Mitch Orr: Cometh the man, cometh the hour
Making time with one of Sydney’s most dynamic, enigmatic chefs, Mitch Orr, at the fire of his latest creation.
Stepping out onto the 18th floor of the Ace Hotel just south of Sydney’s Hyde Park, the rooftops of Surry Hills that greet you as you exit the elevator only hint at the entirety of the views on offer when visiting Kiln. In less than nine months, it’s quickly become one of the city’s top dining spots, not just for its vibe and 360 degree views, but for the unique, signature style of Mitch Orr and his casual take on elevated dining.
When we meet, Orr is the picture of Zen, issuing quiet instructions to his brigade in preparation of the evening’s service. With glimpses of the Opera House sails and the waters of the harbour as our backdrop, we take a seat and bond briefly over watches – Mitch is donning a jet black IWC Top Gun, a perfect accompaniment to his black, thick framed eyeglasses and streetwear aesthetic.
Orr’s eyes light up and he grins broadly when I ask him about it. “It’s a premium, prestige thing, you know, that I was never able to afford.” The watch, the outcome of a partnership he enjoys with IWC, is indeed a fine piece of work. “The craftsmanship is crazy,” he says of the timepiece. “I think for chefs, and for all creatives, there’s that underlying interest in someone’s creativity.”
Pertinent, really, as Orr’s creative eye has proven impeccable. His mercurial approach to cuisine has garnered him acclaim since even before he was awarded the Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year Award in the wayback of 2010. The accolade set him on a path through some of the world’s best kitchens, from Sepia to Osteria Francescana, Pilu, and a guest chef stint at London’s Michelin starred Lyle’s.
But it was when he went out on a limb in 2014 with ACME in Sydney’s inner east that the buzz truly started. Nominally an Italian restaurant that broke the mould with its innovative embrace of a distinct Asian sensibility across its pasta dishes (a nod to the food he largely grew up with as a young lad in Sydney’s west), ACME very quickly started racking up the plaudits, taking out the Time Out Restaurant of the Year award five months after opening, and a hat from the Good Food Guide. It was time to shine. Mitch was man of the moment.
Kiln restaurant is located in Surry Hills, Sydney.
Mitch Orr has a cool culinary adventurism which emerges in Kiln.
MOMENTS OF TRUTH
Sadly, the high wasn’t to last. ACME’s closure in pre pandemic 2019 was perhaps the most career defining moment Orr had experienced to date. “All the hard decisions are kind of forced,” he says reflectively. “It was a big decision, but it had to be made. We were burnt out; we were maybe going to go bankrupt. We didn’t have the creative energy anymore to go ‘how can we reinvent this?’”
Post ACME, a period of introspection followed. “Opening ACME was a challenge in its own way, but when I started cooking, owning my own restaurant was the end goal. I never thought anything past that. After we closed ACME and lockdown hit and I had time off, I went ‘why the fuck don’t I know what I want to do? Why don’t I know who I am as a cook?’ And I realised, ‘oh, because I’ve done everything I always thought I would do.’”
But every cloud has a silver lining, it seems, particularly for a mind as roving as Orr's.
“I just assumed I’d open ACME and it would be the rest of my life, and pay my bills and send me on holidays and all that kind of stuff,” he says. “As all restauranteurs know, that’s not always the way. It’s not the only business I’ve closed now and it’s not the only restaurant I’ve opened, and as everyone knows it’s almost an endless cycle. Like, Neil Perry is still doing it at 60 years’ old and crushing it.”
The food is as unfussy and inviting as the effortlessly chic interior fit out.
Mitch Orr is the head chef at Kiln restaurant in Surry Hills.
ACE IN THE HOLE
So when the opportunity came to partner with Ace Hotels for a new restaurant concept, Orr was ready to play again.
“For me, coming from running a small business where if I wanted to do something I’d just do it and then going to working with an international company, it’s different and it’s been a learning experience, but it’s been really great,” he says. “Ace has an amazing brand and they create amazing spaces. Its ethos sits really well with my own; it’s been a really good fit.”
Which brings us to Kiln, a light filled space floating above the bustle of inner Sydney, with a woodfire based menu that is a clear evolution of Orr’s style yet maintains the cool culinary adventurism he built his name on. I ask him whether it was hard to step outside the box others had seemed to place him in, and shake that reputation as ‘the pasta guy’.
“I don’t know if I have shaken it to be honest,” he says, “but I think it was important to me coming into Ace and Kiln to show that I’m more than that, and even just to reaffirm to myself that I’m more than that. As much as I love cooking pasta, it’s good to exercise different creative muscles, you know?”
For Orr, it was crucial that Kiln have its own identity. “Obviously it’s still going to have my touchstones and my flavour profiles, but that’s the big reason I didn’t do pasta here. And also you can get pasta in every fucking restaurant in Sydney now. It’s all about the woodfire here – everyone’s drawn to cooking over fire, it’s so elemental. It can be subtle, it can be strong, you can use it through the day to prep stuff… you can use it in a lot of different ways. It’s fun, man.”
As is the food, which is as unfussy and inviting as the effortlessly chic interior fit out.
“It’s a reflection of the way I like to eat in restaurants. I love having amazing wine, amazing food, knowledgeable service, but I hate the pretension – I want to be able to wear shorts in the venue if I want, I want to be able to laugh with my friends and pick at things with my hands and not feel a sense of judgement. I want people to come in who might not know anything and still feel at home and feel like they’re being looked after, you know?”
It's a reflection of the way I like to eat in restaurants...I hate the pretension - I want to be able to wear shorts in the venue if I want.
With Kiln so clearly embodying Mitch Orr’s ethos and personality, I ask him – delicately – about what role ego has to play in such ventures, and in what ends up on the plate.
“A lot,” says Orr, without pause. “All chefs have ego. It’s probably how aware of your ego you are that defines the kind of person you are. To be the best – and I’m not at all saying I’m the best – but to be the best in any industry or creative form you have to believe in yourself, you have to have confidence in what you’re doing, and that comes with ego.”
Sitting in Kiln, chatting with Mitch, it’s clear that ego doesn’t have to be a dirty word. For some, it’s the engine room of creativity, an invitation to party, to share cool with others so they can get a kick out of it too.
“When you’re given creative freedom and license to create a restaurant or a space or a menu, I think that the more it is you, the better it will be” he says. ”It’s such a creative but tough environment because there’s so many people cooking – you have to set yourself apart. You can take inspiration, but you can’t duplicate what other people are doing, so I think you have to have that ego and let it show in your food.”
And with that, our time is up… but without doubt, I’ll be making time to come back.