Online Q&A: Josh Emett, Maze Melbourne

Photography: MARCEL AUCAR

Josh Emett, the 36-year-old New Zealand-born chef returning to Melbourne to head the kitchens of Gordon Ramsay's Maze and Maze Grill, cut his teeth at legendary Melbourne fine-diner Est Est Est under Donovan Cooke in the late 1990s before joining Ramsay's operation. Among the laurels he earned in that capacity were stints at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's and The Savoy Grill (including the period when it won a Michelin star with Marcus Wareing). In 2006 he moved to the US to open Gordon Ramsay at The London in New York City and Gordon Ramsay at The London in West Hollywood, restaurant which were awarded two and one Michelin stars, respectively. On the eve of his return to his home hemisphere after an absence of 10 years, he spoke to Gourmet Traveller'sPat Nourse about his hopes for the new restaurant.
How long is it since you last lived in Melbourne, Josh?
I lived in Melbourne between '97 and 2000, three solid years.
And then you left for Europe - did you go straight to Ramsay Incorporated after you left Australia?
No, I went to the south of France and worked on yachts for a couple of months - didn't really enjoy it that much and was revving to get back to England. I made a few contacts and Donovan Cooke put me in contact with someone there and I made a phone call and away we went.
What interested you about the Ramsay group?
To tell the truth, it wasn't my first thought. Gordon was becoming pretty prominent at that stage - Boiling Point had just come out - but I didn't go to London specifically to work with him. Once I spent a day in the kitchen, though, I loved it. It felt like coming home.
Maybe it's in your blood, having worked for Donovan. Birds of a feather.
I think so. He just had the right attitude about food and getting the job done. There's a misconception there - although it was a pretty ferocious kitchen, by the same token it was very professional and very focused on food. That's what attracted me.
That focus on professionalism seems to be something a lot of chefs who work with Ramsay cite. Is that the key appeal for you?
It's a chef-run and -driven company, so the chefs have a lot of say and control over anything and everything that goes on, so that suits us down to the ground. It is a very professionally run organisation and the focus is on the engine room, which is the kitchen.
What are your abiding memories of working in Melbourne?
It was a tough life. I think I spent the first three months sleeping on a camp stretcher in a bare flat in Albert Park with no fridge, no nothing. My parents came over from New Zealand and said, "Jesus, look at you!" They helped me buy a bed and a fridge and a couch. I was loving work, working six days a week and all the hours under the sun, and Sundays were non-existent. I slept or lazed around or went to the beach. Just rested.
Are you up to speed in what's happening in Australian food?
I think so, yes. Melbourne's changed a hell of a lot - the skyline's different, there's a lot of different restaurants, a lot of guys have come and gone, there's a few guys hanging around. I know a lot of chefs still in the industry here and in Sydney.
Pretty much everyone you worked with at Est Est Est has gone on to big things - Joseph Abboud at Rumi, Ben Russell at Aria Brisbane, Karen White at Verge.
Most of us are still at it, yeah, and Donovan's on his way back, too.
Do you see an Est Est Est reunion at Crown any time soon?
Probably not, no. But never say never.
This is a pretty big project.
I like the challenge, I like doing it. Can we pull it off? Can we make it work against the odds?
How do you describe the concept at Maze?
Maze is about small bites, working your way through smaller dishes of intricate food without stuffiness. It's informal high-end dining. You can taste your way through a lot of flavours in a relaxed way, or go the tasting menu, where you can see the dishes that the chefs want to showcase.
What are your favourite dishes on the menu?
The ingredients I like cooking with are things like sweetbreads and rabbit, pigeons and duck. Maybe that's got something to do with my interest in hunting, but I also really like working with fish as well, so I think we'll see a little bit of all of that in the menu. I think it'll be something like a mix between the two-star I was running in New York and Maze in London.
