Meet the Chef: Mike McEnearney
Mike McEnearney has had an impressive kitchen career both here in Australia and in London. He comes across as a very determined yet incredibly easy going man.
A man who once packed his backpack, bought a tent, rented a car and camped all around Europe wearing a black suit and tie, only so that he could afford to visit the most prestigious and exclaimed restaurants at the time.
A man who once built a brick oven from scratch, using mathematic equations and an immense amount of patience and determination, while battling the damp weather conditions of the Welsh highlands, only so that he could perfect his bread baking skills.
So who is Mike?
Mike was born in a proud household where he developed a solid understanding of hard work. Both his parents worked full time and ever since his early teenage years, he would be in charge of cooking the family meal several times a week. Subsequently, that’s where his understanding and appreciation of food started. “I got tired of eating burnt pork chops and lumpy mash, so I had to learn how to make it correctly.”
Although Mike has always enjoyed cooking, he never had the intention to become a chef. It wasn’t until he finished his GCSE’s and found himself tired of school that he decided to pursue a career in the kitchen. At this stage, he had worked as a kitchen hand in a nearby pub and was familiar with the jargons of the industry, and as he read an article about Marco Pierre White in the paper one morning, his decision was made.
Mike’s first job in a professional kitchen was at Chez Oz in Darlinghurst; a highly acclaimed restaurant that could be considered one of Sydney’s finest at the time.
On his first day, he was given a recipe book and a menu and was told to have the larder and pastry section ready by lunchtime. Terrified and completely out of his depth, he put his head down and got on with it. Needless to say, he wasn’t done by lunchtime, and it would take him a good couple of weeks before he stopped feeling terrified and started to enjoy his new job.
“After a couple of weeks, I began to get the hang of things, by this stage I had worked through most of the recipes once or twice and started to gain some confidence.”
It was tough work at Chez Oz, they worked double shifts six days a week, and would often not finish until after midnight. Mike would then jump on a bus home to Beecroft which was a good 1.5h commute, each way.
“I would cry every day, the lack of sleep, long commute and just knowing when you woke up, that you are going to be in the shit, it was like being beaten with a stick every day.”
Still, Mike lasted for a year at Chez Oz and managed to work through all the sections. But once that year was up, he felt there must be more to life, he was 18 years old, working 100h a week with no time for friends or family. So one morning he worked extra hard on his mice en place to get out for a break after lunch and walked from Darlinghurst down to the Rocks and asked to speak to Neil Perry himself at Rockpool.
Neil was instantly impressed with Mike, and when Mike told him the hours that he was working at Chez Oz, he was immediately offered a job.
Working for Rockpool was a breeze after the year that Mike had had, he had gone from working twelve shifts a week to seven, and finally found himself the time and freedom to have a life. This also sparked his hunger to learn and to seek inspiration. Mike would often travel on his days off and work in kitchens all over. At one point he travelled to Italy to do a stage at the 3 Michelin star restaurant Enoteca Pinciora, which inspired him to put new dishes on the menu upon his return. One of these dishes can still be found on the Rockpool Menu and has become a signature dish for the establishment; The Goat cheese tortellini. Mike stayed at Rockpool for five years and worked himself up from cold larder to a sous chef position. When he left, it was to go out and travel and eat at Europe’s culinary hotspots, a year later he found himself settled down in London.
Here he staged, and was offered roles in a number of Michelin star kitchens, including The Oakroom and Chez Nico, but decided to join Tom Aikens at Pied de Terre. “ I really liked the food that Tom was cooking.”
So Mike went back to working crazy hours in a crazy kitchen. Without giving too much away, we all know that Tom Aikens has a reputation for being a bit of a madman in the kitchen, but then again who wasn’t in London during the late 90’s.
Although Mike and Tom got on well, after a year, he had seen enough and jumped ship to join chef John Torode at Terence Conran’s restaurant, Meze in Soho.
