With a flourish, Kenny McHardy presents three trays of vegetables from his pantry. “Look at them,” he urges. Baby Lebanese cucumbers, still dusted with the flowers from their original vine. Bite-sized peppers, taut and jewel-like. Heirloom tomatoes, a glossy jumble of red and deep purple, orange and graduated green. “You have to try some,” he insists. I do, and can practically taste the sun.
We’re at Manuka Woodfire Kitchen, McHardy’s six-month-old eatery in Fremantle. There are no fryers or griddles in his kitchen, no stovetops or conventional ovens. Just a good-old-fashioned wood-fired kiln. So the produce matters.
“Working with Marcus taught me about pride in produce.” says McHardy. He's referring to Marcus Wareing, the chef he worked under at Pétrus, Gordon Ramsay’s two-Michelin-star restaurant in London. “It was the first time I really saw a chef buying produce directly from the farmer, going right there and making that connection.” Sometimes, he says, they’d have orders from 80 different farmers coming in each week. “It was ridiculous,” he says, with admiration.
During his five-month stint at Pétrus, the New Zealander received a scrupulous education, along with a few heart palpitations, courtesy of Ramsay. “It was the initial fear of, ‘Am I going to die today?’” McHardy says, laughing. “He’s a perfectionist. But I honestly learnt more in my time there than I did anywhere else in the world.”
Soon after, McHardy was headhunted by Albany businessman Paul Lionetti for the ambitious project Due South, a 470-seat restaurant four-and-a-half hours drive from Perth. Population: 35,000. To put the change in perspective, “You’d need every single person in Albany to come twice a year to sustain it,” he says.
So he started marketing it in the best, and only, way he knew how – by supporting the locals and going straight to the farmers. “It was literally going into the paddock and choosing your cow. Even in terms of specialty produce, like llama.” Llama? “It’s a beautiful product, it’s like a cross between venison and lamb, really dark and fatty. We did it once – but they’re way too cute to cook with.”
Each day, three fishermen would leave buckets of fish, still briny from the ocean, on his doorstep. The restaurant had its own butcher, who prepared slabs of meat in the kitchen. Even the flour was milled in-house by McHardy. But for all this, he missed the personal service of smaller restaurants and decided to move on.
At first blush, it seems Manuka is a step down from McHardy’s glittering previous appointments. It is in size, certainly. The cosy pizza place seats just 50 people and staff is scant. It didn’t open with a bang, either. “We opened the doors broke. We had no money left,” he says. “We had to come up with the menu with only eight hours for prepping and planning. Luckily, only about four people came through the door.”
But don’t be fooled. For McHardy's vision, the slow growth is both deliberate and essential.
“Take Andy, our supervisor,” he explains. “He’s only young, but he’s so enthusiastic. He’ll come up and pick a whole tray of heirloom tomatoes off my bench and bring it to the customer and explain where they’re from. For us, that’s the beauty of having a small establishment. It was important to design a place where you don’t just feel like a number.”
The kitchen is closed, but as if on cue, a customer peers in the window, raps and opens it up, shouting a greeting. “I didn’t recognise you without your beanie, mate,” McHardy calls. “I’ll see you soon.”
He hands me the day’s menu. The brown-paper list is satisfyingly simple, all charred vegetables and smoky meats, bubbling cheese and roasted nuts. It’s half small plates and half simple-but-inspired pizzas, though it turns out the pizza focus was something of an accident. Manuka started with share plates only, but repeated requests for pizza brought it to the menu. Refreshingly, the prices are fair – even on the low side. Pizzas start at $17.
“Because I work extra hours I can afford to have items on our menu that are cheaper, which makes it more sustainable for people to come back,” McHardy says. For the record, he rises at 5.30am with his one- and four-year-old daughters, and tucks in at 1am. “You’ve got to sincerely believe in what you do, because it is challenging,” he says, with some understatement.
Lucky he does. With the liberty of being the only one in the kitchen, he changes the menu every single day, depending on the produce. Every menu revolves around that wood-fired oven, with ingredients such as chicken, chorizo and corn going straight on the coals. It’s the imprecise science that has him hooked.
“You will get burnt!” he says. “But the fun part is it’s inconsistent. Nowadays, cooking’s all about doing everything to the last degree. If you’re cooking a 55-degree beef fillet overnight, it’s pretty easy to make it perfect. But in an oven that’s inconsistent, there’s a wave of heat.” He gestures in a whooshing circular motion. “The heat actually rotates, it creates a vortex. There’s indirect and direct heat, and direct heat is what will make the product blister.”
He turns back to the vegetables, his eyes gleaming. He picks up the small peppers. “I chuck these in the wood fire with a fior di latte, a soft bocconcino. They get roasted and it just bubbles up, it’s beautiful. There’s no point me trying to cover it and smear it and roast it and blend it,” he says. “I want people to taste something that is what it is in the first place.”
Manuka Woodfire Kitchen
134 High Street, Fremantle
(08) 9335 3527
Mon to Thu 5pm–10pm
Fri to Sun 12pm–3.30pm, 5pm–10pm