Attica expands its creative counter culture
Look inside Attica's new experimental kitchen, where the country's leading chef Ben Shewry is hard at work cooking up fresh culinary innovations.PT2M16S http://www.goodfood.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-3bjeh 620 349 July 8, 2014
Time and a purpose-built space to unleash culinary creativity. It's the sort of thing most chefs only ever get to dream about - time away from the treadmill of lunch or dinner services and a directive to experiment with new ingredients and techniques.
Such spaces have been the preserve of restaurants at the very cutting edge - think Ferran Adria's elBulli "workshop", Noma's houseboat test kitchen, or the lab-style kitchen that features in Heston Blumenthal's television shows.
But recently a couple of Melbourne restaurants have joined the ranks, prioritising creativity as an investment that will pay off with a dining public that increasingly demands to be surprised.
Chef Luke Croston gets creative in the Press Club Projects lab-style kitchen. Photo: Pat Scala
Attica in Ripponlea and Press Club in the city have both put the creativity of their chefs on display - literally - with experimental kitchens opening onto their respective street-fronts. However, Press Club Projects and Attica's Test Kitchen are very different organisms.
When George Calombaris's Made Establishment remodelled Press Club last year, the restaurant group incorporated an experimental kitchen. Projects, built in a space previously used as an office and staff change room - is now kitted out with about $200,000 worth of gadgetry for head chef Luke Croston to play with. He says that when he drew up his wishlist, he used molecular gastronomy bible Modernist Cuisine for inspiration.
The most expensive piece of equipment is a $26,000 Labplant spray dryer - useful say for when you want turn feta brine into a fine, feta-flavoured mist for adding that extra something to a dish. Croston believes Press Club is the only restaurant in Australia to own a spray dryer.
Inside Melbourne's restaurant test kitchens
Take a look inside Press Club Projects and Attica's new test kitchen. Photo: Jane Holroyd
Besides the spray dryer, there's a Heidolph brand rotary evaporator, consisting of three separate components - a condenser (useful for distilling), a water bath and vacuum pump. The "roto vap" allows Croston to toy with his ingredients - for example, he can boil liquids at lower-than-normal temperatures, which can help retain flavours in a final product.
Made Establishment has bought - not leased - the equipment, so, as Croston points out, "it's worth us learning how to use it".
Much of the equipment was purchased through John Morris Scientific, a company that supplies research and commercial laboratories for its bread and butter, not kitchens. Croston says the company sent scientists to Press Club to teach him how to use the equipment. Croston and the scientists brainstormed (and ate) in their quest to discover how the equipment could be used for culinary purposes.
Investing in kitchen creativity ... Made Establishment's George Calombaris. Photo: Simon Schluter
At the time of our visit Croston was cooking up "chocolate water" in the rotary evaporator - a clear liquid that tastes of water but smells overwhelmingly of chocolate. It's a Heston-inspired gimmick, designed to throw diners off balance by mucking with their senses.
Projects is not just a playground though. Fortnightly dinners are held, usually for eight curious members of the public who act as guinea pigs. "We never promise that all courses will be a success," explains Croston. "Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't."
Croston recounts one such dinner where he was attempting to impress customers by demonstrating what happens to pea puree when it gets spun in a centrifuge at a speed of 4200 rotations per minute. "The puree separates into different layers - with solids at the bottom and there's a very thin layer of pea fat near the top." In this instance though, the vials shattered. "We ended up with pea puree with an interesting texture of plastic shards."
It clearly didn't end up on the plate.
More successful dishes sometimes make their way onto the Press Club or Gazi menus next door. The feta brine powder is often used as a seasoning for potatoes or brussels sprouts at Press Club.
Across town, Attica's just-finished test kitchen appears relatively bereft by comparison. There's a Thermomix and ovens supplied by Gaggenau but Attica head chef and co-owner Ben Shewry jokes the most important piece of equipment is the new stereo.
Shewry says that while Attica's cash flow has improved in line with its successes, any major investment, such as leasing the building next door and building a bespoke kitchen, has to be absolutely justified. He says there's no room at Attica for gimmicks of any kind.
"If you were some kind of Willy Wonka type chef and you had this crazy lab and you were making - I dunno - balloons that hovered above your head and burst onto your face and then you had the taste of a dish or the smell of a dish - but you could only create them in here not next door - there wouldn't be much point."
Investing in a test kitchen was entirely practical, Shewry says. When Attica opened nine years ago there were two chefs in the kitchen. Now there are between 12 and 16 during any given service. It was simply getting "too crazy" in the main service kitchen. Shewry says there was no room move or to think.
"You're trying to work on some new dish and you've got a guy fixing the stove under your feet and somebody asking you a question and then the phone rings... There's all these distractions in the main kitchen. But you can come in here and we can pull the blinds down so the public can't see us if we want to. We can turn the stereo up as loud as we like. We can close the door and nobody will bother us."
The plan is that before too long, junior sous chef Peter Gunn will work in the test kitchen on development full-time, with input from Shewry and sous chef James Snelleman.
Shewry's friend, carpenter Mark Rossi, built the kitchen in the restaurant's backyard to a functional design dreamed up by Shewry and co-owners David and Helen Maccora.
"We wanted a simple clean look that wasn't too bling... First and foremost we have to be able to work in here and because it's a creative environment I wanted a space that I feel really good in - that I feel comfortable and relaxed in. I don't see anything in this room that annoys me.
"It's been amazing actually how much it's changed the way that we go about creating stuff. It's become very focused.
"Since we've had this kitchen there's been more change. We've changed five dishes here in the space of four weeks, which is pretty much unheard of for us because we've never been able to come up with dishes and refine things in that short a space of time, so that's a great justification for spending $100,000 on building a kitchen like this."
Time will tell just how justified Press Club and Attica's investments in creativity have been. When he visited Melbourne earlier this year, elBulli's Ferran Adria told goodfood.com.au that having a separate space devoted to experimentation was paramount. "You need time to create and the higher the level the more time you need," Adria said. "Having a separate space is a way to separate creativity from reproduction."
Adria paved the way in the early 1990s when he established the elBulli workshop. Eventually the restaurant closed for six months each year to allow the focus to shift entirely to creativity.
Adria said pure creativity was a luxury many chefs and restaurateurs could not afford.
"It depends on the type of restaurant you have. But nowadays the market is more and more demanding... If you go to a place that people tell you is new then you want new things.
"If you don't do known cuisine - a cuisine that already exists - and you try to do something new or different even though it is mid-level, you should demand that there be time for creativity."
Adria ate at Attica while in Melbourne, and said it was logical that Ben Shewry had invested in an experimental space. "It is normal that he have it. If you do creativity at this level you have to have a workshop. If not you won't be able to do creativity. That is why we did it."
That said, don't expect test kitchens to be a feature of many restaurants any time soon. "It is very expensive," Adria said.