He was at Meze and then Blue Bird, which is also a Conran venue and a massive operation that most hospitality people in London at the time would have some association with. As a sous chef here, Mike would manage and work with around 100 chefs and cater for up to 2000 covers a day. A very well structured and organised business that would teach Mike the ins and out of how to run a kitchen, manage staff and food costs. He loved it there.
A couple of years on, Mike was headhunted to run and open the kitchen of a new Notting Hill restaurant; Pharmacy.
Pharmacy which was owned by a couple of shareholders, (one of which was one of Britons most successful artist at the time, Damien Hurst), Pharmacy soon became the hot spot of London and was popular with famous artists, politicians and actors. Damien’s art decorated the walls and one of London’s most renowned mixologist and bartending gurus, Dick Bradsell was mixing the cocktails in the downstairs bar (this is the man that came up with the Espresso Martini).
It was a fantastic opportunity for Mike, to set up his own kitchen and to get the freedom to explore his new culinary calling, which was clean and simple.
“It was here that I really understood what I wanted to do. I had lived in Europe for a couple of years by now, and I had learnt that cooking wasn’t about how many garnishes you put on the plate. I had cooked in 3 Michelin star kitchens and eaten at places like El Bulli, so I had seen my fair bit of textures and molecular cooking. I thought to myself; ‘This is really great food, but it is not what floats my boat, what floats my boat is; produce, seasonality and simplicity.”
“In Europe, the seasons are so precise, all these wonderful ingredients are around for such a short time, and they become like birthdays, where you wait for a year to use that product again.”
“I stripped back my cooking; I was very strict with what I put on the menu at Pharmacy and that it was local and seasonal”.
Mike would spend three years at Pharmacy before moving on, he then did some consultant work and worked in the kitchen at Scott’s and In the Park, where he also got a taste for the more holistic casual dining.
Throughout the years Mike maintained a close friendship with Neil Perry and one day Neil called him up and asked him to come back to Sydney. Neil wanted Mike to take over the day-to-day running of the Rockpool kitchen while he went down to Melbourne to open Rockpool Bar and Grill.
Mike who had by this stage married and had two sons, was reluctant to pack up the family and move back, but the Australian lifestyle convinced them to give it a go.
The move back was a success with kids, and Mike enjoyed getting back into the Rockpool kitchen. But as for many of us who have family and friends on the other side of the world, Mike and his wife felt torn whether to call the UK or Australia home. Eventually, they decided to pack up their home, leave it in storage for a couple of months and return to the UK to see if they could find utopia.
They landed in the Welsh highlands, staying with Mikes in-laws at an old farmers cottage, where they lived completely self-sufficiently, with vegetable garden, solar panels, and a windmill.
Their kids were sent to the local village school, and Mike and his wife Joss started looking around for their dream home.
It was during this time, in damp and muddy, yet beautiful Wales that Mike would find his new calling. First time in his life he was presented with a lot of spare time, and he decided to perfect his baking skills. Back in Sydney, they had lived neighbours with Iggy’s bakery, and the owner Igor and his wife had become close family friends. Mike would even spend some mornings in the bakery before setting off to Rockpool.
So here he was, in the deep countryside of Wales, feeling the urge to bake.
For the next three months, Mike would carefully plan and build an outdoor brick, bread oven, which would prove to be a very time consuming and frustrating project. Because it was so damp and muddy it would take days to get the foundation to dry; he would then use
Pythagoras’s theorem and ellipse formula to create the dome of the oven.
“ I couldn’t use concrete because I wanted the oven to be able to expand in the heat, so each brick had to be carefully balanced on top of one another on a meticulously calculated angle, for it not to collapse”.
Once the oven was ready for use, Mike would then get up in the middle of the night to fire it up, as it took hours to get up to temperature. He would then wrestle a 30 kg dough by hand which would make around 30 loafs. These loaves would then have to move frantically around the house, as he would struggle to find a dry and warm space for them to rise.
