We interrupt this illness induced radio silence to bring you a beautiful interview I did a few weeks ago. Regular broadcasts will return on schedule now!
I’d make a terrible food blogger. Don’t get me wrong, I love my food to an almost gluttonous degree (overeating as a child to the point that I could not physically move happened more than I care to acknowledge), but I’m too much in the mindset to visually appreciate with my eyes, smell with my nose, and then enthusiastically consume thereafter than take a photo. I don’t document food, I devour it.
Such was the case when I finally hauled my backside to Small Fry, located on Bathurst Street. Small Fry quietly busted onto the Hobart scene in mid 2014; an unassuming but conveniently placed space for drinks, coffee, sweet nibbles, or lunch. There are only 3 staff on hand at a time – a chef, a barista, and a front of house. The kitchen is entirely exposed, and you eat at the very bench that the chef is preparing your meal, the only obstruction to the view of him constructing your food being tableware supplies, condiment jars, bowls of raw ingredients, baked offerings of the day. Savvy and hip friends have described the place as having a very Melbourne vibe – I describe the experience as being intimate, almost familial in that you are able to see the progress of your meal, much like you might hover around your mum in the kitchen when you are famished and parrot “when’s dinner ready?”
Launceston born and bred Rhys Hannan is one of the two chefs in kitchen, and makes up one of the 6 total staff who operate Small Fry. After a 4 year apprenticeship, finishing up in 2006, he promptly “buggered off overseas” working in the US, London, Edinburgh, and informally in France, before returning to Tasmania. After heading the kitchen in Mudbar & Restaurant in Launceston, he went back to uni to study business, only to defer that for a year and a half where he worked for Rodney Dunn at the Agrarian Kitchen in Lachlan. Committed to finishing his degree, he returned to uni and completed it in February 2014, opening Small Fry in June of the same year (ironically being unable to attend the graduation ceremony for his business degree, because he was actually running his business).
I managed to meet up with Rhys at the end of a particularly killer day to talk about the origins of Small Fry, his drive to cook, and discuss the rising gourmet scene in Hobart.
Has cooking always been your forte and interest?
I don’t know that cooking has always been a passion, but the reference point I give is that my parents are both excellent cooks, and the family meal has always been something that is really, really important – eating at a table, as a family. I have an enormous amount of fond memories gathering, not just with family, but friends and extended family too. It’s a bit cliche but I have strong memories of the background noise, people talking, domestic sounds as I was put to bed as a child. That idea, not so much centered around the act of me preparing food for other people, but more about the idea of people eating together and sharing food together, that was the drive. Those memories are really strong and if anything, we wanted to provide a space for people to share food and share time.
I am always influenced by the French (and to a slightly lesser degree, Spanish and Italian), but those nations, their approach to food and their approach to eating, their approach to family and sharing food, sharing meals, and having the kitchen being the centre of the home, those ideas are what influences me the most.
You move very deliberately and with purpose around the kitchen and the way you handle the food. What exactly are you doing and is this a cultivated habit?
I am really technique driven. I suppose it’s a hangover from my apprenticeship insofar as the mentor I trained under was always drilling into us that whatever you are doing, you have to do the best you possibly can. You cannot be merely ok – think about everything you’re doing and why you are doing it.
Actually I developed the “why” attitude. I remember working in London at a Michelin star restaurant with a really big brigade of chefs, huge menus with lots of detail. We were in a space that was pretty much the size of this kitchen setup [at Small Fry], all stainless steel. There was another kitchen behind us, and a pastry kitchen, the whole works. I would cook fish, the person next to me would cook garnish, someone else was working on the sauce. We would put all this food up onto a pass, a chef would plate everything, a bus boy would come and put it on a silver tray, he would bus it out to the restaurant, a waiter would then serve the dish while explaining it to the guest, someone else would pour water.
This one meal would be going through 5, sometimes 6 hands before it got to the customer. Now, in a Michelin environment, fine, you’re doing all these checks and balances, and the meal that is presented is ultimately perfect, but ultimately this meal is going through many, many hands. I thought it was a waste of time, energy, payroll etc, and I thought why this process? We know enough to put all the detail in to the plate, we’ve done this job, it doesn’t need to be going through all these hands.
Is Small Fry therefore your way of making this system the most efficient?
