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Chef John Leverink was front and centre at our Winning Appliances Sunday Supper Club. We caught up with him to talk life, food and everything in between.
Gault&Millau—think of it as Australia’s answer to Michelin—recently announced John as a finalist in the 2018 Chef of the Year Award, alongside such industry luminaries as Brian Geraghty from Berowra Waters Inn, Rob Cockerill from Bennelong, Paul Carmichael from Momofuku Seiobo, Josh Niland from Saint Peter, Danielle Alvarez from Fred’s, and Ben Willis from Aubergine.
With a kitchen career spanning more than 30 years, he’s a Canberra restaurant stalwart. This talented and incredibly hard-working chef is not only owner of Pod Food, but also head chef at The Boat House and one of the brains behind five-star picnic company, Schmicnics.
John whipped up an elegant meal inspired by the concept of home for our first Sunday Supper Club, where 24 lucky Canberrans were welcomed into the elegant Winning Appliances Kingston showroom for a canapé of Cheddar custard with parmesan shortbread; entrée of Burrata, peach, jamon, basil, liquorice; a silky sous vide chicken breast with miso roast veggies and winter vegetable purée for main; and Bittersweet chocolate tart, pickled beetroots with crême fraiche ice cream to round things out. All washed down with local wines.
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John’s Food Story
How did you get started in food? Is it in the family?
Not overly, Mum and Dad gave a café a go when I was younger. And my uncle was a chef then a baker. My other uncle in Adelaide had an Italian restaurant. I guess I spent a weird amount of time around a bakery and a restaurant, which is probably where I just kind of fell into it.
And then, when I was 14 or 15, I did a trial at Rydges Capital Hill. I was a kitchen hand for a couple years—pretty much had to beg for an apprenticeship.
I definitely enjoyed the kitchen. Maybe it was just the vibe. I didn’t really like school, overly, that much. I wanted to leave school in year 10, and it was the general manager of the hotel that said, “I think you should stay in school.”
When that general manager left the next year I asked again, and they got me an apprenticeship. I ended up leaving school in year 11 without my year 12 certificate.
In those first two years of my apprenticeship—hospitality is notorious for staff turnover—I think I went through maybe seven head chefs in two years.
That’s a lot.
I don’t know if that was a good thing for me. I guess chefs notoriously like to move quickly anyway. You kind of learn what you can and move on. So maybe I got a good deal if I learned what I could from seven chefs over two years. And because when chefs start, they usually come in with guns blazing and wanting to change everything and make everything brilliant. Maybe I’ve got a good end of the deal out of it.
A really good friend of mine, Peter Spencer, who later ran Tosolinis for many years, he was working at The Lobby with Fiona Wright at the time. And he was like, “You have to get out of the hotel life.”
Was it just volume?
It was volume and we were probably doing, I don’t know, maybe 80 hours but only getting paid for 40. And a job came up at The Boat House and my mate Scotty and I—who I was working with at Rydges—both applied for it, but we didn’t tell each other. And then, randomly, I came to my interview and he was walking out and I was walking in and we were like, “What are you doing here?”
Long story short, we both got the job, and that was in 2001.
Have you been at The Boat House since?
Essentially. Not too long after starting at The Boat House, I qualified. Made my way up through the ranks and then I was sous chef for seven or eight years.
The Boat House bought the Lakeview Hotel in Merimbula in 2002, so it was kind of this mass exit of staff from here that went down the coast, to run the pub. And then they kind of left me here.
I guess I got thrown into the deep end very early on in my career when The Boat House started to become the place to go for events and weddings, and we’d do thousands of people a week—and that’s pretty much where we’re at today!
How’d you develop your very distinctive style? Did that come from any one inspiration in particular?
I guess I’ve always tried to keep current, I’ve probably dined at every almost three hat restaurant in Australia.
Vue de Monde is always my top. I haven’t yet been to Brae, been but I went to Royal Mail when Dan Hunter was head chef, and that was another highlight. And then, Quay.
I guess inspiration just comes from either eating out, what you see on Instagram, what other people are doing. People that come to work for you. I guess that’s one good thing with a high turnover staff, there’s always someone new with a different idea. And I guess it’s up to me now that I’m here at The Boat House, to nurture those ideas.
What do you think about the casualisation of dining in recent years?
I think it will be a trend that will come and go. I think fine dining will come back in a few years time. I hope.
Do you have chef crushes?
I had a lot of chef crushes earlier in my career and I guess now I don’t have as much time to follow them. I do have a massive wall of cookbooks from pretty much every restaurant in the world—we have a bookcase just for my cookbooks!
I try not to go to on Amazon or Booktopia or any of those websites because every time it’s like—one, two, three, or four hundred dollars later.
Where do you, if you’re not cooking (which you seem to be doing all the time) like to eat?
That’s funny you ask that question because just the other day someone asked me on Facebook, ‘I have a friend coming down to Canberra, where should they go?’. And I thought, ‘Where have we eaten recently?’ We moved to Barton a year ago but my wife Kate and I are home for one night a week together, then I’m usually just like, ‘let’s get delivery’.
The whole Uber Eats/ Deliveroo thing has affected the culture of eating—even for me, even though I love eating out. I just don’t eat out in Canberra anymore, which is a little bit sad.
If you were at home for a night and resisted the call of Uber Eats, what would you cook?
If I was going to cook something, huh? Probably pasta. Braised lamb, some type of pasta, heaps of cheese on top!
How would you describe your food or your style of cooking in like three words?
I think the older I get, it’s funny how you mature as a chef. You overcompensate so much when you’re younger, you think you have something to prove, you’re just putting elements on plates rather than the dish doing the talking.
I guess the more confident you are with your own skill set and your own power—you know, your own style—your cooking becomes a little bit more harmonious. This comes more naturally to others early on but takes longer for others to work out.
My style is slowly becoming that, ‘complicated, not complicated’—I find I’m in a constant battle with myself. How many elements are too many?
I guess the battle with that is keeping it fresh and new and fun without being too pretentious, but still providing the wow factor.
You had your choice of 16 different ovens, plus an induction and gas cooktop in the Winning Appliances demonstration kitchen—any faves?
I would have to say the Wolf ovens are the rock stars of the test kitchen at Winning! As far as a large workhorse of an oven, I did find myself using the AEG a bit on heat steam so I could sous vide my chickens. We’re looking to revamp our apartment kitchen soon, so I may be back at the showroom before you know it!