Chef Luke Mangan has transformed his Sydney restaurant headquarters, offering a unique inner-urban neighbourhood bistro that plates up spice-trade influences and modern Australian fare. Essentials’ Jamie Durrant spoke to Luke about the new business and the goings on inside his Sydney warehouse.
The menu at Luke’s Kitchen includes a subtle layering of local and central Asian tastes like curry-spiced banana chips, preserved lemons, nam jim sauce plus coconut yoghurt, ice-cream and broths. It feels like a journey back in time – a celebration of the exotic spices that drew European adventurers across the oceans to India and South East Asia. One example is the Moreton Bay Golden Spiced Bugs with coconut broth and lime caviar. Seared in Luke’s Sydney Spice – a product that’s produced in-house for retail – the dish is Luke’s take on a laksa without the heat.
‘It’s a spice we mix and blend that contains kaffir lime, turmeric, cumin, coriander seeds – a very nice rich golden spice, it’s subtle yet fragrant. We coat the bugs with the spice, lightly pan-roast them and serve with a coconut broth. This provides a nice delicate accompaniment to the sweet and delicate bug meat.’
While there are wonderful new flavours on the menu and the food is centred around produce that’s in season and of top quality at peak freshness, he’s quick to point out that the delivery is not overplayed.
‘It’s food we all know: back to basics, good ingredients cooked well. No foams, no gels, no nothing – it’s comfort food – a neighbourhood bistro,’ Luke explains. ‘When we create a new menu we meet all our suppliers and discuss what’s good and around at the time. For example, West Australian Marron Tail is a simple dish that uses peaches that are in season and beautiful flat Roman beans. These are seasoned with sea salt, drizzled with olive oil and barbecued until they’re a little charred. Then the dish is finished with some red wine butter which is rather nice.’
Other tantalising dishes on the menu like Hawkesbury Grilled Squid with chorizo, peas, XO (sauce) broth and saffron rouille and Roasted Inglewood Organic Chicken with cauliflower purée, asparagus and preserved lemon clearly outline Luke’s intentions: uncomplicated food, well cooked and flavoursome. Accordingly, the cost of dining here is comparatively affordable for a capital city. It marks a change in business operations to diversify income streams.
While the Luke Mangan empire now comprises a string of restaurants across Australia, Japan and Singapore as well as aboard P&O’s cruise ships, it’s the business model on home turf that has been carefully refined as a strategy to ensure the operation has a more stable footing.
‘Obviously produce and rents aren’t cheap, but we’re pretty lucky. We’re in our 13th year at Glass (Brasserie) at The Hilton, and thankfully things are moving well there. What we’re trying to do with Luke’s Kitchen is create that neighbourhood experience and be price sensitive. We’re in a big old warehouse space that I’ve been able to break down into different divisions for our company, therefore we’re not heavily dependent on certain (single) types of income. We have our head office here, our product division (producing oils and spices), a test kitchen where we test all of our Virgin Australia Business Class dishes, plus an events space that’s used for the Appetite for Excellence awards programs. We’ve got so many things under one roof.’
While some might think Luke has had a smooth ride, he acknowledges that he has learned a lot along the way. Six years ago he was paying rent for an office in the city, a warehouse at Homebush plus a third space used as a test kitchen. ‘The rents were just crazy and we just weren’t getting anywhere,’ he says. ‘I knew we just needed one big space that we put everything into – and it’s really paid off in the last 6 years by the overheads we’ve cut.’
Luke trained under French-born British chef Michel Roux, and recalls learning much more at the time than just the foundations of cooking. Roux, he says, ‘was also a very smart business man that had other streams of income, from cookbooks to TV and retail products. These days it’s very hard for chefs to have only one restaurant, and chefs need to have different sources of income.’
Graduates of Michel Roux’s kitchen at London’s Le Gavroche include celebrity chefs Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White, Marcus Wareing and many more. In 1982 Michel’s restaurant was the first in Britain to be awarded three Michelin stars.
It was hard work, Luke says, with extremely long hours. ‘You’d start at 7 in the morning and finish at midnight and you’d do that 5-6 days a week; but it was something I loved doing – I learned so much. In every career you need a foundation, whether it’s journalism or cooking and I think you’ve got to learn the foundation. With Michel I learned good solid French cooking.’
Luke’s restaurants – including the Salt Restaurant, Grill and Sky Bar in the ION Orchard Building in Singapore and Salt Grills in Tokyo and Ginza, Japan – each seat between 80 and 120 people. Though moderate in size, they’re often full for lunch and dinner all week, requiring a consistent supply of premium ingredients. While Luke says it is now possible to source just about any produce you can dream of, the menu is not overly complicated.
‘While we rely on great fresh produce, there’s not 25 steps to one dish. In terms of produce availability we have great suppliers we’ve worked with for years, so we’re able to change the menu when we see fit, taking leads from our producers. The menu is extremely flexible, designed to accommodate such changes.’
How does he manage to achieve consistent quality of such a high standard, including his award-winning Business Class menus for Virgin Australia?
‘At the warehouse here we have a couple of airline ovens. We test all of our food on the ground, and the menu gets approved here (by the airline). But you lose about 30 per cent of your taste buds in the air, so when we cook for the airline we use more fragrant (but not hot) spices. Salad dressings might be weighted with more lemon juice or vinegar, adding a touch more acid. That’s how we work it.
‘It’s been a great partnership with Virgin Australia, and we won best Business Class in the world last year; that’s pretty cool. The airline are very supportive of budgets, in fact we don’t even talk budgets, we just produce the food – and thankfully it works. We’re very lucky: when John Borghetti [the CEO of Virgin Australia] approached me for the job he gave me complete freedom and he’s never changed that.’
Luke’s Kitchen is open Wednesday to Friday from 4pm to late, Saturday 10am to late and Sunday from 10am to 4pm. Walk-ins and reservations welcome, with bar seating also available. Luke’s Kitchen is available for function bookings.
8 Danks Street, Waterloo, NSW