Adrian Richardson - Where Craft Meets Character
Despite his affable nature and knack for entertaining, few things in life are as important to Adrian Richardson as a sharp knife and a keen sense of discipline.
It’s mid-January, and after a well-earned New Year’s break Adrian Richardson – Richo, to his many friends and fans – is back on the tools at his two Melbourne venues, North Carlton’s La Luna Bistro and Bouvier Bar in Brunswick. While the latter’s late-night ritz contrasts with the former’s neighbourhood kitchen atmosphere, each is clearly the product of someone whose very lifeblood is hospitality.
Consider La Luna: 20 years’ young and still going strong. When asked what has contributed to its longevity in an ever-changing industry, Richardson shares its founding vision by way of explanation.
“I was coming up on 30. I’d been in kitchens since I was 15, and I’d worked already around the world for some of the biggest bastards in the world,” he says with a laugh. “I’d always wanted to open my own restaurant – a simple place where you could eat twice a week, three times a week, come in and have a glass of wine and a little bowl of pasta, or a piece of meat, or six courses at an event. That’s why I put the name bistro in there – it’s an eating house, it’s warm and friendly and you want to go there all the time.”
Keeping things simple and letting the food speak for itself certainly paid dividends, as locals quickly made the place their kitchen away from home. An emphasis on outstanding service didn’t hurt either.
“It’s like you’re going to Aunty Jane’s house, she gives you a big hug at the door, sits you down and makes sure you have a great afternoon or evening,” says Richardson. “I have this Italian background, and for me the best food you can eat is at home, at Nonna’s. As a chef I try to replicate that feeling.”
Left: Adrian Richardson; Right: Adrian Carving Meat
HOME IS WHERE THE ART IS
This spirit of handcrafted, home-made cooking and produce is perhaps the defining feature of La Luna, establishing a kind of provenance that is somewhat unique in Australia thanks to the venue’s in-house butcher, baker, and dry-ageing room. “Everything we do here we make ourselves, whether it’s the bread, the pasta, dry-ageing the meat, the smallgoods… to me, that’s what it’s all about.”
It’s an approach that harks back to Richardson’s apprenticeship at the Victorian Arts Centre, and in particular his time spent in its butchery department. “I’ve got quite a knack for butchery and that’s followed me through my career. Breaking down the meat is usually left for the head chef, but little old Richo was really bloody good with a boning knife and could break stuff down,” he recalls fondly. “When I opened the restaurant I couldn’t afford to buy in the premium cuts, so using my skills I brought in whole lambs and bodies and I would break them down and use them. It’s always been something I’ve loved doing.” It certainly shows.
For some time now, Richardson has partnered with butcher and friend Angelo Marchetti to produce La Luna’s celebrated smallgoods and sausages. “Angelo and I have known each other for about 18 years. I used to do all the butchery myself but I needed a little help and Angelo started coming in and working with me a day a week,” says Richardson. “We just hit it off. He’s got that old-school Italian thing about him – you know, we scream and yell, it’s like being home with my grandparents! But the relationship’s really good – he trusts me, and I trust him. Another thing is, he’s a great tradesman – if something breaks in the restaurant, he’ll come in with his tools and fix it.”
PIG’S EARS TO SILK PURSES
Indeed, the notion of tradesmanship is something that Richardson identifies with strongly – one could even say it’s in his DNA. His grandfather, Peter Richardson – founding chef at the legendary Balzac in East Melbourne with George and Mirka Mora – trained at Westminster College and worked in the Savoy Hotel in London, teaching himself to read and speak French in order to rise through the ranks in the old European kitchens. When the Second World War broke out, he took up arms and was captured in Dunkirk, spending five years in a German concentration camp. Following that harrowing experience, he migrated to Australia and helped introduce classical French cuisine to Melbourne in the 1950s alongside other new arrivals of that era.
Although an avowed vegetarian, Peter loved cooking with meat, and taught a young Adrian an important early lesson in what it meant to really run a kitchen. “When I was 15 I spent some time with him on the vineyard down in Tasmania,” Adrian remembers. “He knew I was going to get into cooking, so he got a couple of pig’s heads and some trotters, and we spent two days making brawn.”
It was as much about economics as it was craft. Richardson recalls his grandfather saying, “This is an old technique that I learnt, that I wanted to pass on to you.” Richardson breaks it down in terms of trade. “You buy a pig’s head for four dollars, and you can turn it into four hundred if you’re smart. You can get your fillet, you can get your porterhouse, but if you can do something with the offal and the offcuts, then not only are you doing justice to the animal by eating everything, that’s your job as a chef: to make money for the kitchen – the kitchen’s making money, it’s profitable, everyone has a job and that’s how it works.”
It left a lasting impression on Richardson, shaping his pragmatic attitude and his craft. “It’s a skills-based industry, and to be a chef, you need to learn your trade. You need to be able to pick up your knife and do just about anything with it: they throw you a fish you’ve never seen before, you’ve got to be able to fillet it, you’ve got to be able to cook it.”
Left: Adrian Richardson; Right: Meat from his resturant.
When asked what’s the most challenging meat to work with, Richardson makes no bones about it: all meat is hard work, but the secondary cuts are where a chef really proves their mettle in regards to valuing and respecting the animal.
“Primary cuts are always going to be tender. If you can take something like an oyster blade, a neck, a shoulder, silverside – the other 80% of the animal – and make them tender, moist, delicious and enjoyable meals, that’s the skill of a good chef,” he says. “That’s the hardest thing. Secondary cuts, the muscle fibres are quite tight – it’s like rope – the longer you cook it, low and slow, the rope unwinds and it becomes nice and tender. It’s not that the meat is tough – it just requires you to apply some technique. The hardest thing is understanding the cooking times and temperatures of different cuts of meat.”
Is there anything in his tool kit Richardson simply can’t do without?
“In terms of an ingredient – salt loves meat, and meat loves salt. I say it all the time. When you season your meat correctly, you will notice the difference,” he says. “The other thing is the tools of trade, and knives are my tools of trade. I have many of them, some handed down from my grandfather. They have to be sharp, they have to be well looked-after, and they have to be clean.”
Such fastidiousness is not simply because keen knives make the work simpler to perform. “You walk in the kitchen and people have got nice knife kits, they’re all looked-after, they’re razor-sharp – that’s someone that has got respect for themselves, respect for their tools, respect for their industry, and respect for the entire kitchen brigade.”
Spoken like a true master.