin – whom I had never seen even touch anybody in anyway (maybe only a handshake) – gave me a big hug. That was amazing.
But, no awards and no number of hugs can really match up to the days that each of my children were born – my three girls and my son. Very happy, and very proud days. Such emotion that pumps through every vein if your body to the point you feel that you’re going to explode!
Q: What has been your biggest learning curve?
A: There have been a few!
I remember arriving in London in 1980. My plan was to get some experience at the very best establishments – like the famed Dorchester and Savoy – get some experience under my belt and then head to France. I was lucky enough to get a job at the Connaught Hotel.
At the time, I was an award-winning apprentice, headstrong but with the right attitude – I wanted to learn. Back in those days, there were no food shows or glossy magazines, and the only magazine I ever saw was a magazine cookbook by Margaret Fulton. The only fresh herb I’d ever seen was curly parsley… I’d never even seen a live lobster (only frozen ones).
One my first day – thinking back, I was so green. They asked me to “pane some scallops”. I didn’t know what pane was (I now know it means to crumb…). I look around for the dry breadcrumbs that I was used to using, but there weren’t any. When I eventually asked, I was directed to the cold room – and found them there. Fresh, and from the Pane de Mie (heart of the bread).
I was lucky enough to work there for nearly five years – it was a massive learning curve and showed me how little I knew and how much I had to learn. It was the foundation for why I am the Chef I am today.
My time in South Africa has also given me some new learning curves – how to deal with and accept the general public’s eating prowess, and the diminished skills of the chefs in the city. Cape Town had this challenge around 1998, when I first visited South Africa, but has made great strides since. Johannesburg has a growing dining scene – customers are being exposed to higher levels of quality, and Chefs are having to work harder to grow their skills and knowledge, and push boundaries.
I am learning to take my international experience and tailor to it to the developing scene in Johannesburg.
Q. What are your favourite ingredients?
A: Truffle, fennel and cream. I love the earthiness of truffles – the smell, the taste – like mushrooms. Fennel is probably my all-time favourite herb, vegetables and spice. I have to stop myself from putting it in everything. I love the smell, the flavour and the texture of fresh fennel. Great cream must be in everything. When I worked in London we got double cream from Lassley Farm just outside of Oxford. It was thick and delicious. I used to have a scoop of their double cream on my cornflakes – it’s a very fond memory.
Q. What is your favourite dish that you enjoy cooking?
A: Anything that’s good. I love cooking for and with my kids, and some of our favorite dishes are mushroom risotto, gnocchi or just a great bowl of pasta.
Q: Six people (dead or alive) who you would like to cook for?
My Son, Kalan
Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (food writer)
Allan Border (former Australian cricket captain)
Q. What trends / challenges are restaurants facing in 2017?
Ongoing economic pressures: Globally, there is still an air of uncertainty which creates an overall concern about travelling. This restricted freedom affects the economy and people’s spending on food and travel. People are more considerate of where and how much they spend. We need less constraint toward spending.
Consistency of supply: Overall in South Africa, restaurants battle to get the same high level of ingredients all the time – as we enjoy in Europe and Australia. In Cape Town, because the market is more educated, there is more awareness of quality produce and a willingness to pay for it. So, it’s easier to get specialized ingredients, of good quality, often. In Johannesburg, the restaurant scene is still is growing, so you often can’t find different ingredients of the same consistent quality all the time.
Trends, by their nature, are here today and gone tomorrow. It might be my age, but I don’t follow trends, I follow interesting food and cooking what’s good. In an interview with Fine Dining Lovers; Ana Roš of Hiša Franko in Kobarid, Slovenia who was recently named as The World’s Best Female Chef 2017, says, “Everyone should do their own cuisine, without sheepishly following the latest fad.” I agree with her – trends aren’t more important than doing what you love or doing what you know is right.
Simplicity and taste: Focusing on creating good food. Molecular gastronomy – which most of the world’s best Chefs are admonished for – pushes boundaries. But, in my opinion, taking a perfectly ripe tomato and then peeling, cutting, dehydrating it into a powder, only to reconstruct it and put it on a plate – as a tomato – is not really respecting the produce itself. It’s interesting, but I would rather spend my energy on sourcing the best possible tomato, the freshest basil and the most flavoursome olive oil. Or, better still, select produce from my own garden. My closest colleague, Liam Tomlin from Chef’s Warehouse is a good example of someone who respects the best produce and present his ingredients in their simplest form whist employing skillful technique.
Having said that, there will also be a part of molecular gastronomy that will stay with us because it has opened our eyes to a whole new world. But, I don’t want to eat bacon ice-cream. It doesn’t matter how fantastic it looks, it matters how good it tastes.
Q. Any advice you would give to someone wanting to become a chef?
A: Know that your life will change forever. I always ask interns and the young guys starting out in my kitchen if they have a lot of friends, and if they are going to be happy to give them all up. It’s a lot of sacrifice, hard work and dedication to a craft.
Q. Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
A: For me, eating is about sharing. I believe that when beautiful flavours are combined with perfect technique, they deliver the best meals. My favourite mealtime-memories are those that involve sharing plates and sharing stories across the table with my family and friends back in Australia.