Slow burn: lunch with Andrew McConnell

Andrew McConnell at home in St Kilda. Photo: Derek Swalwell Andrew McConnell at home in St Kilda. Photo: Derek Swalwell

Andrew McConnell is in the kitchen of his Fitzroy restaurant Cutler & Co palpating a loaf of sourdough with the care and consideration of a doctor assessing a sore tummy. He inspects the crumb and crust, gleaning information with quiet expertise. “I love the timing, the art, the feel of bread,” he says, gently replacing the loaf on a shelf. “Bread is the first thing you eat in a restaurant. You remember it.” Bread was also the first thing Andrew McConnell made for paying customers when, as a teenager, he was roll boy at a bakery near his home in Box Hill North. “My brother Matthew and I got there at 3am to shape the rolls,” he says. There were pay-offs beyond pocket money.

“I loved hanging out with the rough and tumble bakers,” he says.

“At 7am we’d have a beer and go home to sleep. Even better, we often got out of going to church.”

McConnell, 44, is the second oldest of six in a “good Catholic family”. His mother, Margaret, is an adventurous cook who turned catering for friends into a business. His father, Peter, worked as a director for Amcal chemists before joining his mother in the catering enterprise. “We were lucky that eating was a ritual for us not just something you had to get over with,” says McConnell.

Family life instilled an appreciation of good food but he wasn’t burning to be a chef. “I was an art nerd but I also liked cooking and it was easier to get a chef’s apprenticeship than get into art school,” he says. The three McConnell boys are chefs (Matthew owns Fitzroy’s Casa Ciuccio and the city’s Bar Lourinha, Sean works in cafe Mocan and Green Grout in Canberra); the girls work in childcare, beauty therapy and social work.

It’s Friday lunchtime and the Cutler & Co kitchen is a swirl of good smells: smoke from the wood grill, orange zest, butter.

McConnell is floating, telling one chef to fix a sauce (“It’s not hot enough”) and suggesting to head chef Chris Watson that an inter-costal beef cut has great flavour but is too chewy for the entree they’re working on. He stops a plate about to leave the kitchen and moves a garlic flower in such a way that the composition is suddenly complete.

McConnell is a cook who still likes cooking but he also has more than 200 employees in four busy restaurants: Cutler & Co, the Builders Arms with its Moon Under Water dining room in Fitzroy, Cumulus Inc in the city and its offshoot upstairs, Cumulus Up. St Kilda’s Golden Fields will be supplanted by a new restaurant, Supernormal, opening this summer in Flinders Lane, with Asian food and an all-day pitch designed to attract both a younger crowd and business functions. Over the 25 years he’s been cooking professionally, McConnell has morphed from a driven and sometimes fiery young chef into a measured hospitality leader. He’s won a slew of awards as chef and restaurateur.

He’s created emblematic dishes (marron at Circa, roast suckling pig at Cutler & Co, lobster roll at Golden Fields and grain salad at Cumulus Inc leap to mind). Apart from the delicious and the moreish, perhaps his key achievement is to have built a bridge between fine dining and hospitable hanging out. He’s a key Melbourne player but he prefers to stay out of the limelight. He’s written a cookbook of Cumulus Inc recipes but his author photo shows his face from nose to chin only. He’s appeared on MasterChef once but television doesn’t attract, partly because he doesn’t enjoy standing in front of a camera and is wary of commercial entanglements, but largely because it’s a time drain. “I would rather be in my restaurants dealing with my customers and staff,” he says.

He aims to spend a day a week in each restaurant, tasting and tweaking, working with his chefs. “It hasn’t been easy to let go, to not touch every single plate, but as the business grew it became impossible and as I get older I can’t physically be there 60 hours a week. I still feel guilty about it.” McConnell relies heavily on second-in-command John Paul Twomey who files reports from each kitchen, including such details as “the apprentices hang out with each other outside work which is good for morale” and “front of house staff should place dirty plates in the pot wash when they aren’t busy”. McConnell’s restaurants are talent incubators – alumni include Ben Shewry of Attica and Matt Wilkinson of Pope Joan – but many staff stay with him. Some are now business partners, others enjoy the responsibility they’re given and the fact that they’re still learning, such as at cooking masterclasses at Cumulus Up taught by industry experts. Topics include cheesemaking, menu development and French classics. “Even if we never put a souffle on at any of the restaurants, I think it’s great that my chefs know how to make one,” says McConnell.

