Real Food and Good Company with Andy Allen
Chef Andy Allen might have become a TV star, but it's real, no-fuss food enjoyed with family and friends at the heart of his celebrations.
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Andy Allen’s mum turned to him, her faced etched with worry, and said, “What have you done?” They were travelling on a bus to the MasterChef studio and behind them, two of Andy’s fellow contestants were discussing food.
“They were talking about things that were just so far out of our family knowledge,” he describes. “Mum was scared I was going to make a fool of myself and I was thinking the same thing.”
Food wasn’t something that was celebrated in the Allen household when Andy was growing up. Feeding him and his two older sisters was a task left to his dad, given his mum had no aptitude for or interest in (wo)manning the pans.
“Mum can’t cook,” is Andy’s blunt summation. “I have vivid memories of lamb chops going grey under the grill.”
For his dad, cooking was more about quantity over creativity. “There’s a few things I can remember. This minestrone soup dad could cook and this green chicken curry. He’d just batch it hard and we’d eat the same thing for a good stint there.”
Eventually, Andy says, he took matters into his own hands and started cooking for his family and friends. And it was one of these friends who dared Andy, an apprentice electrician at the time, to audition for the 2012 season of MasterChef.
So Andy went from rustling up meals at home to sitting on a bus about to appear on national television. “I think from that moment I was like, I really need to learn how to cook, or it’s going to be very, very embarrassing,” he says.
The experience was full of firsts for the fledgling cook and he added dishes like Barramundi tartare – he’d never even tried Barra, let alone tartared it – and North African tajine – a cuisine he didn’t know existed – to his repertoire. And he was often quoted saying things like, “I’ve no idea what I’m doing, I’m just totally winging the whole thing” and “I have no instincts about any of the techniques at all.”
Yet, at the same time, Andy was soaking up everything there was to learn so that by the finale, there he was with streamers raining down on his head and his mother once more by his side, proud of her winning son and saying, “We never thought he’d get this far!”
A Serendipitous Meeting
MasterChef was a life-changing experience for Andy for many reasons, but one of the biggest would have to be that it introduced him to his future business partners. Darren Robertson and Mark Labrooy are two of the brains behind the acclaimed Three Blue Ducks restaurants and when they appeared as guest chefs on the show, Andy was struck by their style.
“It was just how casual they were about how they went about things, but also the food they were putting out,” he describes. “I was just drawn to how flavoursome things could be without being overdone or overworked, it’s just honest and tasty food.”
In fact, he was so impressed that he sought out work experience at ‘The Ducks’ and in turn, did some impressing of his own. The result? By 2016, Andy was a co-owner of Three Blue Ducks Roseberry. But once again, Andy was thrown in the deep end. “I’d never been a head chef then here I was with this big 200 seater restaurant,” he describes, “so I really had to teach myself.”
One of the biggest lessons he learnt was that the most vital ingredient in the kitchen is its people. “It’s one thing to be able to show someone a dish,” he says. “The next thing is how do you, in an eight hour shift, make all of the things that are a kitchen work seamlessly? And that definitely comes down to how you treat each individual and how you get the best out of them and the more respect you can get from your staff, the more that they’re going to put in.”
Andy now describes The Ducks as his “heart and soul” and he lives and breathes the philosophy of “real food, good company.” But when he’s not working hard to keep the diners coming back, he’s gracing our screens as one of the new trio of judges on Masterchef. This gig has thrust him into the spotlight once more, but being a bloke from Newcastle, Andy is determined to stay grounded. And he credits his family with helping him keep it real. “However successful you are, whenever you go home to your family, it’s exactly the same,” he says.
Speaking of which, when it comes to celebrating the simple pleasures, it’s his loved ones at the centre. “There’s no better feeling for me than taking it right back to where it began, having my friends and family over for a backyard barbecue and just sitting back and looking at everyone having fun, having a beer and enjoying the food.”
And no doubt, his mum will be there to enjoy the spoils, now fully confident in the wisdom of his choices.
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