In honor of Australia Week, which actually requires a month (see calendar), Epicurious interviewed celebrity chef Pete Evans, who was in New York to participate in G'Day Australia festivities. The calendar may seem confused, but Evans sure isn't: This guy knows what he likes and dislikes and isn't afraid to say so. He has been called the "Jamie Oliver" of Down Under because he's hosted many TV shows, written several cookbooks, owns a passel of restaurants, and is disarmingly handsome. Before heading out to Public Restaurant in downtown New York, Evans discussed the misrepresentation of Aussie cuisine, why seafood is better than beef, and the origins of his daughter's name, Chilli.
Epi-Log: Did you really work at a McDonald's?
Pete Evans: I started cooking as a 13-year-old in a bakery making pies and breads. I worked at McDonald's as a 14-year-old and spent some time at Sizzler too. I was in the kitchens cooking from the ages of 14 to 17. Then I started an apprenticeship. I only did it as a necessity; I didn't know what to do with my life so I looked at all the trades out there (electrician, builder, plumber, mechanic, hair dresser) and thought, "Which one will benefit me and family for the rest of my life?" Cooking seemed to be the most common sense choice. It was an easy hands-down winner. It was healthy and it would probably help me pick up girls later on in life.
E-L: Do you have a specific cooking style? Neo-creative quasi-Aussie perhaps?
PE: My style? A little bit borrowed and stolen. In Australia, I guess you'd call it contemporary. Most Australian chefs have embraced global cuisine. And then incorporated it into their style. And they use the best produce/products they can get. We tend to embrace what we can grow ourselves. [As a recent example,] we grow our own truffles now in Western Australia, Tasmania. Probably the last six or seven years, we saw the first samples and now it's going gangbusters these days.
E-L: Are you incorporating more truffles in your dishes?
PE: I don't like them. I've been to Italy, France, I've eaten at El Bulli. To be honest, I don't see the point. I don't think they're offensive, but I won't buy one for $500 and shave it over my eggs. There are better things to do with your money than buy truffles, I think.
E-L: So what exactly is Australian cuisine?
PE: In Australia, we don't have an Australian-themed restaurant as such. From what I understand, over here in the USA, you get kangaroo and emu and crocodile on the menu. That doesn't happen in Australia. Not at all. That's a theme thing in America. We might have two restaurants that embrace native animals like that. Sydney is like a smaller version of New York. But Melbourne is the capital of cuisine: We have fantastic Thai restaurants, Japanese, Chinese, great restaurants that embrace their countries.
E-L: How did you manage to win a best pizza award?
PE: I opened a pizza restaurant as a joke. We've got a nightclub in King's Cross in the red-light district; it's a bit grungy and dirty. There was a restaurant under our nightclub that was Japanese and it went broke and these people were going to turn it into a convenience store with bright lights where you buy your juice and cigarettes or milk and magazines. Really ugly. So we put a stop to that because it would have been a horrible thing, fluorescent lights and all, to have near an entrance to a nightclub. My brother and I joked: "We ought to take over that site." I said, "How about something cheaper but with style? How about pizzas?" We could see that the fine-dining scene was petering out a bit.
I got home and told my partner and she said: You don't know a &*@! thing about pizza. Those were her words. I said, well if Joe Blow down the corner can make pizza, then the worst-case scenario is that I make them as good as he does. So I went off on an intensive study into the world of pizzas for about six months. The Internet was a fantastic tool for gathering information and studying what works and what doesn't. I Googled "New York Pizza" and "Best Pizza" and "London" and "Italy." The best thing I did was read the reviews, not just the menus, from [weekly magazines] but also the customer reviews. And I figured out what people like and what they didn't like. Then I spent three months working in a friend's pizza restaurant. I found out who has the best pizzas in Sydney. And I asked the guy: "Can I work in your establishment? I want to work with you and understand the process, what machines to use, do you use wood fire or convection oven or conveyor belt or gas?" So I did an internship. Do you know how hard it is to eat pizza day in and day out? By the third day I was over it. But we continued to work on it: How much sauce do you put on it? What kind of pepperoni do you put on it? How big do you cut the pizza? Aw jeez. And through that I created Hugos Bar Pizza.
