When Paul Carmichael arrived at Sydney’s Momofuku Seiobo – Korean-American restaurateur and celebrity chef David Chang’s first (and still only) venue outside of North America – in 2015, the restaurant was difficult to categorise. It was notable for its anything-goes vibe, and that applied to the cuisine as well. It blended Asian, Australian and North American flavours, and served roast pork after dessert.
That willingness to play with convention and break rules suited Carmichael, who first worked with Chang at Momofuku’s now-closed New York diner Má Pêche.
Carmichael took over from Seiobo’s executive chef Ben Greeno, and it wasn’t long before he introduced dishes that tapped into his Barbadian heritage. Still, it was a surprise when one of the country’s most celebrated restaurants began devoting its entire menu to Caribbean cuisine.
For many it was their first substantive taste of Caribbean food, and it arrived at a time when diners were increasingly ready to challenge the narrow Eurocentric lens through which fine dining has historically been viewed.
“I truly think that one of the most important things we did was put a different cuisine on the map,” the restaurant’s general manager, Kylie Javier Ashton, tells Broadsheet.
Carmichael’s food favours bold flavours, and he isn’t afraid to tap into the stories behind the dishes he grew up with. He’s also introduced many he didn’t discover until later in life, and perhaps one of his greatest skills is being able to incorporate so many influences from his home region.
Every Caribbean island has a distinct food culture – each one shaped by First Nations people, colonisers, slaves and indentured servants brought from around the world. It’s why ingredients such as curry powder and Spanish-style salted cod were essential ingredients in the home kitchen where Carmichael learned to cook, while other dishes from the region bear unmistakable echoes of French, Chinese and West African cooking.
A prime example of the latter is Puerto Rican mofongo which, at Seiobo, is served in a giant mortar, and diners are invited to grind the ingredients together. Less interactive (but more confronting) is the marron, which is famously presented live before reappearing later, grilled and slathered in piquant sofrito.
Carmichael says his priority is giving everyone who walks through the door a memorable experience. “There are plenty of places I’ve gone that I've liked but don't remember because there’s limited capacity for memory. So if we can do something that occupies one of those little slots I’ve achieved that goal,” he tells Broadsheet.
As the restaurant of almost 10 years counts down to its final service on June 26, the softly spoken chef insists he’s far too busy to think about his legacy. He does, though, hope he’s helped to make Caribbean food more accessible to Aussie diners. “It was a really important thing for me to showcase my region in a different light rather than it just being a place to go and drink rum and party on your holiday.”
Before Covid struck, Carmichael had planned to travel to every country in his home region so he could immerse himself in the many food cultures. Instead he found himself navigating Sydney’s lockdown and subsequent restrictions. And while Seiobo reopened with a smaller capacity, the announcement of its closure in March came as a shock (the restaurant said it had decided not to renew its lease at The Star).
“It’s bittersweet for sure,” Javier Ashton said at the time. “It’s sad, but I feel really good about the decision we made and to be able to end something like that on a high note is really nice. It sounds crazy but we never followed any rules at Seiobo, we’ve always been the masters of our own destiny, so it only felt right that we finished what we started on our own terms.”
As for what’s next for Carmichael, he isn’t giving much away. “I’d like to stay in Australia, but I really have no idea,” he says, laughing.
That said, he does want to be responsible for making at least one dish – or even a snack – so common that it transcends its origins. “I don’t expect Caribbean food to become a major part of Australian cuisine, but I’d love it if there was just one item that you could find everywhere, something simple like a croissant.”
There are plenty of others hoping he’ll stay in Australia, too. For Simon Bryant, who has invited the Bajan chef to cook at South Australia’s Tasting Australia multiple times, Carmichael’s influence transcends the food he’s serving.
“Paul could put something amazing together out of vacuum-cleaner bags because he executes at such a high level, but he’s just so cool and laid back ... It’s really good for my younger chefs to see positive role models like him, people running empires under incredible stress who are not puppetmasters. He still cooks in a beautiful calm way and is really happy to mentor and share information.”
Carmichael takes undisguised joy in cooking, so it’s no surprise he wants to foster an environment where others can do the same. And as part of the leadership team alongside the restaurant’s general manager Javier Ashton (who has a Filipino background), he is a highly visible counterpoint to the overwhelmingly white male chefs at Australia’s fine-dining institutions.
There are many factors that have combined to make Seiobo special, and they’re unlikely to be replicated any time soon. Even the humble Carmichael is aware of just how exceptional the venue is.
“This restaurant is really unique, and not just to Australia but globally,” he says. “There’s nothing like this place so when it dies, it’s gone.”