Aaron Turner opens up about Loam, Igni and starting over

Author: Aaron Turner
Photography: Julian Kingma

It all started with a restaurant called Loam, down the end of a dirt road, nestled on an olive grove overlooking the bay. It was simple: 30 or so seats, a small team, and a network of farmers to work with. We were happy, and if only 10 people came a day, that was 10 people we could share our story with. There wasn't a menu, just a list of ingredients - 50 or so seasonal fruits, vegetables, plants, fish and meats from small suppliers, gardeners, growers and what we could find in the wild.

Most days would start at about 6am when, with blurry eyes, I would set off to pick various plants along the train tracks. Or I would set the alarm for low tide to gather fresh sea lettuce and seawater for making cheese or brining, my head swimming with ideas of new dishes and flavours for the day's menu. The day would wind up somewhere between 1am and 2am. No one complained; we just got on with it. Before the reviews, before the media storm, we had all the time in the world - we just didn't know it yet.

Six months in and we had our first review, in The Age. I remember the service being horrible - we were so behind I was butchering raw suckling pig to roast to order as we just hadn't had time to break it down that morning. We were flying blind, as we often did then, not knowing what was needed. Despite all that the piece was titled "When the food speaks for itself". We got 16/20 and were labelled "a confident newcomer". I was over the moon. The day after that, the phone wouldn't stop ringing. By the end of the day we were booked solid.

Broccoli heart with macadamia nuts and cabbage oil at Igni.

Loam would go on to win numerous state and national awards including Gourmet Traveller's Regional Restaurant of the Year in 2012. Bookings intensified and our dining room was full every service. The pressure was on and all we had to cook with was a broken oven, a six-top stove with four working burners, two chefs, an 18-hour day, and the constant drive to be better. Something was always going to break.

IT HITS

Today is the day I get to find out my marriage is over. I discover it in a message, a goddamn text message clearly not intended for me. What could be worse, you ask? Christ - I can't even scribble this down I'm shaking so badly - it's with a staff member, and that staff member is the only other chef I have. I don't believe it, but there it is right in front of me. I'm blindsided. Angry, hurt and betrayed. The rug's been pulled out from under me along with my restaurant, my career, my home, my partner, my staff. In one fucking text message my whole life has imploded. I feel like I've just had my throat cut, been left to bleed out on the floor and, as my breath weakens, they're plotting where to hide my body. This can't be happening. Can it?

Loam was closed for eight weeks - the period it took for me to find my feet and gather enough strength to open the doors and see out the last five months we had on the lease. These were the months it would take to wind down the restaurant and execute a financial exit plan; they left me emotionally and physically exhausted. During these months of working in an environment that had caused me so much pain I simply fell out of love with cooking. In fact, I began to loathe it.

All the things that had given me so much joy and pleasure for years were now things I wanted so badly to remove from my life. In my eyes, cooking was the reason all this was happening. I had just lost my best friend and wife, the business would soon be closed and I would be out of a job. I would have to sell my home. In one fell swoop I had lost it all - cooking had given me everything, and just as quickly taken it all away.

Aaron Turner

NASHVILLE

I went to Nashville. No one I met during my time there was really from Nashville. Instead it was a place people had just escaped to, gathered together and created something new. Some were in need of respite, others running from past lives, some still chasing youthful dreams - singers, songwriters, artists, people all in various states of repair or disrepair. It's exactly where I needed to be after Loam, foreign and alone, far away from cooking and anything familiar. The perfect place to lose myself, to not be me for a little while and to forget the shitstorm my life had turned into. A friend had offered me a couch to sleep on - that's how I ended up here. I'd gone from owning a successful restaurant and a house on the beach to sleeping on an undersized two-seat couch with a T-shirt for a pillow, everything I owned packed into a travel pack, a life condensed.

