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New kids on the block: A sit down with Dan Sherley

As Wollongong’s foodstuff recourse buffs up, Keira Street poises as the renewed comestible quarter. Lashings of old and new establishments are back in full swing following the fall of construction labyrinths. One such yellow and burgundy lodging that sits atop the T of Victoria has been gutted and white washed, re-opening doors as the new kids on the block – Rookie.

This closely controversial spot sees Rookie shoulder to shoulder with meticulous mentor and fine dining aficionado Lorenzo’s. Chef Dan Sherley learnt much of his craft from this former haunt, embedded within frypan tantrum and explosive passion of the well-known diner. The reinvigorated neighbour is now slinging a contemporary menu reliant on produce and aptitude. Maintaining a degree of intensity Rookie aims to muscle into the nicer side of eating in town. Having learnt what little I know about food from Sherley, a buddy bias is advised. That said, Sherley is highly respected amongst his peers for his tenacity, reproach and sheer skill, so I sat down with him to talk about Rookie, produce, cooking styles and his craft.

Dan plating up on opening night

H: In your own words, what is Rookie?

D: A casual diner.

H: In what respect? What sort of food do you do?

D: Well, the food we’d like to do is very produce driven, we want to compete with a fine dining style but in my own way. So, it’s Thai influenced but with a French background and style, which is where I feel that cooking started. We want to make it accessible for the younger crowd, people more my age. We don’t want it to be stuffy. I don’t want you to feel like you can’t make a little bit of noise during dinner.

Rookie’s Quail with Chevre, Grapes and Quail egg

H: You want everyone to have fun?

D: Yeah, have fun.. It should be more about fun and good food. That’s why we have the sharing part of the menu, the larger items like the rib-eye and goat’s shoulder. It’s a bit friendlier. It should be like a bunch of people eating food together and having a good time.

H: Nice. So if I burp at the end of my meal, that’s all right?

D: I don’t care what you do. That’s fine with me, but if you’re sitting next to some old people that might be a bit of an issue for them, not for me. Maybe they won’t come back.. That’s their problem.

H: I’ll try to keep it down.. So, what made you want to be a chef?

D: I’ve always loved cooking since I was young. Probably my first memory of cooking.. I remember getting up before mum and dad when I was seven years old and cooking breakfast because no one else was awake. Probably my earliest memory of cooking goes back to failure. I tried making a passion fruit sort of cake.. Piece of shit really… It was microwaved passion fruit, probably threw a couple of eggs and some flower in there and threw it in the microwave, but then I tried to force my parents and their friends to eat it, like “Try this, I made it.” They spat it out, it was disgusting, but that hurt too. It cut pretty deep, I was like “I fucked up, oh shit.” I had no idea what I was doing either, obviously, but I’ll always remember that.

H: Have you made passion fruit cake since?

D: No, I’ve never tried that again.

H: Maybe you should put it on the menu?

D: Actually, I’ve been thinking of doing a passion fruit Brule dessert.

H: In the microwave?

D: We don’t have one yet, but maybe when we get one.

Scallops, Pork belly, Jerusalem Artichokes and Granny Smith Apple

H: Looking forward to it! So, where did you do your apprenticeship and cut your teeth cooking?

D: Lorenzo’s. I learned everything about organization and service from Lorenzo. Basics of cooking, things like that, definitely. A lot of your learning obviously is self taught, your own research and your own style of food, but my influence of Thai cuisine, I learned a lot from him which he in turn learned from David Thompson, who is the ultimate when it comes to Thai food in Australia, even within modern Thai food. He’s the first Thai restaurant owner to get a Michelin star, and the only one so far as I know. One hell of a way to learn, I guess, and that’s where I fell in love with Thai food.

H: What style of cooking did you learn from Lorenzo?

D: When I first started cooking at Lorenzo’s we were definitely a modern Australian restaurant. He was moving on from Moroccan food into Thai food and a lot of our menu was Thai. The way he would cook is by the book when it came to that sort of thing, this is how it’s done and that’s how you’re going to do it, and proper wasn’t like, you see a lot of Thai mixed with Vietnamese and it’s all the same to people, but its not. We did it by the book and that’s how I learned the basics, I guess.

H: Other than David Thompson, what other chefs inspire you?

D: Thomas Keller would have to be probably one of my biggest influences, I guess.

H: What restaurant does he have?

D: He has, originally, the French Laundry, which is his big name restaurant, but recently this year I went to eat at Per Se, which is in New York, where the kitchen is pretty much identical to the French Laundry. His style of food is American and French, he calls it. A contemporary French style of cooking with an American influence in terms of produce, I guess you could say.

In terms of the big three in Michelin star cooking, his food to me still resembles food that I can replicate. He’s using real cuts of meat, good portion sizes. He may be using a lot of different techniques, but it’s not molecular, which is interesting, but for me, that’s not something in this situation where we are right now that I can replicate. It’s beyond me, it’s beyond three people in the kitchen. I mean it is cool, but there’s no chance I’m ever going to replicate a restaurant like El Bulli.

