Introduction

Introduction

By
Andrew McConnell
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781743791325
Photographer
Earl Carter

There’s no straightforward origin story about Supernormal. The tale certainly embraces Asia — Japan and China in particular — but it’s equally about something personal that’s evolved over many years. It’s about Melbourne and Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo. It’s an amalgamation of source and inspiration, traditional and new, memory and experience, all fitting together in a way that, to me at least, seems perfectly logical. And delicious. I suppose the story of Supernormal is really the story of the way I like to eat.

I’ve been interested in Asian food for as long as I can remember and have cooked it at home for many years. However, professionally my training and experience was all about classical European cooking. Then in 1995 I went to live and work in China, to head kitchens in Hong Kong and Shanghai, cooking European food in upmarket settings but without all the fine dining pomp and ceremony.

I stayed for five years, eating Chinese food twice a day and having a team of 20 to 30 Chinese chefs working with me, three of whom were employed just to cook staff meals. Two of these were older ladies who would cook six to ten of the most incredibly delicious — and often incredibly oily — dishes every night. I also went to people’s homes and experienced the wonder and variety of Chinese home cooking — and there was always the welcome presence of the incredibly vibrant street food culture.

While never taking this food for granted, the constant exposure over five years normalised it in some ways. It became intrinsic to the way I ate and, I realised after returning to Melbourne with no easy access to those same flavours, it was the way I wanted to keep eating. But while part of being back became about missing some of my favourite flavours, the different environment also allowed me to see ways of changing, even modernising, the way I cooked this kind of food.

When cooking Chinese food, I always try to keep in mind that, while it might be my take on a dish, the final product has to remain respectful of the source. You don’t drop tinned pineapple into a sweet and sour. Start trying to completely reinvent the wheel and you can quickly lose sight of what was good about the dish in the first place and end up with some kind of scary fusion car crash.

Back in Australia, I consciously began to change the way I cooked Asian food. I was very conscious of using the best produce, cooking it carefully; using corn starches and fats sparingly not excessively, lightening the recipes without losing their flavour profile — in other words, applying some of the principles and techniques that I was using in my restaurants to the Asian cooking I was doing at home.

This approach was very much influenced by Japan. I first went to Japan while I was based in China and have been back many times since. Japanese food is what I like to eat and, increasingly, Japanese-style has become the way I like to cook too. Japanese flavours are a lot more direct than many cuisines and have a confidence in simplicity. And, while some base ingredients in Japanese cooking have certainly influenced me strongly and have a permanent place in my pantry, it’s actually the Japanese approach to cooking that has influenced me more than any particular ingredient or recipe.

A lot of restaurant cooking in Japan relies on a central core ingredient with only a few layers added to that. It brings a purity and more direct flavour profile to the food compared, say, to Shanghai cooking, where there might be vinegars, sugars, soys, starches and aromatics to make up a dish. Japanese cooking might be as simple as a piece of meat, some water, some dried mushrooms, a dash of sauce and some kombu. It shows balance and restraint when something as simple as a piece of tofu with some sesame can stand alone when it’s executed well. The Japanese approach to cooking has given me the confidence and awareness to know when to stop adding to a dish. How to make it about essence rather than excess.

It took ten years after leaving China before I was ready to cook Asian food in a restaurant. Golden Fields opened in St Kilda in 2011 and in some ways was a prototype for Supernormal with its mix of Chinese, Korean and Japanese dishes given a modern interpretation. But there were some parameters.

Conscious of the idea of a white person cooking Asian food and wanting to dodge any association with fusion cooking, I stayed clear of some of the more traditional dishes that I really loved — dumplings being the most obvious example. I was certainly qualified to cook dumplings — I had eaten them pretty much every day for five years while in Hong Kong and Shanghai, and had been taught to make them by experts in their own homes — but I was still working out exactly what it was I wanted to do. What I wanted to do, it turns out, was Supernormal.

We had secured a site for the new restaurant at the street level of a brand new building in Flinders Lane in Melbourne’s CBD, a skyscraper that was being built to a six-star energy efficiency rating. The inevitable building delays were compounded by the pioneering nature of the energy efficient construction and, with Golden Fields morphing into a modern French bistro called Luxembourg, we found ourselves with a committed team ready for action and about five months before we would be anywhere near opening.

Not wanting to lose the staff, we decided to do a pop-up called Supernormal Canteen. I had access to an empty space on Gertrude Street in Fitzroy, next to my restaurant Cutler & Co. Dion Hall from Projects of Imagination, who’d done the plans for Supernormal in the city, did the Canteen fitout using some of the signature elements — the graphics, some red neon, the blend of concrete and timber, the general Japanese aesthetic — and applying them to this smaller, two-room space. We originally planned on opening for a month. The place was so popular that it stayed open the entire summer.

The Canteen proved integral in defining what Supernormal would be. It became an opportunity to keep going with the evolution of the project. We started calling it the Supernormal Test Kitchen, not just because it allowed us to test drive and refine dishes and to change the way we structured and focused the menu, but also because it allowed us a freedom to experiment with the whole concept. It changed things so that Supernormal became both looser and more focused.

Japanese flavour and technique came more prominently into the mix at the Canteen. There were lots of cold and raw dishes that changed the way we cooked. We started using dashi in our vinaigrettes and sauces, and made a point of not doing any dish we’d done previously, aside, of course, from the lobster roll that I’ll probably be making until the day I stop working in restaurants (perhaps not even then). We shortened the wine list and made music more of a focus, though we left the karaoke until we had a dedicated room (with soundproofing), downstairs in the city restaurant.

Working with the limited resources and temporary nature of the pop-up showed us how to simplify and deformalise. I’d always wanted Supernormal to feel like a canteen, somewhere that had the colour, the mood and the pace of a European train station — it’s why we have the long bar, so that solo diners feel comfortable in here too — but with a level of service and comfort that would refine the canteen idea.

I certainly wanted it to have a buzz, which is why there was always going to be an open kitchen. I like the energy of open kitchens. They bring a room to life through sights and smells, by way of the produce being cooked in plain sight and the chefs at work; sensory experiences that you just can’t add to a closed dining room.

It’s also why we structured the menu the way we did. Supernormal needed a sort of canteen/diner feel, with small dishes you’d come back for if you only had a short time to eat, but with enough on the menu for you to make a night of it if you wanted. It’s why we have cheap, quick lunch specials like tonkatsu sandwiches and ramen, so city workers can get a quick fix. It’s why we serve things in half sizes so people can try more flavours.

The menu is shorter than originally planned, because a more compact menu where you can nail all the dishes is a better proposition than one that takes a ‘something for everybody’ approach and everything ends up just OK. And while the flavours are certainly Asian, the menu structure is more Western, but instead of saying ‘charcuterie’ we say ‘dumplings’ and instead of saying ‘appetisers’ we say ‘raw’. It helps in organising the dishes into a meal where the elements complement each other.

No straight path led from Point A (idea) to Point B (opening the doors of your new restaurant) at Supernormal. Error and delay were as integral to its final form as planning and concept. The food is based in Asia but it is also about something very personal that’s evolved over time. It’s been inspired by any number of sources. And when you put those all together, it’s Supernormal.

Andrew McConnell

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