Three wise McConnells: How three chef brothers conquered Australian dining

Chef brothers Andrew, Sean and Matt McConnell scrubbed up for the Good Food Guide 2018 Awards.
Chef brothers Andrew, Sean and Matt McConnell scrubbed up for the Good Food Guide 2018 Awards. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

 

Close brothers and top chefs Andrew (Cumulus Inc, Cutler and Co, Supernormal), Matt (Bar Lourinha) and Sean (Monster Kitchen and Bar in Canberra) McConnell run some of the country's most exciting restaurants, boasting seven hats between them. They're pretty much the culinary equivalent of the boy band Hanson, only less coiffed.

Sibling chefs Sean, Andrew and Matt McConnell may serve different dishes but their general approach to food and cooking ...
Sibling chefs Sean, Andrew and Matt McConnell may serve different dishes but their general approach to food and cooking is similar. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

So what are the odds of three boys from Melbourne's Box Hill North becoming some of the country's most accomplished and hard-working chefs? Was there some weird explosion in the lab that day?

The three talk about having a similar palate – a sort of symbiosis when it comes to the way they approach food and cooking. Even if what they're putting on the plate is disparate from restaurant to restaurant, there's a taste cord that links them.

"I think we have a really similar approach to how a meal should flow from start to finish," Sean says. "It's also got a lot to do with how we source our produce," Matt says. "I think we source pretty similar ingredients from producers we believe in and support."

The thing that I like about Cumulus is that people use it as I designed it, which is however the f--- you want.

It's beyond that, though. At the heart of it, it's family, and it's grit. The boys come from a pool of six children. "Mum and dad were obviously an enormous influence on all of us," Sean says. "They taught us about the importance of family. Their lifestyle was really fast and they worked really hard to raise the kids."

A nine-year gap between the oldest (Jenny, Andrew, Matt) and the youngest three (Sean, Mary-ann, Megan) meant they were essentially raised as two different sets of children. "I think it was very well planned, actually," Sean says. "By the time we were growing up, the other three were moving out. Having older siblings had a huge impact on me – seeing those guys go and party on."

Before they retired, Peter and Margaret – the parents McConnell – ran a catering company called Table Matters, servicing everything from sandwich orders to weddings. And though the three are adamant they didn't get into cooking as a result of the family business, they all agree they learned their solid work ethic from their parents.

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"There was never a time Dad stood still," Matt says. "He would work crazy hours Monday to Friday and then on the weekend we'd all be out mowing the lawn or painting the house on the weekend. We all learnt we didn't want to go into catering."

On Saturdays, all three McConnell brothers remember separately being loaded in the car while their father would do wine tastings. Matt and Andrew would have to wait in the people-mover, though Sean would sit on the front step of the shop eating Twisties and listening to Kiss. The benefits of being a much younger sibling also meant that once Sean decided on a career as a chef, he had strong hospitality connections through his brothers.

It's been a career that's anything but prescriptive. After leaving Melbourne, he moved to Vanuatu where, aside from going a little feral and getting a strong taste for kava, he cooked around resorts for five years while his wife Jenny worked for Australian Aid.

Chef Matt McConnell when he opened Bar Lourinha in 2006.
Chef Matt McConnell when he opened Bar Lourinha in 2006. Photo: Erin Slattery

"By no means was I doing amazing food but I had a great time doing it," he says. "It taught me a lot about cooking and management. Because I literally had to find the produce myself – I had to walk into the villages and talk to the old mamas who had been fishing for octopus at low tide and then go into the hinterland farms searching for fruit and vegetables. It was fun."

The pair agonised over where they would live when they came back to Australia, but eventually settled on Canberra – Jenny's hometown – where he took a position at bakery-cafe Silo before eventually taking over as executive chef at Hotel Hotel. But not before taking six months off to travel around Italy, Portugal and Spain, Turkey and Vietnam.

As a result, his menu at Monster Kitchen and Bar has a peripatetic edge, where broad beans, peas, almonds, bottarga and stracciatella join forces on the same menu as pulled lamb shoulder and pomegranate. On the bar menu, there's a bikini tostada. It's as much contemporary Australia as it is a flavour palette of his travels through Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Sean McConnell at Canberra's Monster Kitchen and Bar.
Sean McConnell at Canberra's Monster Kitchen and Bar. Photo: Melissa Adams

Earlier on for Matt, it was a trip to Spain that changed the way he thought about eating. "I was really in love with the family life and how important food was. So much was grown and made in-house and the rest was bartered for," he says. "That formality of eating entree, main course and dessert was all thrown out the window. You just graze at four or five places in a night and the quality of the food is as good as a restaurant."

In 2006, there were only a couple of places offering tapas-style dining. And it was certainly a gamble opening up on that little patch of Flinders Lane. "Getting the doors open at Bar Lourinha was the scariest thing I've ever done in cooking," Matt says. "Opening the place completely unfunded was nothing but a dream. We had a ridiculously short lease. But Bar Lourinha was based on the places we visited in Spain where there'd be an uncle and a nephew working side by side and the main thing that always hit us was the consistency of service and price. And that's what we really fought for at the beginning. It was really hard."

Happily, the recipe for a bar-restaurant offering that casual glass-and-a-plate experience backed with serious culinary chops resonated with Melbourne diners – Matt and his wife/business partner Jo Gamvros celebrated the restaurant's 10th anniversary last year.

Andrew McConnell in 2006, at Carlton's Three, One, Two.
Andrew McConnell in 2006, at Carlton's Three, One, Two. Photo: Rodger Cummins

As did Cumulus Inc – Andrew's all-day, all-purpose restaurant, famous for its madeleines cooked to order and tins of Ortiz anchovies served unapologetically nude. But it was his first restaurant – Three, One, Two – where McConnell first harnessed the fearless restraint he's known for today.

"I think I really found my voice at Three, One, Two. It had a lot of restrictions in the kitchen and that made me really have to pull back," Andrew says. "That gave me the confidence to simplify things. But that really happened at Cumulus where I would be only doing fine dining one day and the next I would be writing a breakfast menu. And that felt good."

The challenge of applying his approach to food to the Cumulus menu is one that allows him to paint outside the lines when it comes to how, when and what people should eat. "The thing that I like about Cumulus is that people use it as I designed it, which is however the f--- you want. Have a coffee, have a champagne breakfast, hang out all afternoon and drink beer or order course after course after course."

While all three brothers have a very different impulses when it comes to what's on the plate, there's one thing they have in common and that's good taste, good sense and a fair dose of fearlessness.

But the golden rule? "After so many years cooking," says Andrew, "your gut instinct is your best weapon."

Quickfire corner

Secret ninja skill: Skateboarding (Andrew). Dance moves (Sean). Power tools (Matt).

Music to cook to: Motown to Metallica and everything in between (Sean). Anything and everything – whatever jumps out at me (Matt). It depends on what I'm cooking but I love ELO (Andrew).

Formative food writing: Fergus Henderson's Nose to Tail (Andrew). One of the first books I was ever gifted by my team when I was a young chef growing up was Arabesque by Greg Malouf (Sean). Unmentionable Cuisine by Calvin W. Schwabe (Matt).

Midnight snack: Tomato on toast in summer (Sean). I'm fine with an anchovy on a piece of bread (Andrew). A jaffle – anything bread-based, really (Matt).