Kitchen Spy: Chin Chin executive chef Benjamin Cooper
Chin Chin and Kong executive chef Benjamin Cooper in his Warrandyte home kitchen. Photo: Eddie Jim
Known for his fiery Asian food at Melbourne's Chin Chin, Benjamin Cooper may also claim to have been the first guest on MasterChef Australia to sport a mohawk. The 39-year-old is executive chef for the Lucas Group, which includes three restaurants in Melbourne and plans to open more in Sydney, Brisbane and New York. When not passing around chillies to his chefs to munch on in the restaurant kitchen, he cooks at home in leafy Warrandyte, where he lives with his wife Fiona and children Kanaida, 11, Daisy, 10, Felix, 3, two dogs, three ducks, five chooks, two rabbits and a bearded dragon called Shadowmeer. His number one tip for home chefs? “Get out of your comfort zone.”
There's lots of Asian stuff. I always have mushroom soy (it has a more complex flavour), multiple vinegars, oyster sauce, my favourite fish sauce (Thai Megachef Premium Fish Sauce), and for olive oils I like BelSapore green Sicilian extra virgin (bitter, fresh, spicy) and sometimes the Olive Tree (good, all-purpose) and Agrumato extra virgin pressed with mandarin. And today I've got a packet of Riso Melotti risotto rice – plus there are always plenty of cereals for the kids.
I keep a lot of food here that I bring home from work to think about and play with. Today I've got some shiitake mushrooms with pickled cucumber, some Kong kimchi, some "crazy horse hot chilli rib sauce" (our signature sauce), some amazing Flinders Island lamb and a big chunk of Pure Black Natural angus beef. We've usually got eggs from our chooks, almond milk (I don't drink dairy), plenty of cheese, kale and spinach for doing green smoothies, some fresh pasta, a shelf of Asian sauces and, in the freezer, some roasted eel, clams, braising meats and dumplings.
I've collected about 800 cookbooks but my favourite is this French one illustrated by Salvador Dali – he's even worked up some of the dishes that are photographed. When I'm in full-on menu development mode, my pool table is covered in books. Music is my other inspiration: bands like Wilco, Band of Skulls and Moloko.
'Nduja Calabrese from BelSapore. They take all the salami off-cuts and mix it down with chilli into a paste. For me it's like the Italian version of a sambal – at work we use it on pizzas, garnishes and as a crust, like on char-grilled skate, which I serve with green beans.
Roast chook and vegies or pasta. I either do an olive oil-based zucchini, garlic and chilli pasta or broccoli, garlic, chilli and anchovies – I leave out the anchovies for the kids.
Most unforgettable meal
There are two. Definitely lunch 13 years ago at the Fat Duck in London, with Fi and my mate Paul Jewson. It was a mind-blowing, five-hour eating experience. And Nobu London for my second wedding anniversary (I'd been working there as a sous chef). We had 23 courses and drank copious amounts of amazing wine and champagne, including a very special Dom Perignon rosé.
I love cheese. Because I cook a lot of Asian, it's the thing I miss most from Western kitchens. I got this camembert from the Spring Street Grocer (in Melbourne) but I like parmesan, a good brie de meaux or a triple cream brie, stilton, blue cheese – I love all of them. I could just eat cheese.
I use my Benriner Japanese mandolin and upright slicers all the time and I have a Smeg oven and industrial dishwasher, a Giotto rocket espresso machine, a Mazzer coffee grinder and heaps of chopsticks (we're always having dinner parties for up to 30 adults and 40-odd kids).
My knives. Knives should be like an extension of your body. I sharpen mine lightly on a stone every few days and I've collected these over the past two years.
The older, cheaper ones get relegated to my top kitchen drawer but these range in price from $300 to about $1000.
Last night's dinner
I was at work so I had a kransky bun but for the first course, after I came back from the gym, I had lemon and gochujang wood-grilled chicken breast with zucchini kimchi.
I get my coffee beans from various local cafes including St Ali. I like beer – more often than not, Japanese – so Asahi, Sapporo and Kirin for their crispness. And in my downstairs bar I keep tequila, like Herradura, Espolon, Don Julio and a 10-year-old drinking mirin, among other things. I like red wine but I'm also a riesling man (Dr Burklin-Wolf is a great drop), and I've always got a sticky of some sort. I don't drink five days a week because I drive and it's not worth the risk but on the weekend I'll often come home, have a single glass of tequila and then a beer or a glass of red with dinner.