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Luke Powell Main Chef Feature

A Chat With Luke Powell Of LP's Quality Meats

Is this the best charcuterie in Australia? Selector thinks it may just be.

"I'm glad we're renting this," says Luke Powell, standing before a large salami filled smoker. "Turns out it's too small." We're on the immaculately kept factory floor of the new Marrickville headquarters of LP's Quality Meats, recently relocated from it's original Chippendale home for that very reason - the growing pains of a business that looked like bursting at the seams.

Created initially to service his popular smokehouse restaurant of the same name, opened in 2014, LP's Quality Meats quickly turned into something of a big deal. Wholesale demand for his smallgoods grew at a rapid pace, with restaurants like Icebergs Dining Room and Bar, the Dolphin, and fellow chef Mitch Orr showcasing his products on their menus - indeed, Orr's Acme baloney sandwich attained semi- iconic status in its own right.

Powell had been bitten by the charcuterie bug while interning with Dan Barber at New York's Blue Hill at Stone Barns, before LP's opened. "His chef Adam Kaye said, 'if there's anything you want to learn while you're here, just let us know.' He took me into the wine cellar where there was a maturing room filled with maybe a hundred smoked specks and I just thought it was fascinating... it's just meat and salt, and you can end up with something so complex and profound, just with two or three ingredients. I said, 'can you teach me that?"'

Luke Powell Chef LP's Quality Meats

The resulting instruction would be the genesis of LP's Quality Meats, Powell's first restaurant and a key component of Chippendale's culinary renaissance alongside the similarly smokey Ester. But its path was not a straight one: a notoriously busy, bustling, roadhouse style venture, it closed, renovated, reopened, and closed again. The pandemic didn't help - the number of seats for LP's second incarnation went from 120 to 60. The venue's dual identity proved a challenging juggling act. "We were doing production Monday to Thursday and then services Thursday to Sunday," says Powell. "It was just crazy, trying to do two things. We decided we had to pick a lane, and we'd done the restaurant for over ten years and thought maybe it was time to give the smallgoods a bit of a push." 

Easier said than done. First there were licences to take care of, regulations to abide by, distribution matters to deal with. Things started to move along when Fino came onboard to help get LP's Quality Meats in front of more people, but the biggest challenge remained - there just wasn't enough space. If LP's was to really take off, it would need to spread its wings."We were really capped at the old shop," Powell says. "For the salami, which is our biggest seller, we used to sit on about 500 kilos at a time, drying, selling about 80 to 100 kilos a week - we just couldn't fit any more trolleys in our maturing fridge without bad things happening, not enough airflow, things like that. With the move here, we can do two-and-a-half tonnes at a time."




It's been quite the journey, getting from there to here. Powell, who first started in kitchens washing dishes in his home country of New Zealand at the age of 13, absorbed what knowledge he could from the extensive cookbook collection of a former boss - highlights included Bank, and Tetsuya's - and once in Australia quickly found himself doing stints at Rockpool, then Longrain with Marty Boetz. "I was thrown in the deep end a lot," Powell recalls. "But in the back of my mind I always wanted to end up at Tetsuya's." He didn't think he had what it took, but others felt differently - Martin Benn in particular, who Powell had been working alongside at Boathouse after Benn's departure from Tetsuya's.

Within months, however, Benn was invited to return to Tetsuya as head chef, and wanted Powell to join him. It was a revelation, though not in the sense you might expect. "It's a funny restaurant because it's degustation only and when I was working there, there were 25 chefs and maybe 13 courses, two or three people on each section, and you pretty much would be in that courseover and over and over again."  Ten months in, Powell struggled with the monotony of it, and left. It was to be a short-lived departure. "When I left, I kind of had this inkling that I'd left too early." 

He came back, and discovered refinement through repetition. "You start to see details and nuances in the things you're doing, the strive for perfection." Powell put in three years at Tetsuya's, before departing for new challenges overseas: in this instance, Spain, and a stage at Mugaritz. Just three months later, however, the man himself - "Tets" - called him and said the head chef position was available and waiting for him if he was so inclined.

