Six degrees of Philip Johnson
The continuing legacy of one of Brisbane’s most influential chefs - the one and only Philip Johnson.
It’s a rare Brisbane food lover who hasn’t eaten at e’cco Bistro or doesn’t own at least one of Philip Johnson’s six cookbooks. Despite growing up in New Zealand, Johnson is considered one of their own by Brisbane locals, venerated as hospitality royalty, valued both for his vast culinary knowledge and longevity in a famously capricious industry.
While he may have had a long and distinguished career, becoming a chef was not part of a young Philip Johnson’s life plan. “I wanted to be an aircraft mechanic,” he says. “At 18, I sat an exam for Air New Zealand, but like many chefs, my maths was hopeless and I failed the exam.” In the absence of a plan B, Johnson applied for a job at local Christchurch hotel, The Clarendon. “I sliced my finger off the first day and have been cooking ever since."
Over four decades on, an extraordinary number of chefs and front of house superstars were made in the Johnson stable, many going on to open their own restaurants. One of his earliest proteges, Paul McGivern was just 20, but already disillusioned with the industry when he met Johnson.
“Phil saved me from giving up. I felt like I’d seen the worst side of hospitality and I was ready to throw it in,” says McGivern. “Then I started working with Phil and he showed me another way and it wasn’t around abuse, but just positivity and good ideas.”
Today, McGivern is the owner of Brisbane’s La Lune in Fish Lane, as well as previous award-winning restaurants, Manx, The Wolfe and Restaurant Rapide.
In the three years he worked with Johnson, whom he still counts as a good friend and talks to weekly, McGivern says that his “wisdom, ideas and philosophy” were a huge influence on him.
“He showed me how to let your actions do all the talking, how to treat people and how to be humble. I mean, here’s the boss and he is carrying the garbage out at the end of the night.”
“Humble” tends to be a recurring descriptor when you ask hospitality folk about Johnson. “The thing about Phil is that he’s always had this philosophy of inclusiveness,” says PJ McMillan, who also worked at e’cco and has owned highly successful restaurant Harvey’s in James Street for 25 years. “He has this way of recognising when people have the ability to go places and the generosity of spirit to allow them to evolve and contribute rather than dominating. It’s never just about him.”
Johnson was still in his twenties when he opened his first restaurant, Le Bronx, in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, but he already had substantial classic training behind him. Having left his native New Zealand at 21, he worked at the Crest in Brisbane before heading to the UK, gaining experience under luminaries such as Antony Worrell Thompson at Ménage à Trois, in Knightsbridge. On his return to Brisbane three years later, he opened Le Bronx in 1988, selling it after six years. Then, after a return stint to the UK where he work at Soho’s Del ‘Ugo, Johnson returned to Brisbane once more and opened e’cco Bistro.
e'cco Bistro restaurant in Brisbane is one of the local's favourites.
Philip Johnson's risotto of Moreton Bay bugs, fennel and chilli recipe.
“I don’t think that really anybody else was doing that sort of food back then,” says McGivern. “We used to have these lunches and I’d go into the cold room and just like think to myself, “Heck yes, this is amazing! I’m cooking food I never thought I’d be able to cook. It was unreal, a complete revelation. We worked a million hours a week, but none of us cared and I was the happiest I’ve ever been.”
At a point in culinary history when “more was more,” Johnson’s philosophy was simple and before its time: don’t just lean on luxe produce for effect - pare back the excess and let the food speak for itself.
“Something that I learned from Phil was that it doesn’t have to be about the most expensive ingredients,” says McMillan. “At e’cco we mixed it up. It was about honouring technique while not being bound by them. It was good quality, in season food, understated and elegant.”
Philip Johnson's potato gnocchi, gorgonzola, spinach and pine nuts recipe.
Philip Johnson of e'cco Bistro in Brisbane.
TAKE ME TO THE RIVER
Then the unexpected happened. Barely a year into e’cco’s existence, Johnson was excited to find someone else who lived and breathed the same philosophy.
“Within ten days of seeing The River Café’s Blue Book, I was on a plane to London,” he says. While he’d done stages as a young chef in London, often on his days off, Johnson was in his late thirties when he persuaded founder Rose Gray to let him come and spend some time in River Café’s kitchen.
“Everyone thought I was crazy, working for nothing, but I wanted to learn, so I went there and had my little notebook and I just took everything in. Jamie Oliver, who was yet to be discovered, was there, Ben O’Donoghue was there, the late Darren Simpson was there. And it was the first restaurant that it was all about flavour. And that was down to Rose, who was my real mentor. She could only see things as they were - if they were grey, they were grey, they were green, they were green, she didn’t add anything for effect. And I saw food turned around there, a piece of fish or a peach that wasn’t perfect that anyone else would just serve.”
That experience helped confirm to Johnson that he was on the right path, favouring flavour over a chef’s ego. Just a year later, e’cco won the Remy Martin/Gourmet Traveller Restaurant of the Year award, pipping Sydney’s Rockpool and Melbourne’s Jacques Reymond. Chef Rick Stein, the international judge who made the call, described e’cco as “the sort of restaurant that the rest of the world envies: laid back, totally at ease with itself”.
These days, e’cco has moved location and is still going strong. Johnson still gets excited by the profession, admitting he can only learn as much as teaches to his kitchen staff. And even after 40 odd years in the industry, despite the accolades and esteem in which he’s held by patrons and employees alike, he still doesn’t consider himself above taking out the rubbish at the end of service.