Is Brad Warton a calm chef or an explosive one? What's his style - and does it inform his cooking at Parlour, the trendy wine bar and tapas room in NewActon where he's head chef? He thinks about this for a minute and then says it depends on how much sleep he's had. "It's somewhere in the middle - it ebbs and flows."
Right now Warton has had a full eight hours so I should be all right. He's pretty relaxed in his domain - the vintage armchairs, leather sofas and pretty peacock-blue decor of Parlour Wine Room. Warton was head chef here when the restaurant first opened in 2008 and left only when it burnt down in the devastating NewActon fire of 2011. Now he's back in the kitchen, turning out the tapas and small plates that made his name. Come October, during Good Food Month, he's putting on a special dinners and hosting a big-name celebrity guest at Parlour. There's a tapas and cocktail degustation dinner, a Good Food Month signature tapas (a saltcod cigar) and dinner with one of his heroes, Frank Camorra.
The young Warton grew up on Canberra's northside. He says mum was a great cook and a fine dinner-party host. "I always grew up trying a lot of different cuisines and a lot of different food that she would cook when I was younger," he says. "It's not just the food, she really enjoys hosting people and that's where I get a lot of it from. On the other hand my dad is a very, very hard worker. So I think that was a pretty good grounding for all of us."
He dropped out of Lake Ginninderra College a couple of times and was going to join the army but Dad wasn't keen on the idea at all. "A lot of family members died in the war so he was very much against anything to do with the army," Warton recalls. One of his father's best friends had opened up a sports-themed restaurant, Field of Dreams, in Tuggeranong so Warton senior told his son that "you're not going in the army [so] you'd better go to work." He started as a kitchen hand. Six weeks later the head chef and the sous chef both quit and Warton was told to get in the kitchen and start cooking. He was just 17.
Ask him now whether he went "oh shit" when he was told the news and he laughs. "Of course I was. I'd never cooked a whole sole in my life but I just did it. I just got on with it," he says. And he loved it. "I always did home ec and hospitality through high school and college and cooked a lot at home but it just found me. And I found it." Twenty years later, Warton is still enamoured.
From Field of Dreams, Warton moved to the Garden City Motor Inn in Narrabundah for his apprenticeship and then on to Belluci's in Dickson, owned by Socrates Kochinos. When Kochinos opened First Floor in Kingston, Warton followed, working under head chef Darren Perryman. And then he caught the travel bug. "A lot of people I cooked with ended up in England but they were doing ridiculous hours and getting paid nothing," Warton says. "I had one friend who went to Ireland who said the pay's good here and the hours aren't too bad." So off he went, landing a gig at a wine bar in Cork.
He spent his time off exploring Europe in short jaunts and then he fell in love with the cuisine that influences so much of his cooking at Parlour - Spain. Warton says he loves the way tapas and pintxos are full of spice but still have nuanced flavours, the way the food changes dramatically with the landscape from the Basque north to the hinterlands and the south. "I love the use of seafood and meats, prawns with jamon or chorizo and scallops," he says. "I really like the way they do that crossover and just the use of spices fairly light handedly."
When he came back from Ireland in 2003 he worked with Serif Kaya at Ottoman, an experience he describes as "amazing". "I probably credit Serif for my palate probably more than anyone else I worked with, he just has a knack of making super tasty food," he says now. And it was during a trip to Melbourne he discovered another food hero - Frank Camorra. Warton says he was walking through Flinders Lane and stumbled upon MoVida, Camorra's cool, casual Spanish eatery, with its Pedro Ximenez cocktails and easy, high-quality tapas plates. Warton was smitten. "I reckon I've been 30-40 times since they opened. I love what they do."
Which is why he can't wait for Good Food Month in October, when he hosts Camorra at Parlour for a special dinner and - hopefully - a masterclass. "I've talked to him over the phone a couple of times now and really look forward to his menu and him telling us what to do," Warton says. He plans to pick the maestro's brains too. "It would be nice to have a bit of a forum on what suppliers and ingredients he loves best. We do use Alimentaria [MoVida's wholesale food arm] for certain things, some of the Spanish tinned goods."
Warton is forthright when it comes to the restaurant market in Canberra. "I think it's insane. If you want a vending licence like the Mandalay Bus, they only give out a certain number of those because they realise we can't sustain that many. But with restaurants it doesn't matter," he says.
He says Canberra could probably do with fewer restaurants. "Frankly, a lot of them are crap as well, and run poorly and the only reason they survive is because [they] pay under the table and they find ways around – if you cut out a third of really shit ones, food as a whole I think in Canberra would go way up," he says. "Fiona Wright did a talk about it years ago and she was basically saying the same thing. If you cut down the number of restaurants more would flourish and you could have that culture. There's gotta be a point where you reach critical mass and you can't have more restaurants. It's a very hard thing to deal with and that's where I wouldn't open a restaurant in Canberra, ever."
