Meet Event Ambassador John McLeay
Executive Head Chef at Red Spice Road, John McLeay exudes a laid-back, creative vibe and it shows in the warm, friendly vibe of the restaurant’s menu and décor. We sat down with our 2017 Eat Street Ambassador recently to find out more about him…
How did you get your start in the industry?
I fell into cooking when I was on work experience in a large hotel in the city. The hotel manager put me in the kitchen and at the time I was working at McDonalds so I definitely wasn’t afraid of the heat. Because I was sporty and blokey, I got along really well with the guys in the kitchen… so when they said they didn’t want me to go back to school, I didn’t.
Where did your affinity with Asian cooking come from?
As a kid I really liked Asia. Maybe because of seeing the Vietnam war on TV. I know my Dad also spent some time over there. It’s inbred in me for some reason. One of the first places I went to when I was 22 was Asia and I was stunned by the flavours of the food.
What is your favourite dish?
For me I love raw fish, I love working with seafood, anytime I get to work with raw fish I love those dishes. Whether it be Salmon with seaweed and a dashi broth or something like that. That’s what I love to eat and love to cook.
Eating out, I love Japanese flavours – back to the raw fish once again – I like the lightness of it. Experimental Japanese food is stunning. I love Tokyo. I think if I had my time over again, I’d go down a strictly Japanese path. I play around with it but I’m no expert. I love that style of food. South east Asian food can be quite confrontational to the palate, whereas Japanese food is more delicate.
What’s your favourite cooking utensil?
Can it be electric? I would have to say, a stick blender. We make a lot of pastes in the kitchen at Red Spice Road, so it makes life easy. But when I’m cooking at home, I can’t go past a mortar & pestle. For some reason if you make a paste or a dressing in a food processor or a blender, it doesn’t taste the same as when it’s made with a mortar & pestle.
You know that sound it makes? In Thailand it’s called ‘pok pok’. If you were walking through the backstreets and laneways in Thailand at 6 o’clock at night, fifty years ago, it would be the only sound you’d hear, because all the wives would be making dinner for their families and that sound would be echoing around everywhere.
What’s the strangest ingredient you’ve ever cooked with?
Definitely dried sea-cucumber; the first time I went to Thailand I was out walking along a reef in Phuket and I saw these creatures in the water and thought they looked disgusting.
Then I went to Bangkok and got lost and ended up walking through a really dodgy food market. I walked past a stall and saw that they were selling them to eat! So ever since then I was really fascinated with how unappetising they looked. I read up on them, and apparently they’re believed to be medicinal. It’s kind of gelatinous and rubbery without much taste, so I cut it up and put it in a soup.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
It’s probably a three-way tie between: Scorpion, Centipede & Spider. I do really like eating crickets; they’re really crunchy and pretty tasty. But scorpion is a bit too meaty for me.
What advice would you give someone who’s just starting out in the food industry?
Absorb as much as you can, work hard while you’re young – because you can, take everything on board and enjoy your time as well. Too many people get lost in this industry too quickly. Absorb yourself in the job, but don’t lose yourself in it. This job can take over everything. It’s important to maintain other interests as well.
I’m a big advocate for not over working people. If I get a young kid starting out working for me, I ask him ‘What do you do?’ and he’ll say ‘I play footy’ and I’ll say ‘Okay you’ve got Saturday and Thursday nights off to do that’. I’ve got the benefit of having large places so I can afford to do that.
What advice do you have for our budding home cooks?
Don’t create too much drama. I’ve been to dinner parties where, because you’re a chef, people try to impress you and it doesn’t usually work out. If I cook at home, I’ll just barbeque a steak and have a fennel radish salad with it - something really simple. Everyone has that one thing that they cook really well - a heart and soul dish. My advice would be to stick to what you know.
So what’s your ‘heart and soul’ dish?
A dish my grandparents used to make. They would get leftover roast lamb, put it through a hand mincer, salt it, put it in a casserole dish with lots of caramelised onions, tomatoes and breadcrumbs on top and then bake it – now that’s comfort food. I can’t seem to make that lamb dish quite as well as my grandparents though!
It’s been 10 years since Red Spice Road opened - do you have any big celebrations planned?
I’m sure we’ll have some kind of big celebration at the restaurant; we’re like a family, so we will no doubt celebrate together. Personally, Andrew [Cameron] and I will probably crack open a good bottle of wine, sit down together and reminisce about the years gone by. When we started out, we didn’t expect it to turn out this way.
What were you expecting Red Spice Road to be when you started?
We expected it would be more of a lunch venue. We were one of the first of our size to open on this side of the city, so we thought we’d be busy at lunch because all of the large banks were around us. We did really well with lunch at first, and then quite quickly people started coming in for dinner and we’re now much busier in the evening, which is great, but it definitely surprised us.
The restaurant has really evolved… at first we ran it as a bar. We even used to have happy hours on Fridays but it started encroaching on the diners, so we stopped doing that. We also developed the private dining rooms… it’s changed so much.
What do you think the recipe for success [pun intended] is for Red Spice Road?
It all comes back to family. Getting the staff right, getting the team right. It’s really important. We’ve been lucky enough to have people who’ve stayed with us for a long time. Some of our staff have even become Australian citizens through working with us and they’re still here and still loyal.
Sure, we’ve had people who think the grass is always greener on the other side, but they always want to come back. So I think that’s our secret – we don’t try to be anything we’re not. We’re down to earth and try to provide a great experience that’s good value for money.
Are you looking forward to being a part of Eat Street for the first time?
Yes definitely. I’ve always wanted to do the event, so I’m really looking forward to being involved. I like being able to give back – it’s really enjoyable. Variety does such great things, so it’s a fantastic event to be involved in.
WANT THE RED SPICE ROAD EXPERIENCE AT HOME?
Join us at Eat Street Melbourne on Tuesday 9 May for a night of food, frivolity and fundraising – BOOK NOW!