INTERVIEW: Philip Johnson

New Zealand-born, Philip Johnson has become one of Australia’s most celebrated chefs, honing his skills in Australia, London and New Zealand before settling in Brisbane which he now calls home.

Philip opened his landmark bistro, e’cco, in 1995 and very quickly made a name for himself with his win of the 1997 Remy Martin Cognac/Australian Gourmet Traveller Restaurant of the Year award, a stunning achievement for Philip, but also a coup of Queensland.

Philip conducts numerous cooking classes, demonstrations and guest chef appearances, both nationally and internationally. He has also donated his services to many charities, working alongside a stellar line-up of industry peers to raise much needed funds for many worthwhile causes, including the Starlight Children’s Foundation, Bestest, Mission Australia, AEIOU and The Leukaemia Foundation.

As one of Australia’s leading chefs, Philip has contributed recipes to a multitude of book publications. He featured as a weekly columnist for The Courier Mail’s Good Life supplement from 2002 until 2008. Then he featured in Brisbane lifestyle magazine, Brisbane News from 2009 until 2012. This year Philip began as a weekly columnist in the Qweekend supplement of the Courier Mail. Philip has also authored six of his own cookbooks. They all include a wonderful collection of recipes that are distinctively Philip Johnson – unpretentious food, simple yet stunning – and a reflection of the ideas and beliefs that have made e’cco the success it is today. His latest offering, Eating In, was released in August 2010 and what Philip considers his best work yet.

In 2014 by natural progression; Philip Johnson Catering became a reality. Delivering the same e’cco style, sophistication, food and wine to beautiful homes for special occasions.

2015 saw the renovation and relaunch of e’cco bistro to celebrate the 20th anniversary. A fresh new look for the old tea warehouse, every small detail of the dining experience carefully considered.

Late in 2016, Philip and Mary Randles unveiled Madame Rouge. Classic French dining in a truly decadent, chic space in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley.

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When did you know that the culinary field was the one for you?

I cooked from a very young age. My grandmother was a great cook. Guess it just started from experimenting with desserts in rural New Zealand where I grew up, such as pavlova and chocolate self-saucing pudding etc. Then partly due to the fact that my family enjoyed them so much (everyone likes to be appreciated) and partly that I loved my creations as well.

 

What are some fundamental qualities of a successful restaurant?

Staff and consistency are the two biggies for me. You can’t do it by yourself so you sure as hell better surround yourself with the right people. Consistency is a huge one, as the saying goes “you are only as good as your last meal”. The public are very unforgiving so you must strive to always deliver.

 

How important is food presentation and tableware in your restaurants?

Years ago you could put a restaurant anywhere and if the food was good you would be fine. It was probably 70/30 food verses service & ambience. Nowadays it’s probably 50/50. People want great service, ambience Tableware is a big part of that.

 

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How can tableware affect a dining experience?

A clever chef can enhance a dish so much these days just by using a plate in a particular colour, size or texture. But this can be abused as well. Simplicity is the key. Plate the dish with restraint to maximise the effect of the plate.

 

Do you have a particular process you go through when creating a new recipe?

Simon Palmer my chef is very creative. Gifted beyond his years. He shows me new dishes. But I rarely interfere. I believe you can train someone to cook but it’s actually harder to train someone to plate beautiful food

 

Who is your culinary idol and why?

The late Rose Gray of River Cafe fame in London.

When the first River Cafe (Blue Book) came out it was such a brilliant example of simplicity and restraint, I was on a plane inside 2 weeks to go and do a “Stage”, work experience there. I did several more over the years. Rose was all about the produce and how things tasted. How things looked was very secondary for her. I have never strayed far from her principles, except plating is still important to me.

 

What would you say your biggest achievement has been so far?

Winning Gourmet Traveller Restaurant of the year in 1997 is it for me. The year we won Rick Stein was the judge and Tetsuya and Rockpool were also finalists. Hard to topthat!

 

If you had to describe yourself in one dish, what would it be?

“Salade Tiede” is a way I love to eat. Simply meaning “tepid salad”. Where you have some crisp leaves, beautiful vinaigrette, perhaps some blanched, chilled asparagus or roast baby potatoes and herbs. Then add to that some warm confit duck broken through the salad. Glass of Pinot. Yum!

 

What would you like the lasting impression to be when people leave your restaurants?

That Mary and myself are uncompromising in our approach to both food and service. But also that we strive to create an environment that people want to work in. This is really important if you want a stable, long term team.

 

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