E-L: Is there an emphasis on crust, sauce, or toppings?
PE: What I wanted to do is stay true to Italian, no satay chicken or anything like that. Very much like what Mario Batali does. I'm not in Italian, but I did my apprenticeship in an Italian restaurant. The philosophy of our pizza is: a good base, not thick (if you use wood-fire oven you need wetter dough to really soak up the flavors). And 80% of our clientele are female. Girls can come in, have fantastic cocktails, and not spend a fortune on food. So we put all our emphasis on the toppings. The salami costs as much as crayfish or lobster. We'll put Serrano ham on the pizza. The best prawns. We focus on putting the best produce on top of the pizza. And thin crust because we didn't want anyone walking out feeling bloated.
E-L: What's your favorite food?
PE: Mud crabs are one of the top five things you can put in your system. [I also love] Iberico ham, foie gras, caviar, and fatty blue fin tuna.
E-L: You're known for your seafood and love of fishing
PE: I really don't like serving beef as a main course. I just think it's a bit boring. Beef is like breakfast: People want it cooked their way. People love their bacon cooked a certain way, their eggs cooked a certain way, their toast a certain way. I ran a breakfast restaurant for while. Most pain in the ass thing I've ever done. People don't care if they pay $50 for some foie gras and they won't tell you how to cook it. But if you put out a $10 plate of eggs, they'll tell you exactly how they want it cooked. Same thing is true for beef. Some like it rare and some like it well done. So it's tricky to do for a lot of people. [At the G'Day Australia event,] we did a nice simple carpaccio of Ocean Trout, basically Atlantic Salmon. Dressed in a lime and coriander juice to cure it. And then a little fennel and watercress salad. Really nice. Very light. And then we have a signature dish of mine: steamed barramundi. We're farming from beautiful; agriculture. I visited the farm a little while back and aquaculture is the way of the future. I know the states have embraced it.
E-L: Are you a big fan of Australian wines?
PE: To be honest with you, I don't drink white, I just drink red, and I don't care what it is. I love beer and cocktails and champagne and red wine. And I don't really care where it comes from. I think I may be the only chef in the world who doesn't really care about wine. I've studied it, but it goes in one ear and comes out the other. I just can't get a handle on it. If I wanted to understand it, it would be a lifetime of struggle. Because everything changes and the amount of wineries and regions and varietals is overwhelming. And the last thing I want to do is pretend I know anything about it because I don't.
E-L: What about beer?
PE: Whatever's cold.
E-L: Last question. Your daughter has an unusually foodie name. Who thought of that?
PE: My daughter is nearly four. Me and my partner named her Chilli. We were actually having a bit of fun after Gwyneth Paltrow named her daughter Apple. We couldn't believe it. About a month before we were going to have our daughter, we were picking names. We were like, "It has to be a unique name. Not Peter. Too common." So she started coming up with names, and I was like, "No no no no no." Then we heard about Gwyneth Paltrow. And a friend of ours was going through food names: Cinnamon, Saffron, and all this. And then she said "Chilli" and we looked at each other, "I don't mind that." Plus, my wife is quite fiery. And if we have a daughter, she'll be a fiery little one too.
By James Oliver Cury
MORE FROM EPICURIOUS.COM
Meet Epicurious's Diet Blogger and Share Your Stories
Explore the Globe's Most Iconic Recipes in This Weekly Video Series
International Fare, Light Desserts, or Heart-Healthy Recipes, Epicurious Has Them All
The Man in the Orange Clogs Talks About His Influences and Cooking Style
Easy Cooking and Healthy Eating Tips Delivered Daily