Nicolas Poelaert, The Age Good Food Guide “Young Chef of the Year 2010” and head chef at one hat restaurant Embrasse, will be featured as a Taste Pop-Up Restaurant at this year’s Taste of Melbourne festival. He took some time out from his busy day to chat to me about topics such as his food philosophy at Embrasee, eating horse meat, his thoughts on Masterchef and his usage of Twitter.
Nic (as he prefers to be called) Poelaert was born in the small town of Cappellebrouck in France. From the young age of 14, he was convinced that his future was in cooking. “I’ve always been around food. Food is really special around our home”. His mum was an excellent cook and he was always surrounded by great food. His family loved their vegetables, with his dad, brother and grandparents all owning vegetable gardens. They supplemented whatever they didn’t grow by going to markets a couple of times a week.
Despite being a head chef of his own restaurant, Nic still makes time to visit the markets personally each week. He also insists that his sous chefs go to market each week to see the produce, meet the people, know prices and get ideas. Nic’s love of markets is very strong. “I went back (to France) for 10 days and I missed two markets. And I couldn’t wait to get back to go to the market. I seriously miss the market.” His market of choice? All of them, from the Queen Vic, to Prahran to local farmers markets.
Nic’s food reflects his love of fresh produce from the market. His philosophy on food is “about the freshness, seasonality, the purity, the simplicity”. A customer commented that his food was “remarkable, imaginative, sensible and personable”, with the essence of the food being “pure”. This was exactly what he has tried to produce at his restaurant Embrasse, which has always been his and wife Tara’s objective.
From an outsider’s point of view, it may seem that Nic Poelaert’s bid to open a top restaurant has gone very smoothly and without too much hard work. This couldn’t be further from the truth. He has done the hard yards with experience in France, Scotland, London and finally Australia. It was by chance that a Scottish friend of his suggested that they travel to Australia to pursue their food dreams. While the friend has returned to Scotland, Nic met and fell in love with his now wife, Tara while working in Australia. Tara has stood behind Nic and supported him the whole way, even when Nic’s three year wait to work with Michel Bras resulted in them having to postpone their wedding two times.
Working with Michel Bras has been teh biggest influence in Nic's career. Michel’s amazing skills has inspired Nic, but he doesn’t try to copy Michel. For instance, Michel’s extraordinary dish of vegetables with over 50 ingredients has been given Nic’s own treatment in the form of his Meli Melo, a dish of mixed vegetables which he calls a “Souvenir from the Suquet”. The Suquet is the hill on which Michel’s Michelin restaurant Laguiole sits atop.
Melbourne diners seem to have taken a liking to Nic’s food very quickly. His restaurant Embrasse was only opened for six months before gaining one chef’s hat in The Age Good Food Guide. While he is happy to receive the accolades, he doesn’t need them. For him, “what we want is just a restaurant with customers, have people leaving and coming back, and having a happy staff. That’s what we want.” It’s seems like an great goal, but Nic does acknowledge that Melbourne is a very advanced dining culture, always expecting new things and with a lot of available choice. So despite being “drugged” to join Twitter (Matt Wilkinson convinced him after drinking a whole bottle of gin with him), Nic has found that it has enabled him to get input from the general dining public. For example, he’s currently getting feedback on Twitter about his smoke bread, with experiments ranging from smoking the flour for 3, 6 or 12 hours to smoking the water. Some people have indicated that they would try this bread. I would too.
Another social media that Nic sometimes follows is food blogs. He does read them, and even likes this humble blog. Although most bloggers are honest and know what they’re talking about, it’s not always fair. “I might be a qualified chef but I might not be as qualified as somebody else (about food writing). I’m learning everday and that’s what life is about, being curious. You have to be honest. I’m honest about the food. I’m honest with my staff. Some bloggers are unfair. A lady put a review on her Internet (site). She was expecting traditional French (although Embrasse state on their menu that they do not do traditional French food), so why go through every dish and say you’re upset with every dish. Sometimes I do get upset, but it’s about learning.” I think this attitude that Nic has adopted about learning more about what customers want will keep him in good stead. You can’t please everyone as we both agreed. But I think Nic, and Embrasse, have pleased a lot of people with their take on French food.