Yes it is the most efficient, but it’s also the most honest. There is no disconnect between the customer, the ingredients, the chef cooking. The customer sitting there either likes what they see or they don’t; whatever they feel, that feeling is immediate to them and they don’t have to wonder about what’s going on behind the door to the kitchen. They don’t have to wonder where their food is coming from. They can see how many hands have handled the dish. If they order tomatoes, they can see me wash them, cut them, season them. The feedback and knowledge is immediate – there is not disconnect, it’s honest. This is something that I think is quite rare. I feel like this is something that a few people in our industry have probably lost touch with. They might think “I’m a chef, I know better, I know what’s going on with the plate and how these processes work, you are just the customer.” That is not in line with what we want to do, which is serve the best possible food that we can in the most simple way. There is no disconnect between the kitchen and the table and that’s a huge chunk of task that doesn’t need to be considered.
How many customers do you think are actually aware of these processes that take place behind the scenes, and what it takes to bring that final plate out to them?
Perhaps some? But I think (and this is reflecting on attitudes from 80 years ago) that kitchens are becoming more open. I reckon the process is still there, with the waiters and the water boys, bread people, bus boys etc, those roles and formal lines of a restaurant and kitchen haven’t disappeared, but I really feel that people are trying to address that disconnect between the kitchen and the guests. Definitely more and more places are starting to incorporate more open kitchens where people can actually observe what is going on.
The flip side of that (and my more cynical take) is that some people just want to talk to the chef. They just want to be able to walk into a restaurant, talk to the chef, have their dining experience, and then be able to say to their friends “I talked to the chef and I got this inside scoop, and this experience”. I’ll admit that that interaction does form some part of a person’s experience. The only reason I have even observed this though, is from working in restaurants for 15 years – there is no way in hell that I would ever approach a busy kitchen and try to interact with someone. You’ll get people who try to engage you, but you just can’t respond. It’s physically impossible – I have a task to achieve and I need to get them done, but I’m happy for you to watch. Of course, that’s when it’s really busy. Obviously I try not to be rude, but when it’s very busy I just have to focus and any type of interruption, whether it’s sincere or complementary, is still very frustrating.
How do you try to balance the experience you had working in a formal kitchen and wanting to get rid of that disconnection between customer and chef, with the knowledge that in this set up, everyone is able to view you working and people will try and engage with you?
It’s definitely something I have to learn to deal with, I can deal with it better than some people. Depending on how busy a day is I will just go through the motions of answering a customer’s questions. But overall I think it’s better to work in this environment because of that honesty factor. You can get away with a lot in a closed kitchen (you would be horrified to hear some of the things that can happen!) I don’t see any reason for us to hide that work though. Small Fry’s kitchen is completely exposed. You could reach across the bench and steal a tomato or some table settings if you wanted to. The kitchen at Franklin, for example, is open but it’s located a good 5m away from any tables and yeah the guys there do get interruptions sometimes, but compared to here they’re quite buffered. I had someone try to steal my roast macadamias one day, and I’m like “man I really need those, don’t steal produce from me!”
Given your previous experience, how has the exposed kitchen affected how you work?
You just have to be clean, organised, hygienic, and polite. That’s the main difference. Many chefs are hygienic and clean perhaps, but not necessarily polite! If you can be those things then there is no difference between us and any other kitchen. Those are the key points. As far as the actual kitchen affecting how we work, it doesn’t. Apart from the actual menu and how the dishes are done, the techniques we use, the handling etc, whatever we produce at Small Fry would not be out of place if you took our dish and put it in the middle of Barcelona, London, Paris etc. I like to think we can still operate at a higher level regardless of our size.
Where do you think this want to get back in touch with our ingredients and style of cooking is coming from (seasonality v exoticism)?
I think this style has come from a few places, not the least from people’s frustration with how bland and terrible some of the ingredients used can be. Side by side, you take a home grown tomato and a supermarket tomato, and you will never eat another supermarket tomato again. To get the best out of that tomato, you skip eating them out of season and only eat them in season from a good producer. The flavour and experience of the food is completely different as a result. Another factor is because of people like Rodney Dunn from the Agrarian Kitchen, and following on from that, the former owners of Garagistes, Luke Burgess, Katrina Birchmeier and Kirk Richards. The influence of these restaurants on the dining scene in Hobart and the recognition they bring throughout Australia and internationally really cannot be understated. Certainly, my drive is heavily influenced from working for Rodney for that year and a half. The other factor is a general realisation from the public that holy crap, we have some of the best produce in the world – the cleanest air, the cleanest water, excellent temperate climate growing conditions. What’s more, everyone has access to these resources because there is pretty much no where in the state that is more than a 3 hour drive. Somewhere along the line, the collective conscious has gone “we need to do more with this”. All I can say is that I’m super lucky to be a part of it.
How do people keep up in this industry? If food is seasonal and you only use what is best during that time, does this mean you have to anticipate well ahead when you menu plan?