The warm and freshly baked bread would be ready just in time for the school run, and Mike would pack the boot of the car full, to then sell the bread to the parents and teachers at the school.
Aside from the bread baking and house hunting, Mike would be eager to help around the farm. His wife’s parents had a large vegetable garden where Mike was happy to lend a hand, yet he was told to stay away from a roped off area at the back of the plot. He soon found out that this area was reserved for the village ‘herb doctor’. It surprised him to see so many familiar plants and herbs growing in there, and this sparked his interest in the beneficial effects of herbs and vegetables, and how they can be used in cooking to improve your physical and mental health. This recently gained knowledge would later become the foundations of his future restaurant, Kitchen by Mike.
A year passed, and the decision to move back to Australia became clear. Upon their return, Mike would spend the following year on an apprentice salary working for Iggy’s bread.
A very brave and risky move, and undoubtedly very challenging after being used to living in Sydney on a head chef salary especially considering he was still the sole income earner for a family of five. But Mike had found his new calling and was lucky to have the support from his friends and relatives.
One evening as he was umming and ahhing on what he would do next, his wife told him “Mike you are a chef, not a baker. You don’t need a fancy restaurant, all you need is an oven and a table for people to sit on”. These words hit home for Mike, and encouraged him to start up a fortnightly pop-up restaurant at a friend’s antique shop in Surry Hills. The pop-up was originally just a fun event for friends and friends of friends. But as it was such a success it became a recurring event.
Mike would cook for up to 40 people in the back of the antique shop, which had an attached warehouse, with only a rented oven and a camping stove. Each event would offer a set menu of whatever seasonal produce that he could get his hands on, and you had to have been invited or know someone who was invited, to attend.
Mike loved the freedom and soon realised that his wife had been right, you don’t need to make it complicated.
After a year, Mike was offered a space in an old factory in Rosebery. When he went to view the site, which was yet to be renovated, he sat down on the floor among old boxes and pigeon poo and tried to get the inspiration of what he wanted to do there.
“This used to be a Rosella soup factory, and I thought to myself, they must have had a canteen here, and that’s when I decided what to do, and Kitchen by Mike was born. I wanted to cook good affordable, hearty food which would bring the community together. A canteen where you would line up and choose from the food presented to you, a place where everyone was equal, and people could eat healthy and wholesome food together on communal tables.’
Ideally, Mike wanted to have a garden out the back where he could grow enough vegetables and herbs for the restaurant, but he soon realised that there wasn’t going to be enough space, so he focused on a medicinal garden instead.
They set up the small outdoor space in the car park and divided it into different garden sections that would each benefit different parts of your body, inspired by that little roped off garden plot in Wales that he had become so fascinated with.
Kitchen by Mike became a hit and was appreciated by locals as well as guests from further afield; it certainly put Rosebery on the map. Most of the food would be cooked in a beautiful, dome brick oven and on the pass you could see hearty salads, roasted vegetables, homemade pizza and a thickly sliced homemade sourdough with a large lump Pepe Saya of butter.
Guest would be served by the chefs themselves and portions were generous and affordable.
A few years in Rosebery and Mike decided that it was time to bring the simplicity and honesty of his cooking to the city. He closed down Kitchen by Mike in late 2015 and in May last year opened No1 Bent Street in the city.
No1 Bent Street offers a more refined yet casual environment that has an open and slightly industrial feel and still offers the communal dining option. Mike has perfected his concept and delivers hearty and wholesome seasonal food, cooked with simplicity and love. Earlier this year he also opened a Kitchen by Mike at the International Airport here in Sydney, a replica of the restaurant in Rosebery, and he has even managed to negotiate a small garden plot at the airport where he can follow his theme of his medicinal garden. This is also the theme of his latest cookbook, which will be all about how you can use food for different health benefits to improve your overall well-being. The new book will be available later this year.