I covered most of Nashville on foot, walking and thinking, crossing back and forth over the Cumberland River in the oppressive heat until it was finally time for happy hour at Puckett's, where I would drink pints of beer for $2 and eat barbecue chicken wings for less than 20 cents each until I passed out, then wake up and do it all again. I had nowhere to be, no obligations, nothing. It was such an odd feeling compared to the non-stop work and 18-hour days of the past eight years. I couldn't remember ever being that idle, being alone with no responsibility and no accountability. It didn't really suit me. I needed something to focus on, something to obsess over, something to wake me up.

It didn't take me long to make plans to eat at every hot chicken restaurant in Nashville. Shockingly, I talked to friends who had lived there for years yet had never had it. It made me wonder if I should know them at all. I started to work to fund my chicken habit. It was a small kitchen with a small crew who were not at all interested in the industry or even doing a good job. The menu was terrible, the staff questionable, the drinks good, the place failing. Nothing about the job made me want to cook but it was money, and something I could do, for now - something to replace the fatigue of living in purgatory and existing to exist.

COMING HOME

I can't believe I'm about to board this plane. About to say goodbye to the few thrift-shop belongings I've accumulated this year and placed as talismans in my light-filled apartment that looks out over downtown, from where the shouts of drunks have kept me company through the night. I've grown to like Nashville and the way nothing seems real here - the fa├žade the city throws up seems to help bury the everyday reality of life. Nashville feels like home to me because I don't feel real myself, so why am I about to board this plane? Whatever the reason, I've decided to go back. I know I have unfinished business at home, and I want my career back. I thought I could work for someone else, cooking food I don't care about for people who don't care either, but it turns out I was wrong.

BEGINNING AGAIN

I'm sitting on a box, alone in the dining room that in a few weeks will come alive, that will live and breathe for the first time as Igni, quietly reflecting on the last few years. I feel like I've lived a hundred different lives, and I'm wondering if my love of cooking will return, because right now, sitting in a half-built restaurant, I don't feel like it will.

I still wonder how I ended up here, with a restaurant in a laneway in the centre of Geelong. I wonder if I've made the right decision. "Well, at least it was a decision," I catch myself saying under my breath. Decisions are something I've avoided making with any consistency for the last two years.

Whole fish cooked over fire at Igni.

It's strangely quiet until a couple pop their heads through the open door and ask if this is the new restaurant by Aaron Turner. "We've been walking the streets trying to find it," they tell me. I reply: "It is, but he's not here right now." They ask to make a booking so they won't miss out like they did the three times they tried to book at Loam. I take down their details, smile politely and send them happily on their way.

Why did I choose to cook over fire and only fire? At least I can blame that if this doesn't work. If I can't get it right, I can take solace in the fact I didn't know how to use the fire - will that be enough? I've never worked with direct flame before, not like this, not as the only source of cooking in a commercial kitchen, using it to service a dining room full of guests. It's the centrepiece of the kitchen, the life of it all. It has changed the way I interact with cooking. Every day is different because the fire behaves according to its own will. It has a life of its own, a certain energy that demands constant attention. The trade-off is the calmness at the centre of it, and the realisation that we are never really in control. And it's then, in a bizarre moment of... let's call it clarity, it hits me: the fire behaves the way I've always cooked, the way I see produce - always different and always changing with the days, and the months, and the weather.

The perfect dish week in, week out is so unappealing to me. I don't chase any regimented consistency; I try to avoid it at all costs, choosing instead to let the produce guide me. It's a kind of freedom most kitchens or cooks don't have. Now the fire is offering me that freedom - the freedom to know that it's different every day, and, therefore, so the food should be. That realisation aside, I still have no idea what dishes we'll open with.

THE OPENING

I'm standing at the pass in my shiny new kitchen, staring at the white plates I hate. Every table is set with them and they stare up at me, mocking me. I hate these plates - they're so generic, so impersonal, cast within an inch of their lives. The ones we wanted were beautiful - Australian-made, hand-dyed - but we couldn't afford them because we ran out of money, spent it all on silicone, hooks, curtain rods, storage shelves, and a thousand other things no one will ever see. So here we are with $2 white plates.

