Our Head Chef, Jimmy McLennan, recently sat down with Jo Rittey of Conversation with a Chef to talk all things Spanish food and chat about how he broke into the food scene, his curiosity around international food culture, and more. Read on in the jump.
“When I turned up at Bomba to chat with Jimmy McLennan, he was just practising his Italian with one of the staff. Jimmy is one of those people who exude a calm enthusiasm, which might sound like a strange combination, but when you meet him, you’ll know what I mean. He has a focussed interest in food, people and what’s going on around him and warmly embraces all possibilities. Try his food and you’ll understand.” – Jo Rittey, Conversation with a Chef
Let’s start with when it all began for you?
I left school and went to university and then that didn’t really work out so I ended up just working in kitchens. I’d always worked in kitchens since I was about 15, just washing dishes. My first real job when I was 15 in a restaurant 15 was with a chef owner who used to hunt and fish and that got me interested. I washed dishes and waited tables there and then started working in kitchens when University didn’t work out. Just pubs really. Then I decided one day that I was going to do it properly and I moved down to London. It got, miraculously actually considering the state of my resume, a really good job in a really good restaurant and then just super got into it. I realised I knew nothing.
Did you train or do an apprenticeship?
I did an on the job qualification, very basic. I’m basically completely unqualified.
Sometimes I think that it means you’re more willing to learn from the people around you as you go along and you don’t have a set idea in your head about how things should be done. I think realising you don’t know anything is the best way to know that you have to ask questions.
So was the first place you were in in London a bit more upmarket than the pubs you’d worked in before then?
Yes it was a three rosette; fine dining. It was part of the Terence Conran group.
You started at the bottom and worked your way up?
Yes, the very bottom.
Starting at the bottom must be hard and you’d be doing all those tasks like picking herbs and so on and there are long hours. What do you think kept you going?
I couldn’t believe how big the subject and the life and everything was. It was a bit bewildering at first, but fascinating as well; the way the kitchen works and the hierarchy and the shouting and everything. It was overwhelming but just so interesting at the same time. There’s not as much shouting these days, there’s a different approach.
What do you think you’ve taken from those days into being a head chef now?
I’m definitely not a shouter.
You’ve got an open kitchen, haven’t you? You couldn’t shout anyway.
You can’t be a shouter, no. I thought that was normal and was how all kitchens operated and I was never in a position to be a shouter anyway, but when I came to Melbourne I found that it’s a lot more chilled, which is awesome. Especially working with Tony at Taxi for so long. He’s so calm and doesn’t shout at all. It was amazing. He led purely by example and not through fear, which is what I aspire to.
What brought you to Melbourne?
I spent 18 months in London and then moved back to Manchester. I worked at a couple of places in Manchester but there weren’t a lot of really great restaurants in Manchester at the time. It’s a lot different now; over the last six years it has grown so much. I basically spent as much time as I was willing to in those restaurants and it was either back to London, or up to Edinburgh; one of the chefs I’d worked with in London had opened his own restaurant. Or somewhere completely different. Melbourne was the ideal choice. I came over to check it out and loved it, went back to save some money and get my Visa sorted and came back over.
How long have you been here?
There would be a culture shock coming from the UK to Australia, but food wise, what were your first impressions?
There’s so much going on here. The influences are so global here. In England it’s very European with bits and pieces of Asian influences but over here it’s just so much more apparent. It’s everything in Australia. I think Australian cuisine is its own thing and is a bit of everything. It just seemed really fresh. I think a lot of English food at the time seemed stuck, especially in London. It was all a bit Marco Pierre White and no one was risky enough to try and branch out from that. Again, it’s changed a lot in the last six years.
Australia is a young country and perhaps it doesn’t have the weight of generations of chefs, or of anything really; design, art. There’s a freedom in that where you can make your own path.
There are less restraints from tradition.
So you were at Taxi for a while?
Yes and I worked at The Point Albert Park for just under a year when I first got here. It’s an amazing venue; very difficult. Then I was lucky enough to get sponsored at Taxi. I was there for two and a half years as sous chef and I got a call from these guys and they wanted a head chef. It was just at the right time. It was amazing.
That’s great to be head-hunted. It’s Spanish food here, had you done much Spanish cooking before?
Not really. I’d probably touched on it by doing European food, Spanish flavours, but not so much real Spanish dishes.
Did you inherit a menu first up and then make it your own after that?
Yes. Apart from going to Spain in my childhood and early teens, I didn’t really have very much experience of eating in Spain. I did a lot of reading and a lot of imagining how I could use the flavours. It was a total learning curve for me.
You said you read a lot to find out more about Spanish food. Is that how you get most of your ideas?
Yes. I’ve got mountains of cookbooks. I’m a bit obsessive. I have a load of Spanish books and I worked through them slowly. I like traditional Spanish dishes. The first dish I put on was octopus and it’s still on the menu because people love it so much. It’s basically a Galician octopus dish that’s bout as traditionally Spanish as you can get, I believe. I changed the components slightly to make it my interpretation and that’s really how I come up with all my dishes.
What would you say to young chefs coming into the industry now, what advice would you give them?
Read. Use the resources. There’s Chef’s Table on Netflix which is so accessible, even for people who don’t cook. Even if they have just a passing interest, it can hook you right in. Try ad develop an interest early because it will keep you in it long term. Ask questions. Cook at home. And eat out. Pay as little rent as you possibly can so you can do that.
Photography: Nick Styles, True Tribe