Phil Wood, Executive Chef, Rockpool, Sydney

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 26th November 2015
Phil Wood grew up on a farm in New Zealand before he moved to Australia at 19 and he is now the executive chef at Neil Perry's Rockpool in Sydney. He was previously at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry restaurant for 18 months before heading back to Australia to work with Neil. Rockpool celebrated 25 years in February 2014 and the elegant fine dining establishment is a much awarded culinary destination serving up dishes such as enriched koshihikari rice with Kingfish, peach, cucumber and celery or prawn mousse in squid ink sauce. The Staff Canteen had a chat with Phil to find out what Modern Australian Cuisine is, his latest interest in Korean Buddhist cooking and how Australia is also suffering from a skilled chef shortage. RP-Streetscape low resWhat’s it like being a chef in Sydney and what’s the food scene like there? I think it’s great! At the moment and particularly in the past four years, it’s really changed and modernised. It’s become a really exciting destination again. There were some changes to licensing laws so a lot of small bars and restaurants started popping up and we are all friends, it’s a big community not just in Sydney but Melbourne as well, and we all share ideas and bounce a lot of things off each other. The food scene is lively, vibrant and influenced by so many different cuisines. There is a great leaning towards Asia and all those ingredients flow through the culture here, they are used in a really natural way. I think it’s really exciting! Your dishes are described on the restaurants website as modern Australian cuisine, so what is that? That’s our problem! From a marketing point of view that’s where Australia struggles within its food culture. I guess we are still discovering our food and it’s a very young food culture. Modern Australian I guess is modern fusion but it has gone past that and it’s really starting to develop a style but it’s hard to say what that is. It’s a really hard question but it makes us quite dynamic as we don’t have traditions to tie us down. It’s a very integrated, multicultural society and that has created very interesting food. Talk us through the menu at Rockpool? It’s heavily Chinese influenced but it’s that Australian thing where we can really do whatever we want. It can be a bit crazy at points but at the moment I think it’s very focused. Although it is Chinese leaning in its flavour profiles, it’s not really Chinese or European – I like to think it has its own style. All that said, do you have a favourite dish or one that has been on the menu since you started? In terms of favourite dishes – I like the newest ones! I get bored really easily so I change things probably too often sometimes. I really want to get into Korean Buddhist cuisine and I’m looking into vegetarian preparation – here we do a lot of meat! The Korean Buddhist cuisine is all completely vegan but also they don’t use any onions or garlic. RP-Chirashi Zushi low res The true reason it really takes my fancy is its very dietary friendly which is a big focus in Australia at the minute. It’s an interesting thing to explore and that’s probably what drew me to it. I want to look at the garnishes and vegetables they use and integrate them into protein based dishes. We’ve just added to the menu braised seaweed, so you take dried kelp and you braise it then fry it and it almost tastes like meat because of the spices that are used in it. We’ve turned it into a dressing for a char-grilled mackerel dish. How did you get into the industry? It was an accident! I was travelling and I applied for a job in a bar but they put me in the kitchen. I was at appoint in my life where I thought I should do something and I didn’t want to go to university so I decided to do an apprenticeship. The idea was that I would keep on travelling but I ended up staying in the same spot. You left New Zealand and went to Australia, what prompted that move? My brothers had all gone to university and when I finished school I decided I didn’t want to go down that path. I had a friend on the Gold Coast and he said I could just go and hang out! Once you had finished ‘hanging out’ you headed into a professional kitchen, where was that? My girlfriend at the time mentioned she had friends working in a restaurant on the Gold Coast and they were looking for an apprentice so I applied and started there. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for, I had never been to a nice restaurant let alone worked in one! It was quite a leap of faith. But I was amazed by it, that first day was incredible. It was a very intense, little, passionate kitchen. You won the Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year Award which gave you the opportunity to work at French Laundry in California, what was that experience like? It was an amazing place to work. It was very intense and very professional and California has amazing produce. There are not many three star restaurants where the chef de partie gets to write the menu, we would all sit down every day and write the menu which was quite amazing training. RP-Food3 low resThat exposure to writing menus and learning how to taste with your mind I guess, which is something they teach you. I got to meet some really amazing chefs, all the guys that worked there were all very talented and driven. The amount of ingredients and techniques I got exposed to was incredible and it’s a very high pressured place to work but really rewarding. You left French Laundry to work with Neil Perry, a very influential chef in Australia – have you learnt a lot from him? We have the same outlook so it was a natural fit. I think I’m quite lucky to have him as a boss and in terms of training, he’s been around – he’s not old but he’s been around! He has really great ideas on composure of dishes and he really cares about suppliers, something I hadn’t been exposed to. Also, he’s very much about the dining experience and the way things eat. It has to eat well, that’s really important to him and everything has to taste good. I know that seems obvious but a lot of people do overlook that. He just loves restaurants, he’s a very passionate guy about the restaurant industry and how restaurants are run, the whole thing really – he’s very inspiring. He could probably take it easy but he still works so hard and he’s always trying to make things better. How hard has it been to carve out your own style working under such renowned chefs? Not so much, I kind of work within the framework of Rockpool in terms of its history, I have to respect that but I feel I’ve modernised it. And in terms of finding my own style I think it’s easy – you just cook the way you want to cook. It did take a while to unshackle myself from the regime of French Laundry, it took some adjusting – I just wanted everything to be in boxes!phil quote Everything had to be lined up and almost military in a lot of ways. I do struggle to work when things are slightly messy! But I think every chef needs to be a little OCD and have slight attention deficit disorder – it’s a good combination, if you come across a chef with attention deficit, hire them! There is no Michelin guide for Australia, Rockpool has three hats do you think that puts you at the same level as those restaurants who have Michelin stars? I’d like to think it does but the hats are not quite as stringent and as focused on the trappings of Michelin say in terms of service for example. Would you like there to be a guide for Australia? It would be interesting to see what they say. In terms of giving us more global recognition, for that point I think it would be quite good for Australia. And how many stars do you think Rockpool would get if there was a guide? I’d hate to jinx it! I’d be happy with the recognition, if they wrote us in the book then great. We don’t have the same, expensive dining rooms as they have in Europe so I don’t know how they would judge us – it would be very interesting. Have you ever worked in London? I went to London for the first time last month, it was always somewhere I wanted to go and work but it never happened. It’s an interesting place and London has great access to some amazing produce so I would like to work there for that and in terms of the population. In Australia we have a pretty small population and we are so far away and it’s really hard to get people out here. I think you can take more risks in a big city like that which you can’t here. RP-Food17 low resIn the UK there is a big debate at the minute about the shortage of skilled chefs, is that something you have an issue with in Australia? Yeah it is a pretty big problem here. I’m pretty certain at some point there will be a government crackdown on the amount of hours chefs do. Now, even the young chefs don’t want to do many more hours than in a regular working week. So, there is a big adjustment coming through right now and I think it’s not that the young chefs are not there I think we just need to adjust the way we are to attract them. It’s a scary thought in Australia, there are so many restaurants opening and there is so much competition for staff. We really relied on sponsoring internationals coming and them falling in love with the lifestyle here but now that’s so expensive to do. We are lucky we still can but a lot of restaurants don’t have access to that. I’m hopeful but I think it will be a dark few years before we start seeing apprentices again.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 26th November 2015

Phil Wood, Executive Chef, Rockpool, Sydney