I try to keep ahead by doing what I know that I love to cook, or meals that I want to see on menus. When my partner and I were planning this business we were sitting down during one afternoon, fried from thinking and working all day, and she said at some point “I could really go for a cinnamon doughnut, a really fresh, nice tasting cinnamon doughnut. Where can we get one?” But we couldn’t, because no one was doing that. So we thought let’s do just that and fill a gap in the market. We decided to do stuff that we want to see on menus.
The ultimate test is of the plate that you put out – would I be happy if someone served that to me. You have to be able to definitively answer yes every time – yes, it’s seasoned properly, cooked perfectly, has good flavour and texture, is prepared with skill and made with good ingredients. That’s everything. You need to be happy with it at all times. The moment you’re not happy, you’re infuriated and you just hate yourself! Why am I doing this, how have I put out something that is not to my standard? It’s never awful of course, but if it’s not to the standard you set for yourself, then public will set that standard for you by not coming back to your restaurant. Again that’s another way that you stay ahead of the game and remain relevant to the market and the industry – setting yourself a high standard and adhering to it. It sort of leads back to that honesty thing – you have to be completely honest with yourself. Is this something that I would want to eat? Is it the best that I can possibly produce?
The thing is, I actually love rubbish food! I want to bring back classic, terrible dishes from the pub, like the mixed grill, and make it phenomenal with all the produce we have in Tassie, like dry aged Cape Grim beef, yearling lamb from the Derwent Valley, awesome handmade pork sausages, free range eggs, smoked grilled heirloom tomatoes. Perfect in every conceivable way. That idea is just awesome. It makes it a bit transformative and into something else. That’s another thing I desperately love – turning terrible food into something brilliant. In this case, the reality is that a mixed grill is just way too ambitious. The amount of cooking to order and preparation, the storage space, it would be far too difficult to manage, so while you have fantastic, inspirational ideas, you have to balance that out with what you are actually able to do, and question whether the quality would be maintained. It goes back to that honesty thing – would I be happy presenting this dish to someone? If not, no matter what techniques or ingredients you tweak, then you have to scratch it.
So when people come to eat at Small Fry, what are they eating and experiencing?
We want to offer a top tier eating experience. Even though what we offer is only really simple food – tomatoes on toast as an example – but the basil is from my parent’s garden, eggplant from their garden, tomatoes from people who only grow heirloom variety tomatoes in the Tamar Valley. Simple stuff but the best that we can possibly source and offer you, in an environment that is accessible and casual. I can’t think of anything worse than a white table cloth, cloth napkins, the sheer formality that usually goes along with high level food. Just because we’re making a high quality meal doesn’t mean we have to present it pompously. You can have the fanciest interpretation of tomatoes on toast, with sourdough croutons, brioche, puree of tomato and foam, it’s still simply tomatoes on toast. There are chefs out there who of course are really creative and thrive off incorporating new, fancy techniques; I’m not taking anything away from a chef who does that, but that’s not me and that’s not Small Fry.
I would argue that there is a significant market of diners out there who are just dying for food to not be that pompous – they want to be able to pick up a menu and understand exactly what it is they are eating. They are dying to see just skillfully prepared ingredients that form a meal, not a bunch of really nice looking weird stuff on their plate. Yes, the fancy stuff is still food and I really don’t want to sound like I have no regard of that type of food, but I just feel very differently about the experience and what is provided at that higher level. You can make a fine dining meal out of a pig on a spit, on a trestle table, with some salads from the garden and good wine. To me that’s what cooking is all about. I don’t want cooking to be about how many different techniques I can get onto a plate and how elaborate it is. I want food to be about good ingredients, cooked well, with skill and care, and respect for the ingredients and where those ingredients come from.
A classic example of that was when I cooked for my brother’s wedding after party. We just got the ingredients from my parent’s garden, pig on the spit and then just did a bunch of different condiments and salads, grilled potatoes over the charcoal spit roast, and that was one of the greatest cooking experiences of my life. It was done purely for the love of my family and my brother, and cooking itself. We fed 60 people one of the best meals they have ever had in their life. Again it just comes back to this honesty; it all came from an honest place, from the heart for want of a better description. To me, that typifies good cooking and eating.
Find Small Fry at 3/129 Bathurst Street, Hobart, not too far from the State Library, or online here where their food and drink menus are also available. My hot menu tip – the four cheese brioche toastie. It’s like cheese fondue but in grilled sandwich form accompanied by the best, punchy condiments you could hope for to counter all that melted, savoury ooze – doll house sized pickled onions and cornichons, sauerkraut, onion jam, seeded mustard, and a sprinkling of chives.