Impress: Andrew McConnell
Every now and again, Andrew McConnell slides out of the booth to check on progress. Cutler & Co’s head chef Chris Watson is busy behind the hot plates, but pops over when there’s a dish that needs a second eye before it’s presented for photography. Not surprisingly, the whole process runs like a well-oiled machine.
“It’s 17 years,” Andrew says, with a slight grimace, when asked how long it’s been since he opened his first restaurant. That was Diningroom 211 in Fitzroy, and since then Melbourne has been dazzled by a procession of restaurants by the talented chef–restaurateur.
A couple of months ago, in June, his all-day city diner, Cumulus Inc, had its tenth anniversary and, in February, it’s Cutler & Co’s turn.
“When you open your restaurant, you just think about the first 12 months and getting through them,” he says. “You never think about [getting to] 10 years. But it’s really good that people still find them fresh and current and relevant.”
And it’s not just these two restaurants he has on the go. There’s also Supernormal, Marion (the wine bar is neighbour to Cutler & Co on Fitzroy’s happening Gertrude Street), Builders Arms Hotel, Cumulus Up and butcher Meatsmith.
One Step Ahead
For those who haven’t popped into Cutler & Co for a year or two, there have been some significant changes. A redesign by Iva Foschia in early 2017 saw the bar dining area restored to the front of the restaurant, with the open kitchen offering up some culinary theatre. There’s a bar menu, of course, offering oysters, fruits de mer and smaller dishes like savoury donuts with sour cream and salmon roe. Guests, however, can also order from the restaurant’s a la carte menu.
“There are no rules – I hate rules,” Andrew explains. “I hate being told, ‘No, you’re not in the restaurant area, you can’t have that meal.’”
But as well as “revisiting how the arrival works in a bar” and giving regulars a new thrill, the Cutler & Co changes keep work interesting for Andrew and the team.
“I’m really quite scared of complacency. Once that sets in...” he trails off. “I thought I’d never feel as if that would ever happen, but I really enjoy what I do, so it’s not really a chore to keep it moving.”
Ringing the Changes
On a day-to-day basis, Andrew bases himself at Cutler & Co. During the week though, when it isn’t open for lunch, he spends time at some of the other venues – Supernormal, Builders Arms, Cumulus Inc – to keep an eye on how they work and what can be tweaked.
“I’ve got the fun part of the job, working with the head chefs on menu evolution and recipe design,” he explains. “That’s the creative side, which I love. And I can do that across all the businesses.”
Ask him how the ways he cooks and runs the business have changed in the years since 2001 and he quickly points to assurance: “As a chef, I don’t think I’ve changed that much. If anything, I’ve become more confident. I feel as though I don’t have to really look around at trends so much.
“I remember when I first started cooking, I used to look abroad a lot to see what was happening internationally. Now I look more within our own businesses – what we’re doing and our own skills. I have confidence in our skills, and confidence in our, I suppose, good taste and aesthetic. Now, I’m able to say, ‘Yep, this is how I want the restaurant to look,’ not ‘I’d love it if my restaurant looked like that one in the Basque country.’”
On the Menu
When he sat down to create the new dishes for this story, spring was just warming the air in Melbourne and lots of produce was reappearing for the first time in many months. Of course, new dishes are a constant.
“Each week, we workshop certain things then, over the next week, they’ll evolve,” Andrew explains. “Then the following week, we’ll look at them again and hope they’ll be ready to make it to the menu.”
For this menu, lightly cured bonito is served with a light, clean buttermilk dressing: “It has a little bit of nasturtium pounded into it. It gives it a peppery, chlorophyll kind of flavour that is a little bit savoury.”
The main beef is served with green garlic, which had only just become available, and a riff on a sauce that diners at Marion might already have seen on the menu.
“It’s called a wine merchant sauce. It’s a real wine-based sauce, with capers, shallots and vinegar. But it’s interesting because it’s not heavy or meat jus based. The wine flavour is quite pronounced and not reduced too much, so it’s quite fresh. It’s really good.”