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Winner: Paul Carmichael, Momofuku Seiobo
You cannot eat food like Paul Carmichael’s anywhere else in the city. Or in the country, in all likelihood. And that’s how he intended it. “I like to do things with as little influence as possible, which is probably one of the reasons I still don’t have Instagram,” says the Barbadian chef who four years ago packed his bags and moved from the USA to Australia, having previously only spent a few days down under for a food festival with Momofuku founder David Chang. When chef Ben Greeno vacated the captain’s chair at the Sydney outpost, the only Momofuku venue located outside North America, Chang offered the gig to Carmichael. “My father told me, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen? You have the means to get there, you have to means to come back. You’re 35, you can’t make a mistake.’ It’s the most profound advice I’ve ever gotten because if you’re going down that normal everyday path, a basic mistake like taking the wrong job is nothing. You pick a thing and if it doesn’t work out, you pick something else.”
Carmichael didn’t arrive in Sydney with a menu of plantains and flying fish locked and loaded, however. “I came with an open mind and zero plans,” he says. “I really wanted to understand how it worked here. I think it took me three months to put a dish on [the menu].” Deciding to cook Carribbean food, in the end, was driven by two things. “First, all the ingredients are grown here in Australia, and I found them in the market. Secondly, I’ve had a deep-seated, burning desire to cook that food, so when I got given carte blanche, knowing that you truly have the freedom to create something is a liberating moment.”
Context is important to any food culture, but Carmichael isn’t serving a whitewashed adaptation of the cuisines of the West Indies. “I modernise some things, but I stay true to the taste. We’ve had a lot of Carribbean people come through and they’re very proud – it reminds them of home. I had one lady who sat there and she was almost crying. She said, ‘I’m from Trinidad, I’m so proud of you, you never see people like us doing food like this ever.’”
You might not think that a 40-seat fine diner is the kind of place to have regulars, but Carmichael’s cooking has garnered serious fans, thanks in no small part to the famed marron, which are introduced to you live at the beginning of your multi-course degustation and then grilled over the coals towards the end of the meal. The Western Australian mud lobster has been a staple of Carmichael’s menu, but 2019 is the year he plans to retire it and try something new. “My brain is full of ideas. I’m going to be on the Carribbean train, and it’s not even a train, it’s just me, I can’t not be it.”