Pineapple cooked overnight in coals.

It's eerie, waiting for the first guests to walk through the door. Soon they'll sit and judge every aspect of our hard work over the last year. They'll scan the finish of the floor, question the choice of colour, discuss the decision-making behind our serviceware, uniforms, lights. Then they'll move on to the food. I feel nauseous, almost transparent. I crack my knuckles and press my fists into my lower back, arching to relieve the stiffness. I hear the kitchen behind me, fresh with excitement and courage - the young chefs we can't afford are eager and ready to go. I can't share their innocent excitement this time around. I hang my head, the weight of expectation growing, my chest tightening, my breathing heavy. Are we ready?

By 7.35pm the dining room is filling with smoke. Yup, filling with smoke from the fire we are cooking on. It's the specialised extraction system we paid a fortune for - it doesn't seem to be extracting anything. It worked fine all week, but I shouldn't be surprised that on opening night it breaks. Of course it would. We push on. The guests don't seem to mind, the brave-faced front-of-house team have reassured them that it's all part of the show; however, I can see that they are deeply concerned that we are about to catch fire.

Igni the book

It's 1am. Everyone's gone home and I'm alone in the kitchen making peace with the first night of service. I must have wiped the same three benches 25 times thinking about those fucking white plates. After 17 hours and 240 courses, they're the only solid thing I can wrap my mind around. I need to sleep. I haven't really slept at all recently, a million different thoughts racing through my mind.

Luke Burgess and Deb Blank are eating tonight. Luke and I came up together in the cooking world, connected in the way only cooks can, for the love of what we do, an understanding, a bond that's uniquely shared between cooks. Deb, his partner, is also a chef. They've flown in from Sydney to cook a special lunch. We arranged the date months earlier, when we were on track to have been open for months by this time.

JUST COOK

I find myself apologising to them between courses; I'm nervous and feel bad they're experiencing the restaurant this way, unprepared and bumbling like an awkward teenager. I know Luke's palate and he'll see the mistakes. It's a conversation over the squab, a leg aged on the carcass for 14 days, started cold on the grill and roasted far away from direct flame. The texture sparks Luke's curiosity; it's chewy in a gelatinous way, much like the knuckle of a pig trotter. Luke asks if I'd confited them before they hit the grill. I hadn't. It never even occurred to me; I just left them on the grill to cook slowly, it just made sense. And it's then, a light-bulb fuck-me moment - just cook. Stop thinking and just cook.

Luke's Sunday lunch wasn't planned to happen in our first week, but here he is, and here we are about to prep a new menu, with a new chef in a new kitchen, four days after we opened. It's madness. Luke cooks a lot like me - needing to see, touch, taste and smell the ingredients before knowing what to do with them. Among the madness of the first week I've ordered a couple of extra squabs and have some Great Ocean ducks ageing in the cool room and a few kilos of King George whiting hours out of the bay.

Lemons charred by the fire.

I've organised farmer Bruce Robinson to pick the best of the morning's herbs and leaves. He has promised me white mulberries, so long as he remembers to set his alarm to beat the birds. Luke is bringing with him sake lees that a mutual friend has brought back from Japan. There's talk of making an ice-cream with them but everything else we'll work out this morning, creating a menu based on what we have right here in front of us, a reaction to the day and produce, a menu made in a moment and then gone. This is real cooking. To me there's no other way - it's the only way I know how, now that I've finally remembered.

Today it feels like all the pressure is off me and I can enjoy just being here in the kitchen. Creating the menu first thing in the morning and cooking for the love of it, building a fire, telling old stories - the kitchen has become like a campfire, comforting. We share a Sunday night family meal with the staff, and for the first time I convince myself to relax and enjoy the company I'm in. For the first time I can sit in relative calmness, in a space that's now alive and breathing, and beginning ever so slowly to find its own identity.

This is an edited extract from Igni by Aaron Turner (published by Hardie Grant Books, hbk, $60), available in stores from 1 October 2017.







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