Paul Carmichael on the art of personality-driven food

Paul Carmichael: When it comes to flavour and inspiration, going home to Barbados really helps.
Paul Carmichael: When it comes to flavour and inspiration, going home to Barbados really helps. Photo: James Brickwood

Here's something you might not know about Paul Carmichael, head chef of Momofuku Seiobo, the Australian arm of David Chang's global Momofuku restaurant empire: he is one of the biggest cocktail nerds you're ever likely to meet. He loves bars. Truly, madly and deeply. "Oh yeah," says the born-and-bred Barbadian. "I travel for that shit, man. I'd say my last four trips on my dime were to go cocktailing."

It's the artistry of cocktail bars and all their idiosyncrasies that fascinates him. "I don't drink to get f---ed up. The reason I love great bars is because of great bartenders. The best don't bat an eyelid when someone orders a vodka soda or an espresso martini. And skill aside, it's because they're just cool people." You'll never catch him tending bar himself, though. "I'm not the best at small talk, you know? And bars demand that."

It's ironic coming from a man who spends every waking hour serving people over the bar in his open kitchen, but Carmichael disagrees. "I'd be a shitty bartender."  

Military snail, escabeche and plantain at Momofuku Seiobo.
Military snail, escabeche and plantain at Momofuku Seiobo. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Bad bartender or no, he is the kind of cook David Chang has on speed-dial. Few chefs can boast that. Fewer still who work outside of the New York bubble. The first time the celebrity chef called Carmichael with a job, he was running Perla – a restaurant shaped like a giant clam set just off the beach in Puerto Rico. It was dangerous. Tropical. Continental. He was there for three years. And then the phone rang. Chang was opening Ma Peche, his midtown Manhattan restaurant, and he wanted Carmichael. "I was like bang. I was back there in two weeks. I was gone."

The second call was around moving to Australia. And that was a little more complicated. Chang was looking for a replacement for Seiobo's executive chef, Ben Greeno. But Carmichael was settled in New York. He was in a serious relationship, and had a small child. "It wasn't just me," he says. "Nor was I 22 any more. I was in my mid 30s, and at that point you're trying to think long term. I was in the 'what do I want? Who am I?' part of my life, so it wasn't the easiest thing to just say yes. I was going through a lot back then."

He eventually did say yes, and moved from Manhattan, NY, to Pyrmont, NSW. Starting at Momofuku Seiobo – which had won many big awards including, for several years, three Good Food Guide hats, was weighed with certain expectations and was a lot of self-inflicted pressure for the chef. "I have a tendency to over-think things. Even if I want to get a goddamn gelato, I'm over-thinking it," he says. "When I started, I was thinking about Seiobo and what it is, what it was, what everybody expects it to be. It was this amazing restaurant with a tasting menu and it's got the stamp of David Chang, and I was trying to fit into a mould."

The grilled pork chop at Momofuku Seiobo in Sydney.
The grilled pork chop at Momofuku Seiobo in Sydney. Photo: Kirk Gilmour

But then he started fiddling with the bar menu, turning it into a spicy call back to his Barbadian roots. It completely changed the way he was cooking in the restaurant proper. "The bar's just free," says Carmichael. "A tasting menu comes with tonnes of expectations. And at the bar, you're feeling more like you're doing a labour of love, satiating and feeding someone."

"I wanted people to be able to come in and just have a meal. And the response was pretty good. And then I thought "you know what, man? F--- it. I just need to cook like this because I enjoy cooking like this. Instead of making this thing the way it has to be in this space, I'll do what I like."

It was probably the most Momofuku thing he could have done. The whole punk ethos behind David Chang's restaurants is one of the reasons many people fall in love with eating in them. The loud and louche soundtracks. The personality-driven food by chefs like Carmichael, who now serves a tasting menu inspired by three generations of Carmichael women.

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Finding his flavour was never a problem, but executing it in a kitchen was a different matter. "I've cooked like this my entire life because that's who I am," he says. "But it took me over 20 years to feel comfortable in my own skin to do it." He names a collection of heavy-hitting New York chefs who he worked with and was influenced by over the years – Wylie Dufresne and Jean-Georges Vongerichten among them. "Obviously I've dabbled [with cooking and serving Barbadian flavours in other restaurants], but the way you work with someone, you basically have to move like them, think like them, be them. For me, honestly, [cooking this menu] here at Seiobo, it just felt right."

When it comes to flavour and inspiration, he says going home to Barbados really helps. "You realise how much it's changing, how many things can be lost in just a short period of time. As a third world country that's trying and climbing up the world ladder trying to be better, a lot of things fall by the wayside."

Carmichael isn't claiming to have the monopoly on Barbadian food; nor does his interest lie in categorising or historicising it. He just wants to create space for discussion so things can evolve through his cooks. "Even though we're in Australia, [that food] can still be somewhere. And not just by the wayside with the older generation that's dying. Very few people cook the way my grandmother cooked and she's gone. There are still some traditions, but it's nothing like it was 20 years ago, and that's sad to me."     

Fried chicken at Momofuku Seiobo.
Fried chicken at Momofuku Seiobo. Photo: Kirk Gilmour

Quickfire corner

Music to cook to: Old school dance hall, always.  

After-midnight snack: I get a slice of toast, butter, half of that one slice is Vegemite and the other side honey. (*ed's note: I tried this, and it was revolting) 

Kitchen weapon at work: I really like this one particular knife I have, but also, my kitchen skewer.

Formative food moment: Wasn't a cookbook. It was WD50 and Wylie Dufresne. He challenged me in a way I had never been challenged and he gave me the opportunity and challenge to do it.

Non-cooking ninja skill: I'm a pretty good dad.