Irishman Declan Carroll came to Australia on holiday 18 years ago, fell in love with the place and has been cooking up a storm here ever since. A passionate devotee of wood-fired cooking, Declan was last at Rockpool for four years and has now taken up the wood-fired grill challenge at Angus & Bon, Prahran’s recently opened New York style steak house.
Excerpts from Declan Carroll’s interviewed with Jo Rittey for conversationswithachef.com
Hi Declan, let’s start with how long you’ve been a chef.
I think it’s 25 years now. I started when I was 17 straight out of school.
So you always wanted to be a chef?
Not necessarily, no. This was the end of the eighties, early nineties and there wasn’t a lot going around. I’m from a small town in Ireland called Celbridge in County Kildare and there are around 12 or 13 pubs and a church and a shop and that’s about it. It’s a pretty small one-horse type of town and not a lot of work around so I found myself being a farmer and a milkman and whatever else and then I thought I needed to actually do something.
I was always interested in food, I suppose. My mum wasn’t a great cook; she used to be when she was younger, but I remember doing what I get my son to do now; standing on a stool and putting my hands in whatever was being made. I thought it might be a nice road to go down so I went to the nearest hotel in Celbridge. On my street there are about 20 houses and out of those 20 houses, 10 of us were chefs and we all ended up working together at one stage. That whole area is a big hospitality area; the mothers were front of house and the brothers and fathers were barmen and sons were all chefs. It’s just that area, I don’t think that’s normal. I suppose that was the first of it when I was 17.
What made you come to Melbourne?
My cousin lived over here. I was supposed to go to Canada, but my visa was refused and then I thought I’d go to America and my visa was refused there too so I didn’t think I’d be going anywhere. That same week my cousin came home to Ireland from here and said Australia was great so I came over here. That was in 2000. The first year was a working holiday visa and I came over and took a look around. I assumed it was just going to be a holiday. Ireland was going great then; all of Europe was on top. So I thought if I tried to get my residency here and I’ve got Ireland as well, that’s over the half the world I can go and work in. So I went for my residency and ended up falling for the place.
What I like about the food over here compared to what we’ve got back home or in most of Europe is that we’ve got a middle ground over here that isn’t over there. There you either go to a two Michelin and pay through the roof or you go to a shitty greasy spoon. Over here you can go to a top end restaurant but then there are lots of steps down from that and there are still quality places whether it’s a café or whatever. There’s room to slip in anywhere here.
Where do you get your inspiration when you’re making a menu?
Take this menu, for example, I firstly think, right where am I going to get the meat from and how am I going to treat it. I’ll dry age it, which is an influence from Rockpool, I suppose. Dry ageing it intensifies the flavour and makes it tender. For that I need top quality beef, so I source top quality beef. Once I’ve done that I don’t want to mess around with it too much so I try and do it as naturally as possible and just cook it over wood and send it out without messing around with it and doing too many things with it. It’s the same with the fish dish; it’s just fish with a sauce vierge. Tomatoes are in season so I can just let them do their own thing. I just need good quality heirloom and cherry tomatoes and cook them over the wood grill just so they’re blistered and you get that smoky flavour in there with some really good quality olive oil and some lemon and salt. There’s not a lot going on there, but with some Spanish mackerel or swordfish over wood, it’s as simple as that.
There’s not very much to any of the dishes on here. It’s about looking out for what’s in at the moment. Asparagus is coming to an end in a couple of weeks but it’s been great over here, the asparagus season has been unreal. I’ve been doing to them what you’d do in the nineties with Béarnaise sauce except I make a Béarnaise foam with tarragon powder.
Does it take a bit of getting used to, using the wood fire?
Using the wood, and you can ask the guys in there, is an absolute nightmare. I love it because it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge just lighting it in the morning; it takes 40 minutes to light it. Well it takes two seconds to light but then you’re looking at it and waiting for it to catch and then you get your little bit of paper and wave it a bit to fan the flames.
It’s old school, isn’t it?
A lot of places use those little fire starters, but I don’t know what’s in them, surely there’s a chemical in them that will taint the beef or something. So I’m just breaking up the cardboard boxes the vegetables come in and using those.
What kind of wood do you use?
Ironbark. It’s really, really hard and produces a high heat; it can get up to 400-500 degrees heat. That’s just the start. Once it catches, you let it burn down and put fresh wood on top and put your grates on. Cooking a steak is completely different. When you cook over a gas grill and you turn it on, it’s an even heat the whole way across. You can put your steak anywhere on the grill and you can almost stick a timer on it. But when it comes to a wood grill, every single steak you cook is completely different, even if they’re the same cut and the same size because the temperature is constantly changing.
You seal your steaks off on one section and then have to move them to another part of the grill and then a piece of wood might fall and that will change the temperature, and then you move them somewhere else to rest them. It’s constantly changing and then the fire might be running out so you have to think about raking the coals or adding more fresh wood over to the side and then wait for it to burn down before you push it over.
Going onto a grill like that, if you can already cook a steak, that’s half the battle. But if you’re an apprentice or a chef de partie who’s learning to cook a steak, and learning about the grill, you’re going to have a disaster. At the moment it’s just me and my sous chef on the grill. There are about nine different steaks on the menu so on a Saturday night we want to be doing over 200 on a Friday and Saturday night. As crazy as it sounds, that’s pretty simple with a grill that size and that powerful. When you have a little bit of experience on it you can get your steaks on pretty quickly and cooked and then up resting and you’re good to go.
Once we settle down, we’ll bring the commis chefs and apprentice chefs over and start teaching them how to use it. They’ll have to start from the bottom learning how to light the fire and learn about how the wood burns and go from there to feeding the fire and watching it and from there they can be taking steaks in. It’s a year down the line before you can say, well, I’m cooking with fire now.