Donovan Cooke doesn’t have a TV show. He hasn’t posted on social media for 18 months. And for the past seven years he’s been working in the background at The Atlantic, a high-volume restaurant at the casino.
But to a certain kind of diner – the kind who was into food before it was cool, perhaps – he’s the chef. From 1997 to 2004, he and then-wife Phillippa Sibley opened and ran Est Est Est, Luxe and Ondine, the Cutler and Co., St Crispin and ESPs of their day. Which is to say: sexy, refined and at the top of their game.
At other stages in his 35-year career, the Englishman ran kitchens at The Waterside Inn, The Savoy Hotel, Harvey’s and Restaurant Marco Pierre-White, all in London. Six years were devoted to the Derby Restaurant at The Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club, where Cooke met best friend and current business partner Alex Law, who followed him to The Atlantic.
Now the two chefs are sharing the kitchen at Ryne, their new restaurant in Fitzroy North. “We’ve been together for 15 years,” Cooke says. “We’re like husband and wife.” Vicente Montalban, the third partner, is another long-time friend.
The restaurant lives in a big pitched-roof warehouse with timber rafters. Cooke chose nearly everything in the sparse dining room, including the tables built from 100-year-old recycled hardwood, the custom-made Robert Gordon crockery, the heavy French cutlery and the industrial-style lights from England. The bar was constructed from five-metre, 150-kilogram beams reclaimed from old railway bridges in New South Wales.
The 60 blue-leather seats are spaced widely apart – “So you’re not having a conversation with the bloke next to you, or the woman next to you.” Partly, this reflects Cooke’s penchant for traditional dining. But it also ensures there’s room for Ryne to grow. In the end, Est Est Est proved too small. And though it was well loved, Ondine’s special, once-a-year atmosphere couldn’t bring in enough diners to sustain it.
In comparison, Ryne is pitched as a casual neighbourhood bistro – the kind of place you can visit once or twice a month. It’s named after an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning “a course continuously moving onwards”, which seems portentous when you consider that Cooke wants his son, Peter, to join him in the kitchen eventually.
Cooke Jr would be up to it – he’s currently sous chef at The Woolshed and worked at The Atlantic, The European, Vue de Monde and Dinner By Heston before that. His sister, Krystelle (ex-Vue de Monde, Longrain) is Ryne’s sommelier. “I want to build a team that is as enthusiastic out the front as it is out the back,” Cooke says. Maybe so, but it also sounds a lot like the 49-year-old is doing some succession planning.
Ryne also aptly reflects the compact, no-share-plate menu (“Every two weeks I want to change at least four dishes”) and Cooke’s career to date. He cooked through the transition from French haute cuisine to the casual, New Nordic style ushered in by Noma and its peers, plus the advent of induction cooktops, sous-vide machines and other gadgets that have made cooking faster, safer, more inventive and consistent.
Other progress has been subtler. Take the confit king ora salmon with blood orange, asparagus and artichoke essence, from Ryne’s initial a la carte menu. Cooke has been making the dish almost since the beginning of his career. Back then it was cooked at 80 degrees. At Est it changed to 65 degrees when a chef bungled the recipe mid-service and it ended up with a nicer texture. The same thing happened years later, lowering the temperature to 50 degrees, where it is today.
“People still talk about the restaurant I closed 14 years ago. So obviously the combination, the formula, what we were offering was right. … Now what I can do is use 35 years of knowledge and try and refine what I did there,” he says.
He brings up a marron special, which will appear at Ryne occasionally. “It’s exactly the same dish I did at Est. It just looks different on the plate.” Ditto for the chicken-liver parfait, which was a solid slab at Est but gets aerated with a cream gun at Ryne.
Diehard fans who want their old favourites from 14 years ago just have to request them a couple of days in advance. Cooke has already made pig’s trotters for a couple of his old regulars.
But when it comes to his newer dishes, small updates don’t disguise Cooke’s classic roots. A savarin dessert takes a ring of brioche-enriched dough left to stale for a day or so. Just before service, it’s soaked in whisky syrup, grapefruit juice and spices, then injected with grapefruit curd. It’s finished with a side of basil, white-chocolate ice-cream and confit grapefruit. It takes a couple of days to make and embodies what Ryne is all about.
“Coles can get most things, like eye fillet, Scotch fillet, rump,” the chef says. “I want to steer away from that sort of stuff, [and serve] stuff you can’t make at home. Can you be arsed to shell the marron, brine the marron, slow-cook the marron, use peas to make a panna cotta? A load of shit like that. You don’t ‘wanna do it. You don’t have time.”
203 St Georges Road, Fitzroy North
(03) 9482 3002
Tue to Sat 6pm–late
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