Looking to Thomas Keller’s book and also, sous vide. A lot of the sous vide techniques that are used today, he wrote the book on it. The important aspects of how to use it safely and not kill someone, he wrote and obviously not killing people is great.

The Rookie kitchen crew slinging pans.

H: Very important.

D: It’s a very important part of it, but also how to get the most out of it. He wrote a book called “Under Pressure,” which is like the Bible of sous vide.

H: So you have a sous vide here, can you explain how it works?

D: Well, it’s a water bath and the machine you put in it controls the temperature of it and allows you to be very accurate during service or even over long periods of time, so I can hold the water bath during service at an exact 55 degrees, and 55 degrees will give you a medium rare steak. The only thing standing in your way of getting a medium rare steak is how long it takes for 55 degrees to penetrate the whole piece of meat. At the moment we’re using it a lot for tougher cuts of meat, like brisket for example. We have a rangers valley wagyu brisket on, and we’re holding that at 60 degrees, so that’s closer to medium, but it takes about three days to break that down to a more tender piece of meat.

H: So you’re not chewing all day.

D: You’re not chewing all day, but you’ve got it close to a sirloin consistency, but you have the flavour of a tougher cut. I find that really interesting, you’ve got a piece of meat that’s been cooked for three days, but it’s still pink like a medium steak. That sort of thing I find really interesting, I don’t know if the customers appreciate it the same way I do.

72 degree Lamb neck from the Sous vide

H: It’s a more scientific way to look at cooking a steak, that’s for sure. So, what do you think the most important part about cooking is?

D: Making things taste good, and that comes down to respecting the produce that you’ve been given. Always working closely with suppliers to make sure you get produce that’s worth using, it’s hard to fuck up good produce. You don’t have to do too much to it to get a good result at the end of the day, so talking to your fish supplier, talking to your butcher, knowing what they have on hand, and then using the basics, like back to your first days in the kitchen and at tafe, back to the basics of French cookery like how do you sear something properly, how do you deglaze it to get the most flavour out of that product at the end of the day? How do you cook a piece of fish without overcooking it?

It’s easy to destroy something by doing too much to it, and basically we’re not trying to do too much to anything here. Using technique to make a consistent product, and the sous vide, going back to that, that’s helping us do that a lot. Then just buying good produce, not doing too much so we don’t screw it up.

Product placement.

H: So if it’s produce driven the relationship with your suppliers is going to be really important?

D: It’s integral. It’s a big part of it. I get on really well with all my suppliers.

H: How do you maintain that relationship with your suppliers?

D: Paying them on time helps. Haven’t had much problem with that, but still talking to them and respecting what they do. I’ve worked with a lot of other chefs who will say “This butcher sent me the lamb last week, and it wasn’t up to scratch, so I don’t deal with him anymore, I’ve got another butcher.”

Everyone makes mistakes. If he did that regularly that would be an issue, but if you can talk to him about it and ask him why and just give it back to him, and if he can fix the problem in a good amount of time that’s not an issue. I never have an issue with suppliers doing that, never have. It’s about the way you treat people, just about how you do business, really.

H: Having a level of understanding with them?

D: Yeah, you’ve got to know what they have and constantly be talking to them, but also knowing what’s out there even before they might, and pushing them to go looking for stuff for you.

H: You have a small vegetable garden onsite?

D: I’d call it a herb garden, really.

H: Apologies, herb garden. What sort of things are you looking forward to growing in it over the summer?

D: It’s got to be stuff that is usable in the kitchen. The size of that garden out here, there’s no point growing potatoes and carrots because you pull them out of the ground and you’d serve them once and that would be it and then it would be an empty garden. We’ve gone for leafy things like some lettuce, dill… You know stuff like that. You can pick a few leaves here and there and it’s really good for dressing plates up. There are a few different things, like we have some bush limes and some kaffir lime leaves growing out there in particular.

These things, when they’re picked fresh, all the herbs in particular, they make a bit of a difference. In the Bernaise last week we were using the Mexican tarragon and just picking it fresh. It was pretty full of flavour as opposed to some of the wilted tarragon that you get sent sometimes. Things that we can reuse and have a constant supply of, that’s my biggest thing with that, otherwise it’s rather pointless and it’s just for show.

Sashimi of Snapper with heirloom Beets, Grapefruit and Pomegranate

H: What other ingredients are you looking forward to using this summer?

D: I would like to plant some betel leaves, that would be cool. I’m looking into where you get them from, at the moment.

H: And what are they?

D: It’s a Thai thing, basically it’s a carrier for something else, but it’s a traditional way that Thai people would serve it. It grows on a vine; it’s like a shiny sort of leaf, green. But yeah, things that we can pick one or two of and not kill the plant, you know what I mean? Some coriander.

H: What would you like to see come of Rookie in the future?

D: Well, fuck you’ve got me there…. Just cooking good food and we just want to get better everyday. We’d like to be known as one of the better restaurants in Wollongong. Just have a good steady business, somewhere you can come and get a good feed and have fun!

Awesome, cheers!

Bonnie tops up a glass of Pinot.

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