With Nic’s restaurant being his main focus, it has meant that he has declined quite a few commercial offers. He said that for him, the opportunity has to match with what he wants to achieve with Embrasse and also be a challenge. Obviously, I had to ask his thoughts about the juggernaut that is Masterchef. He indicated that Masterchef offered a lot of opportunities, but the best aspect is that it shows the general public how hard it can be to work in a restaurant kitchen. People can understand more about the process, so can hopefully be more tolerant of small issues that arise in a restaurant. Of the contestants and their future, unlike Neil Perry who backflipped on his comments, Nic made it quite clear that “it’s a lot easy (sic) to become a star than to become a successful chef.” He stressed that this isn’t meant in a bad way, but that the reality is, to obtain the skills needed to be successful in a kitchen takes many years and hard work. His current apprentice James, is probably the best apprentice in Melbourne Nic thinks. James works hard doing prep work while also learning from Nic, who is a calm chef in the kitchen, rarely shouting but instead giving clear, strong commands.
With a new four month old baby, super cute chubby Luis to look after, Nic’s life in Melbourne is both happy but extremely busy. So when Taste of Melbourne initially invited him to participate, he declined as he didn’t want to put extra pressure on his small business. When Taste of Melbourne re-approached him with the idea of Pop-Up appearances (Embrasse will appear on Sunday 29th August only), he said yes straight away. For him, Taste of Melbourne is a great way for a small business to let “foodies” around Melbourne know of him and his restaurant. I asked if the controversial horse meat would be on the menu? Despite Nic wanting it to be, he said the threats to himself and his family meant that it won’t be on the menu. He couldn’t understand the controversy as horse meat is part of his culture and tradition, having grown up eating it. But as his newly hired front of house manager Camm Whiteoake (formerly of Attica) analogised, “for some people, it’s like eating a dolphin.” Both Nic and myself can understand how some people can think that, but opposingly, it is just another animal, and the reality is that we eat animals. Australians used to protest against eating kangaroo, but now it is served everywhere. One day, I’m sure we will be eating horse meat in Australia, not because we can, but because it tastes good. That’s what Nic told me anyway. That horse meat is like beef, but so much sweeter. He went on to describe the three course tasting event that he held in his restaurant in detail. I won’t provide the menu as it won’t be served as far as he knows, but it definitely sounded delicious.
Some quick questions and answers with Nic got some light hearted insight into his preference. He prefers lamb (over beef), savoury (over sweet), a Rose (instead of red or white), either lunch or dinner (depending on the company), coffee (right at that moment over tea), still (over sparkling), strawberry (over chocolate), Hungry Jacks (over McDonalds or KFC), macaron (with one O in French but two is allowed in English), comedy (over drama), book (over DVD) and finally, Australia over France.
You can get to know more about Nic and taste his food at Taste of Melbourne. Nic’s food will surely please you with its honesty, freshness and contrast of flavours. It was a pleasure to meet such an intelligent, humble, honest and passionate chef in Nic Poelaert. I hope to catch up with him again at Taste of Melbourne and try out his amazing dishes, or alternatively, dine at his much talked about restaurant Embrasse. See you all at Taste of Melbourne.
Dishes that Nic will be presenting at Taste of Melbourne
1. John Dory cooked in squid ink, burnt carrot puree, heirloom vegetables
2.Pork belly confit (14 hrs), rolled in flour egg hay breadcrumbs mixture, pea and woods sorrel, fromage frais, purple potato.
3. Chocolate Mushrooms, forest floor, sorrel mint granita, meringue
Thanks to Lizzy Ee of Hot House Media for helping to arrange the interview.