When Dan Pepperell first came into the 10 William Street fold, co-owner Gio Paradiso told him, “I want Italian food”. That’s not exactly what Paradiso got, though. The menu may have said “ragu”, but the intense richness of what came out of the kitchen wasn’t conjured from only Italian ingredients. The dish included fish sauce and soy sauce. We think that’s genius.
“It's an interpretation of Italian food,” Pepperell says in a way that makes him seem almost dubious of his own claim. “It's … I don't know, it’s just whatever.” Pepperell is not one for elaborate descriptions, and he doesn’t need to be. That’s how Pepperell thinks and that’s how he cooks. He isn’t fond of following rules, traditions or trends. His doctrine is taste.
That’s why his stint at 10 William Street produced some of the most interesting, yet accessible, menus we’ve seen in Sydney. We loved that next to the ragu, caprese, tiramisu and carpaccio there was cured bonito with finger lime, or sardine katsu sandos, pretzels with blended fishroe and konbu tacos with sea urchin. It wasn’t entirely Italian, but it wasn’t un-Italian either. Even the wilder renditions were still somewhat Italian in approach: with rarely more than three core ingredients and clean, simple flavours. “You don't need all this shit going on,” Pepperell says. “That's how I like to eat food.” Same with us.
His new restaurant is Hubert, a throwback to many things, but particularly 1920s hospitality and the kind of food that was popular in Sydney 20 years ago. It’s much the same in philosophy as 10 William Street, but far bigger in scale. And instead of toying with Italian cuisine, it’s French food that gets the Pepperell treatment. He calls it “Gerry-French”; a reference to geriatric food – something a bit outdated and off-trend. “It's kind of retro, but it's not. It looks French on the plate, it tastes French but we're using modern techniques and non-traditional French ways of cooking things.”
Considering his reputation for irreverent, playful food, we’re surprised to hear his fondness for, and reliance on, Le Répertoire de la Cuisine, a famous 1914 cookbook that’s widely seen as a standard-bearer for classic French recipes. The book shows him how to prepare and plate an old-school chicken fricassee, steak poivre, tuna 50 different ways and whatever sauce, stock or garnish he needs to accompany it. From there, though, Pepperell draws on his own history, which is what we think makes his dishes so one-of-a-kind.
Before joining the 10 William Street team, Pepperell worked at a range of kitchens that reads like a guest list for a food-industry awards ceremony – Tetsuya’s, Marque, Attica and Momofuku’s Ssäm Bar. He takes all the things he’s learnt and puts it into a chicken fricassee. A fricassee is any dish of cut-up meat that is first sautéed and then braised in stock or cream. Instead of braising, Pepperell does a “Chinese-style” chicken. He fries it, steams it and brushes it with a sugar-maltose glaze and then deep-fries the whole thing. When we ask why, the answer is “because it's an awesome way to cook chicken.” Agreed.
We’d wager that he could have followed his mentors and started his own fine dining restaurant, eventually reaching for all the same awards and international acclaim, but that’s not his style. Thankfully, he’s from Sydney’s new-school. It uses the nous and skill from fine dining, while rejecting its formality and price. “You can still treat a carrot, consommé or sauce exactly the same way as you would in one of those fine-dining restaurants,” he says. “The standard of prep is just as high, but you can serve it in a completely different atmosphere.” He wants food to be casual and approachable and we couldn’t agree more.
“That's what I've always tried to do,” he says. “We try to be interesting, but we still want everyone to get it. It's still familiar.” It’s just like his menus: ragu next to urchin tacos at 10 William Street. Chicken fricassee, pepper steak and crème brulee next to eggs in dashi jelly, melon en surprise and sweet-blood cake at Hubert. If you get it, you get it, and it’s a memorable experience each time.