That's not to say Warton doesn't want to open his own place. In the last couple of years, he's been down at the Mornington Peninsula cooking for Stuart Bell at Ten Minutes by Tractor. He lived 10 minutes from the beach, and was surrounded by cheese factories, wineries, and great local producers. Bell is a major culinary hero. "I think Ten Minutes by Tractor was by far the best restaurant I ever worked at in my life. It was 27th in Australia last year on the Gourmet Traveller list. Stuart Bell is just an amazingly calm man," he says. "I'd never worked with someone who could put 10 things on a plate and have them all harmonise. It was amazing. Two years under him was really good."
He also credits Bria Sydney, Parlour's owner, for letting him develop his own style and flavours in the wine room's kitchen. "There's not too many bosses who are as good as she is. It started as a four-month contract and I think I will see out the end of the year," he says. "It's always good here, I'm allowed to do anything I want in that kitchen. You can do whatever you want, that's your creative outlet."
So what about what happens outside the kitchen? He's 37 now, and acknowledges that his wild years are behind him. "I did that whole booze, drugs thing. Because everyone in Canberra thinks they're a rock star, they do," he laughs. "All us hospos think we're rock stars." No, Warton now plays a bit of golf and is a keen baseballer - he plays for the Ainslie Bears on Sundays in summer.
And then there's his son, Boston, who lives with his mum in Victoria. Warton will do anything for him. They FaceTime every night. Every third weekend, Warton finishes his shift at Parlour late on Friday night and hops into his car, driving eight hours to Melbourne to be there when Boston wakes up on Saturday morning. They spend four days together before Warton heads back to Canberra. He's no longer with Boston's mum but there's a sense that their love for their son is paramount. "We're really good together, any time I ever want with him is great [with her]," he says. "You see some relationships where the kids are chess pieces and it's disgusting. I suppose they put their own feelings of hurt against the other people on the child. I think it's really shit."
This is why you might want to head over to Parlour if you love what Warton does in the kitchen and enjoy his food while you can. Boston starts school next year and Warton wants to move back to Victoria to spend much more time with him. The plan is to find a spot on the Mornington Peninsula and open his own restaurant. He wants something small, just 40 seats, where he can put his personal touch on everything, serving up tapas in a beautiful country setting. "I don't want to make a million dollars, I just want to live comfortably and do my own thing."
Canberra Good Food Month starts in October. Dinner with Frank Camorra is on October 22 at Parlour Wine Room, $140 a person. Parlour's tapas and cocktail degustation is on October 1, $95 a person. Bookings on 6257 7325, goodfoodmonth.com
Good Food Month highlights
Good Food Month is a food festival unlike any other and Canberra's getting a taste of it this year with an intriguing program of special dinners, tastings and celebrity guests. Here are some of the highlights.
Elk and Pea mornings
Every weekday grab a special set menu breakfast at the Elk and Pea. $20. 21 Lonsdale Street, Braddon.
eightysix is doing special pop up breakfasts every Sunday in October and promises to "break all the rules". $40. Corner Elouera and Lonsdale Streets, Braddon.
A seven-course degustation at Japanese fine dining restaurant Iori with all the dishes matched to premium sake. Thursday, October 23 and October 30. $88. Iori, 41 East Row, Civic. 6257 2334
Cocktail expert Phillip A. Jones hosts a four course dinner at Pod Food that journeys through the world of gin. Friday, October 24, 7pm. $100. Pod Food, 12 Beltana Road, Pialligo. 6257 3388
A three-course Good Food Month lunch at one of Canberra's best bakeries - oysters rockefellers, a beef daube and orties clafoutis. $38. Silo, Giles Street, Kingston. 6260 6060
Discover something new. Morks Restaurant on the Kingston Foreshore is putting on a lunch focused entirely on food from Issan, in the northeast of Thailand, which is famed for street food such as pork sausages, sticky rice and char-grilled chicken. Saturday, October 11, noon-2pm. $40. Morks, 18/19 Eastlake Parade, Kingston Foreshore. 6295 0112
Poachers Pantry hosts a gourmet five-course degustation lunch under the golden elm tree on the restaurant lawns, featuring smoked meats and Wily Trout wines. $120. Saturday, October 11, 12.30pm-3pm. 431 Nanima Road, Hall. 6230 2487.
Challenge your palate
Chef Jeff Piper tests your palate with a five-course dinner at Thirst featuring very unusual dishes that will set you on the road to chilli addict. Food & Wine editor Natasha Rudra helps host. $85. Thursday, October 16, 7pm. Thirst, 20 West Row, Civic. 6257 0700.
Canberra Good Food Month starts in October. See goodfoodmonth.com