Every time I go to a big new city I will always try and find a local market
We meet Luke Mangan, the Australian celebrity chef who believes that the fastest way to get to know a country is through its food
“Well, I was kicked out of school pretty young, so I didn’t have much choice. I thought I would stick at it,” Australian Luke Mangan says about his decision to become a chef. The straight-talking TV star from Melbourne, who left school at 14, now has 19 restaurants worldwide, has cooked for a royal wedding and president and is about to complete his land, sea and air triumvirate by launching a restaurant on the Eastern & Oriental Express, a luxury train that travels from Singapore to Thailand.
While his schooling career was cut short, Mangan still had the drive to get ahead. After receiving the Roux brothers’ cookery book Patisserie as a gift, he wrote to the Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux in London to see if he could work in his kitchen for free. “As soon as I received it, I said I want to work there,” says Mangan.
The young chef, who had spent two years working in a restaurant in Melbourne, arrived in London the day before his 21st birthday, and then spent the next day working from 7am to 1am at the Waterside Inn at Bray, Berkshire. Thousands of miles away from home and surrounded by French-speaking chefs, Mangan could have felt totally out of his depth, but he couldn’t have been happier. “Best birthday I’ve ever had,” he says.
Smart, friendly and engaged, it wasn’t long before Roux offered Mangan a full-time job. Within three years, he went from being a commis to a senior chef de partie. “It was a great experience. Without it I wouldn’t be where I am now,” says Mangan.
While one of his friends Anthony Bourdain has said that Mangan likes to party, it’s clear that Mangan’s success has come purely from hard work. “We would get every Monday off. And me and a fellow chef [Gus Ashenford of 5 North Street] used to go every Monday to London.” Smiling as he remembers, he says: “We would save our pennies and pounds and then go to a restaurant – whether it was a one-star, two-star and three-star restaurant.” Even on his day off, Mangan was doing his homework.
Mangan learnt that while the money might not always be great for young chefs and the hours are long, by learning to be a chef he would get to meet great people and travel the world. Using an apt foodie pun he says: “The world is your oyster.”
After three years of working in Roux’s kitchen. Mangan moved to Kensington Place to learn about modern French classics. The calmer working hours meant that this rising star could finally enjoy one of Britain’s most famous attractions: “I got to understand the pub culture pretty well. We used to hang out at a pub, called the Churchill Arms on Kensington Church Street. After we’d finished work at Kensington Place, we’d always go there for drinks.”
While Mangan dined on French food, he still enjoyed a British dish or two. “I like good bangers and mash and all that sort of thing. That’s all good stuff to me,” he says. And even after travelling all over the world, he still has a British restaurant at the top of his list. “I tell you, I love Scott’s in London. I just love the feel and the buzz and the great food. I eat simple. I like great ingredients and just cooked well,” Mangan explains.
Simple, great ingredients cooked well, is at the base of Mangan’s success. As is what he learnt in the kitchen at the Waterside Inn. “I learnt there are no short cuts… You need to be committed to your skill and you must have a foundation”.
Mangan’s solid foundation saw him move to Sydney in 1994 to open a restaurant for the entrepreneur John Hemmes, then he launched his own restaurant five years later. But while he was back on home turf, Mangan’s love of travel didn’t dim. He launched his first restaurant in Tokyo in 2006, and then went onto launch restaurants on cruise ships and develop the inflight menu for Virgin Airlines. And it looks as if Mangan could be creating the space food for Branson’s Virgin Galactic as he says, “Anything’s possible – you never know”.
Food and travel is a big part of Mangan’s life. His 30th birthday was at El Bulli (a lunchtime party that went onto late into the night and turned into a tapas tour of Barcelona) and his holidays always feature a gourmet food tour. “I like to go to Positano when I can… I love the freedom [you get] by hiring your own little boat and visiting little restaurants around Positano.” However, it’s his friend Rick Stein who has given him inspiration for his latest trip. “One thing I would really like to do is jump on a barge,” says Mangan. “Rick Stein told me about a TV series he did where he travelled through France on a barge… stopping off at different ports and enjoying different cheese and wine… My next goal is to do that.”
Mangan believes that the faster way to get to know a country is through its food. “I like to experience what the locals do and what they eat,” he says. So travel for him is all about the food? “Food and wine….” [he laughs].
Although, as carefree as he appears, it’s clear that he hasn’t stopped doing his homework. “I think you always learn something from eating in a restaurant or travel,” says Mangan. “Every time I go to a big new city I will always try to find a local market.”
Mangan admits he will often sample foods in different in countries and then take his foodie discoveries back to Australia and give it an Antipodean twist. “They have a beautiful laksa in Singapore. I would make a laksa my style, serve it on a different style of noodles with barramundi – to me that’s an Australian dish.”
The raw, bustling Asian street markets are a source of inspiration to this celebrity chef. “I love the markets in Singapore. There are so many. The different style of food that can give you the whole scene of Singapore,” says Mangan. “I love the market in Chinatown and Tekka Centre in Little India.”
Mangan doesn’t go with a plan when he hits one of the markets, he just shops according to his mood. “It’s what I want to cook on the day. It’s what market tours are all about. I’ll take a beautiful piece of fish I’ve just bought, then look to see what will go with it… That’s what gives me inspiration.”
And he’s still finding new ingredients that inspire him. “We found these kiwiberries – absolutely beautiful… a sweet, cross-kiwi fruit. I am enjoying using them at the moment for desserts.”
Mangan is now bringing his love of great ingredients to the public with his latest project – a food tour with Eastern & Oriental Express. Guests will join him in Singapore for a tour of an exotic food market, before they board the train for a three-day, two night journey to Bangkok. During the market tour, Mangan will showcase some of the ingredients that he plans to use in the exclusive menu he has created for the journey. “[We will be] showcasing the relationship between the finest and freshest Australian ingredients whilst implementing a local twist,” says Mangan. Typical dishes on the menu will include Kingfish yellow fish sashimi, ginger soy shallot and Liquorice 2016, which is apple, liquorice cream, Sambuca sponge and lime dessert. And when Mangan isn’t busy in the train’s galley kitchens, he’ll be signing copies of his latest book Salt Grill, Fine Dining for the whole family and spending time chatting to guests.
However, as you would expect from the dynamic entrepreneur, this is just one of his plans 2016. He is also looking at a few sites for a new restaurant in Beverly Hills. Mangan in Hollywood? “Anything is possible,” he laughs.
Quick Fire Questions
First food memory
My mother’s home cooking. I come from a very large family, seven boys… mum was a great cook. Lots of shared food on the table.
First dish you cooked
Probably bread and cakes with my mum.
Food trend you wish would disappear
Molecular cuisine – it’s not natural to me.