His attention to detail is striking. At a meeting with design agency Projects of Imagination to discuss initial concepts for the branding of Supernormal, McConnell doesn’t say much. But when he inspects a layout that juxtaposes English and Japanese script, he says, “I like the space here. I like that dot.” New designs come back two days later: more space, more room to look at that dot.

Later in the week, McConnell is cooking at home in St Kilda.

There’s a footy ladder on the fridge, a deer head (“Deirdre”) in the dining room and the compulsory Ottolenghi cookbooks stacked on a table. He joints a chicken as he talk to me, later sticks his arm inside the oven to check it, and makes up a meringue dish as he goes. “The dessert is inspired by the violets outside,” he says, leading me into the bricked yard scattered with blooms. There’s a vegetable patch with chickweed running wild. “I chop it and take it to the restaurant,” he says. That’s as far as grow-your-own goes. “The farmers I work with get a better result than I could ever achieve,” he says. McConnell moved into the large Victorian house in February with his partner, Jo.

McConnell’s son with ex-wife Pascale Gomes-McNabb and Jo’s two children are there about half the time. (Gomes-McNabb, an architect and McConnell’s long-time collaborator, designed Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc. She and McConnell announced their separation in 2009.) After tailing McConnell for a week, what shines through is his love of food, a belief in the pleasure it can bring, and the ongoing project of creating happy contexts in which to eat it. The success, and therefore the joy, is often in nailing nuance. McConnell talks about the crumpets at Cumulus Inc. “You could serve them with butter and honey and it would be fine but we take it further. We whip ricotta with vanilla till it’s creamy, almost buttery. We serve a big spoon of that next to the crumpet with a cheek of lemon and a pot of honey with a honey stick. Some people will be taken by the crumpet, some will appreciate the complementary arrangement of beautiful things. Some will just think it’s a great snack on the way to work. I like that just as much. I’m not too fussed whether people notice or not. It’s just how I like to do things.”

Andrew McConnell: from rolls to rock to Supernormal

1982 Requests lamb brains for his 13th birthday dinner “out of curiosity and to annoy my siblings.”

1986-1987 Works part-time for Bill Marchetti at Italian restaurant Marchetti’s Latin.

1989 Starts apprenticeship at progressive Kew restaurant Capers. “I was enthralled.”

1991 Continues apprenticeship at Walter Bourke’s Maria and Walter’s, “a quirky little fine diner in Carlton.”

1992 Works at O’Connells with Greg Malouf and is introduced to Middle Eastern flavours.

1993 Travels in Thailand and Malaysia and to a job in London at 190 Queens Gate with Antony Worrall Thompson.

1994 Returns to Melbourne and works at Tansy’s. “Tansy Good’s cooking has had a lasting effect. She taught me how to cook with finesse.”

1995 Works in Europe as a cook for Madonna, Prince, Bryan Ferry, Tom Jones and more. “It was a year of travel and partying, seeing another world, and it was amazing being backstage.”

1996-1999 Has first head chef job in Hong Kong at trailblazing fine dining restaurant M at the Fringe.

2001-2004 Opens first restaurant, Diningroom 211, with then partner Pascale Gomes-McNabb and, initially, with brother Matthew. The brothers are named joint young chefs of the year in The Age Good Food Guide 2002, which calls the restaurant a “sparkling, sexy, postmodern tearaway”.

2003 Opens Mrs Jones, a foray into deformalising fine dining.

2004-2005 Takes the reins of the two-hat Circa kitchen and lifts it to three hats in The Age Good Food Guide 2006.

2006-2008 Mrs Jones becomes Three, One, Two and McConnell is The Age Good Food Guide’s 2007 chef of the year.

2008 Opens Cumulus Inc, Melbourne’s first all-day fine-dining cafe and bar, and an early player in the no-bookings trend.

2009 Opens Cutler & Co in a massive Fitzroy factory.

2010The Age Good Food Guide names McConnell chef of the year.

2011 Opens Golden Fields, serving a lobster roll that sends the city into a frenzy.

2012 Redevelops Builders Arms (and dining room Moon Under Water), “one of my favourite pubs – I used to drink beer there and dance in the disco.”

2013 Opens Cumulus Up, a wine bar designed to ease the crush downstairs at Cumulus Inc. It becomes just as busy.

2014 Will open Supernormal, a Flinders Lane version of Golden Fields.

This profile originally appeared in the October issue of The (Melbourne) Magazine. The November issue will be available with The Age on Friday, October 25.

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