"It's funny how it worked," he observes. Funny, perhaps, but not surprising to those who know Powell's diligence, skill, and grit. For Mitch Orr, who first became aware of Powell through mutual associates like Louis Tikaram, Powell's reputation preceded him. Powell's unassuming demeanour clearly concealed a driven, accomplished, voracious talent. "Luke was an enigma to me for quite a while," says Orr. "I started to hear stories of his exploits outside the kitchen, but also his brilliance inside it - how technically gifted he is, his work ethic. Luke has this quiet intensity, he's such a soft spoken, loving guy, but there's this simmering energy with him." 

"I think it's how he manages to achieve everything he has and continues to: he dedicates himself to everything he does," Orr continues."His technical training and ability shine through in everything he cooks, even if it's the simplest dish." Orr's high regard for Powell is palpable. "He's one of one," he says."How many fine-dining trained chefs go, 'I want to make charcuterie' and turn it into such an iconic brand and incredible product? Or decide,'I want to make pizza' and have it be the best pizza restaurant possibly in the country? He's an inspiration and I fucking love him."




The pizza restaurant Orr refers to, of course, is Bella Brutta, in Newtown, a short distance from the LP's factory. In operation since 2018, today it is LP's Quality Meats' biggest customer. It's origins give some insight into Powell's pragmatic sense of work/life balance. "When my partner Tania was pregnant with our boy Frankie, she just wanted pizza every two days," recalls Powell. "I was ok with that! So we were eating pizza all the time and we were thinking about LP's and what we were going to do with it and we said, 'we should open a pizza restaurant, it'd be great!' so we could use the mortadella and the pepperoni we were making and all that... It's a nice little closed loop."

Any notion that it would be a walk in the park for this technically accomplished chef, however, would soon be disproved.                                                                                                                                                                                                                  "Making pizza is very hard," he laughs. "It's like, a nice idea, but I was so naïve when it opened. I'd worked at Ester for nine months and thought I had wood cooking down, but when we had the oven installed at Bella it was hard - thank god Mitch [Westwood, of Westwood Pizza] came on board for the first little while, it was about three or four months before I could do the oven by myself."  He smiles at the memory of this trial by fire. "It was so stressful. It's so simple, but there are so many variables,and when you have the ticket machine spitting out tickets, there are so many details: when you're spinning the pizzas you have to turn on a dime; in the floor of the oven they can scorch, the bases are thin so you can ripthem and then cheese spills out, it's catching on fire  it can turn really awful, really quick."Today, six years on, Bella Brutta runs like a finely honed machine. LP's Quality Meats continues to grow with, astoundingly, the same team of just five people on the floor. And if the man wasn't busy enough, his first cookbook is just about to launch, titled - unsurprisingly, perhaps - Quality Meats.

"I love cookbooks, I've always dreamed of writing a cookbook," says Powell. "When it comes to smallgoods and sausage and speck it's actually really hard to find good information about it, almost like it's a bit of a secret world - trying to find the real fine details of how things work is quite hard." 

To that end, readers can expect a comprehensive guide to making charcuterie safely at home, as well as standard sauces, accompaniments, even desserts. As Matty Matheson, Chef and star of The Bear, effuses in a back cover blurb.

This book is so awesome. It's the only one you'll ever need, for real.

- Matty Matheson, Chef and star of The Bear


"We thought, let's just put everything in there," Powell says,"and have it out there as a reference guide - it felt like a good thing to do, particularly with the old LP's site coming up to ten years, almost like a full-stop: that's what we've learned over ten years." Another nice, closed loop, then - the aspiring young chef who left New Zealand with a head full of knowledge from cookbooks, in turn codifying his hard-earned wins to literally show us how the sausage is made - another link in the chain. Whatever comes next from the hand of Luke Powell, its quality will not be in doubt.



Luke Powell's first book, Quality Meats, is available from 31 July via Murdoch Books.

Available to Pre-Order

Words by
Brendan McCallum
Photography by
Alana Dimou
Published on
8 Jul 2024


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