What I like to focus on is the flavours. We try not to play around with things too much, pulling them apart and putting them back together again. We like to use good natural ingredients and enhance them. I like to be relaxed when I go out to eat. I don't want to have to always think about things too much, though I do like to be surprised and I like interesting flavours on the plate. Maze Grill, which will run alongside it, will be a bit of the New York steakhouse-style where we're showcasing meats and fish and shellfish, sharing plates, that sort of thing.
How many chefs will you have under you all up?
I think you're looking at about 40 or 50. We're taking care of the food and beverage for the hotel and we have two restaurants, so two separate teams there, plus the pastry department. It's a 24-hours-a-day operation, too.
What advice do you have for young Melburnians who want to work for you?
I've had a lot of phone calls already, which is great news. We've got a few senior guys in place, but we're pretty focused on employing local. Advice? Don't be scared. Honestly. For a lot of young kids, even in their 20s, it can be quite daunting walking into a new job, or coming into Gordon Ramsay's kitchen. We'll treat them nicely.
Do you run your kitchen like a Kitchen Nightmare?
It's a common question - am I like Gordon on TV? But no, I run my kitchen the way I like to run it. I'm huge on organisation and cleanliness and the way people work because for me that's 50 per cent of the battle of getting the food out consistently. You can't run a restaurant, no matter how much flair's going on, if it's not consistent. We're big on training. I'm the sort of guy who wants to extract as much as I possibly can from a staff member in a year. I'm going to work them to the bone, but by the same token I'm going to give them a lot of attention, I'm going to give them a lot of my time, and it's valuable time on both sides.  They want access to all the knowledge that we've got and in turn we want staff who work hard and have good attitudes and are interested in the job.
Where do you see the restaurants fitting into Melbourne dining circa 2010?
I think Maze is high-end food, and if we keep it informal and relaxed, that's a great addition to the Melbourne dining scene. We'll be drawing on my experience in London and New York and bringing a little bit of that to Melbourne. It's a great dining city, but I think it's a good thing having Gordon come to Melbourne and I'm looking forward to finding our spot.
Have you eaten much in Melbourne recently?
I've eaten in a lot of places, actually. I really like Cutler & Co, and I really like the food at Attica. I think Ben there is doing some really interesting stuff. I've done set-ups with Gordon before and I'm just watching what's going on. I'll be interested to see how we're taken. I think the style of eating is a little bit more New York as opposed to London - it's a little bit more casual.
Can you give us some examples of what you'll be serving?
We have a really large repertoire to choose from, so it's hard to say, but I love the Hiramasa kingfish, the crayfish, the marrons, so I'd really like to incorporate those. There'll definitely be a sweetbread dish there - we do a lovely one with radishes, celeriac, olives and fresh almonds when they're in season. I do a lovely monkfish wrapped in chicken skin, I really love that dish as well. The food's gotta be good, doesn't it?
This interview is for the February issue of Gourmet Traveller. Are you one of the many chefs who hates Valentine's Day?
I don't mind it, actually. It's just another day. I dislike the fact that someone might come around to me and say I have to make a love-heart dessert. I don't go out and make a love-heart mould and plan my strawberry dessert around that. It's about couples and that sort of thing, of course, but I don't think everything needs to be emblazoned in pink to do it.
And what will you be doing for your own Valentine?
I don't generally do anything. I'm a bit of a bastard like that. Shocking. There has to be another special day - you can get away with Valentine's Day just as long as there's another special day where you acknowledge the girl you love for something.
What's your fallback emergency dinner party plan?
It'd have to be roast chicken. I love roast chicken and steamed rice, so if you do a chicken pilaf, I'm the happiest man around. And some steamed broccoli.
Is there anything else you want people know about Maze?
I think it's going to be a tough year, but I think it's going to be an enjoyable one, so we're excited.
Maze Melbourne opens late March. Crown Metropol, 8 Whiteman St, Southbank, Vic, (03) 9292 8888,

View Full Site