“Food is not art. It’s dinner,” says Andrew McConnell. But looking at what he sends out of the kitchen at Cumulus, it’s hard to believe he really means it.
With nine venues and counting, in Melbourne it can feel as if you’re never more than a couple of Ks away from a McConnell. For any other chef, it’d be overkill. But almost counter-intuitively, each new McConnell venue seems more distinct, more refined.
With each addition to his suite of bars, butchers, bistros, fine-diners and cafes, the chef not only sets a standard, but raises it. By running so many restaurants, McConnell has given himself multiple creative guises to express himself through. He’s also forged a system of staff and suppliers that works to reinforce quality.
We often like to think The Age of McConnell began with Cumulus (opened in 2008), but he’s been racking up accolades since 2002. His first restaurant was Fitzroy’s two-hat Diningroom 211, followed closely by Mrs Jones, which turned into Three, One, Two in Carlton. McConnell has also had stints in London and Europe, with a five-year stretch heading up kitchens in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
His current collection – all-day diner Cumulus and its sister-bar Cumulus Up; fine-dining venue Cutler and Co and adjoining wine bar Marion; The Builders Arms pub and its outstanding dining room, Moon Under Water; his pan-Asian kitchen Supernormal and Francophilic bistro Luxembourg; and his temple to all things carnivorous, Meatsmith – are praised even more lavishly. “Six or seven years ago, if you said I’d have 350 staff and this many businesses, I wouldn’t have believed you,” he says, from the corner table at Cumulus.
So what is it about McConnell’s cooking (not to mention his sense of service and style) that inspires our devotion?
The first, and arguably most important, thing we love about dining at McConnell’s restaurants is the produce. Chefs talk up the quality of their beef sides, the freshness of their wombok, the ethical standards of their line-caught gurnard so regularly, it’s become a certified cliche. But McConnell’s suppliers really are that good. And by consistently expanding his business, he’s been able to call shotgun on the best of everything. Unlike many restaurant groups, getting bigger has actually seen quality improve.
Given the chef’s cooking style, in which he emphasises direct flavours composed with a minimalist mindset, the quality of these raw ingredients really matter. “If you buy incredible produce, handle it with utmost care from the second it arrives, cook it with as much professionalism as you can, it should look inherently good anyway,” he explains. “We don’t employ smoke and mirrors to make something look good.”
McConnell has a responsiveness in his cooking that gives us the sense it can’t be learned. He’s restrained enough to know when to leave a dish alone – a sensitivity that allows Supernormal to be a loving tribute to Japano-Sino-Korean cuisine without dipping into pastiche (or the dreaded “fusion”). It’s an insight that allows him to pair prosciutto di Parma with green tomato, or match sardines, green almond and cucumber (as he does so successfully at Cumulus Inc.) then walk away.
That sensitivity to food isn’t just McConnell’s; it’s an institutional element of his kitchens, a skill he’s nurtured in a generation of young chefs, kitchenhands and dishpigs. Career development and training is an indispensable cog in the McConnell machine, and one we appreciate. Initiatives such as his Monday Kitchen Sessions bring in cheesemakers, wine-makers, farmers and renowned chefs to grow the knowledge base within his organisation. “We’re here for the long term, and we think it’s an investment,” he says.
This is a seed that has matured, as the business has grown, with that investment in human capital paying off further down the track. The growth in the restaurants’ skill base has allowed the chef to step back and do what, ultimately, he does best. “Every single day, I struggle with letting go,” he admits. “But it comes with working with people for a long time, and we’re on the same page with standards and aesthetics. I feel very comfortable collaborating on dishes with the head chefs I work with.”
That collaboration is another crucial element of McConnell’s success. Though a restaurant’s DNA is undoubtedly McConnell’s, talented chefs such as Moon Under Water’s Josh Murphy are given equal billing. It’s a form of humility that allows for outside influence, which helps a kitchen keep innovating.
This sense of guided autonomy is also given to floor staff, which knows exactly what it’s serving and why, which wines are most delicious (and which are their personal favourites), and how to be friendly without being overbearing.
It’s an approach that’s led to service of such consistent quality we think it has to be the Australian benchmark. “It’s really about working with one person on their style of service,” says McConnell. “If you’ve got a business that’s run well, and it’s structured well, people can come to work and know their place, so they can focus on their job. In some ways, it’s not really rocket science, but in the same breath it took us a long time to learn how to do it, and to create an environment where people can enjoy their work.”
Our favourite aspect of McConnell’s enduring success is the chef’s artistic flair. By his own admission, if it weren’t for his apprenticeship, he would have been in art school. He retains an admiration for art today. “I think my passion is art, modern art, particularly,” he says. “Form and design are really important.”
The attention to form and design are obvious in the relaxed sophistication of Cumulus’ fit-out, or the cheeky Shibuya-stylings of Supernormal. And, they’re also obvious on the plate. Take the modernist construction of his ox tongue, crisp pig’s ear, pickled chilli and fried garlic dish, which we’re unlikely to ever forget.
But, despite his appreciation for high-culture, McConnell’s under no illusions about what he’s doing in the kitchen. “Food is not art. It’s dinner,” he tells me. “We work with our hands, using certain tools, for people’s enjoyment. It’s not high art. We’re bringing pleasure to people that they can consume.”
Maybe so. But we think McConnell has the experience of dining down to a fine art.
This article is presented in partnership with Stella Artois.