Food as art: Josh Lopez named Chef of the Year

An artfully plated dish at GOMA Restaurant.
An artfully plated dish at GOMA Restaurant. Photo: Supplied

At just 31, GOMA Restaurant executive chef Josh Lopez has not only just been awarded the Brisbane Times Good Food Guide 2016 Chef of the Year but the GOMA Restaurant has also just received its second hat.

Lopez has worked at Gordon Ramsay's Maze in London and staged at the world-famous Noma in Copenhagen, but Josh Lopez credits his earliest inspiration to his family."My mother has been a vegetarian since she was 14, and while she cooked us meals with meat, she never ever tasted it but it was always perfect. I think it was just pure love – the energy and emotion she transferred into food."

Today, Lopez, who was born in El Salvador and moved to Australia when he was two, says he's equally inspired by art; researching the artists on show at GOMA exhibitions and drawing creativity from them for his menu.

Josh Lopez of  GOMA Restaurant.
Josh Lopez of GOMA Restaurant. Photo: Josh Robenstone

"I can't separate the art from what I do in the kitchen. I go through exhibition archive files, looking at colours and artists and what have they done. But it's not always about the artistic palate, it can be the key messages and thoughts from the artist that inspire," Lopez says.

He also names Javier Codina of Moda in the Brisbane CBD as an influence.

"He has so much passion. When I worked there, I saw him going out to tables to present his dishes to diners for years – long before I saw it at Noma and it must have taken such a lot of confidence."

A 'plate of bait' at GOMA.
A 'plate of bait' at GOMA. Photo: Supplied

As he learned from Codina at Moda and Rene Redzepi's chefs at Noma, Lopez often takes the dishes to the customer's table himself.

"With a dego [degustation], I try to take two to three courses to the floor myself at a point when the connection between the food and the art is strongest. It's paramount that all front-of-house staff are briefed with not only what's on the plate, but the story around it and what we're trying to achieve with it."

So why do we so love food with a story?

"Food and wine and the memories they create bookmark and reference our lives," Lopez says. "We are storytellers, helping to create those moments."

Lopez's own story is, as is he says, "humble".

"I was 18 and doing the typical gap year, with plans to travel overseas and my mate and I had decided to do a food and beverage course at TAFE because we thought that doing front of house would enable us to travel.

"I loved it but I noticed the team in the kitchen having a great time, I was working at McDonald's cooking burgers back then and always enjoyed the kitchen camaraderie, and saw the guys in the kitchen doing the same and it occurred to me that that's what I wanted to have."

Post McDonald's, Lopez completed his apprenticeship at Othello at Bulimba, then moved on to Lat 27 in the city.

"After that, I realised there was more, that there were a lot bigger things than Brisbane, so my wife and I went to London and I got a job working for Gordon Ramsay at Maze."

Six months later, he returned to Brisbane and within a year, at just 24, was head chef at Two Small Rooms, before moving to Gianni's (later Moda).

In 2011, Lopez joined the long list of chefs ticking off a stage at Noma on their bucket list.

"I went for a threemonth stage in 2011 and spent three weeks in the production kitchen but desperately wanted to get into the test and development lab. I was so lucky as I managed to spend six weeks there. It was an extraordinary time. I learned how it's possible to free your mind from earlier restraints of what you learned in cooking."

Lopez says that some of his own managerial style was also formed during his time at Noma.

"I promote personal development especially with the younger ones. I try to be inclusive. At Noma at 27 years of age, they were asking me 'what do you think of this?' and really cared about my opinion. I thought that was really open-minded and quite groundbreaking. Often top Michelin restaurants are dominated by one person but I want to push forward young creativity."

It was after his return from Noma in 2012 that Lopez saw the possibilities at GOMA Restaurant.

"I certainly saw the absolute potential here. I was always looking for workplaces that do things out of the box and this was a blank canvas. I can't imagine being anywhere else now."

So how does he feel about his restaurant's recent promotion to two hats?

"Humble," he says. "As cheesy as it is, we always repeat the mantra 'one team one dream' in service. This award, this second hat is absolutely teamwork. I'm eternally grateful for them and the fact they believe in what they are doing."

Flash sale: 2-for-1 offer to An Afternoon with The Stars

Lopez will be talking all things food with Ben Shewry, of Melbourne's three-hatted Attica, and James Viles, of the double-hatted Biota Dining in NSW. Meet and learn from three masters of contemporary Australian cooking at this special event during Good Food Month, presented by Citi. Saturday, July 18, 4pm, Cinema B, Gallery of Modern Art, Stanley Place, South Brisbane.Use the code Stars2for1 when buying your ticket at brisbane.goodfoodmonth.com.

You can buy the Brisbane Times Good Food Guide 2016 at participating newsagents for $7.99 or online at brisbanetimes.com.au/goodfoodguide for $9.99 including delivery.