When US chef Gavin Baker landed in Melbourne to man the pans of new establishment Little Hunter, he was, by his own admission, little known on Australian soil. As Anthony Huckstep discovered, when it comes to our culinary landscape, he’s a chef you simply need to know about.
Can you understand the food of a chef by their culinary past? Their references can be a guide to learnt technique and ethos, but life lessons, skills one has truly obtained and how they manifest themselves are different from individual to individual.
US expat Gavin Baker, executive chef at Melbourne’s Little Hunter, boasts arguably the most fascinating CV in the cheffing fraternity.
From haute to hunter, Baker has rattled the pans at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck, alongside Jean-Jacques Rachou at La Cote Basque in New York and even held the post of exec chef for Justin Timberlake’s restaurant, Chi, on LA's Sunset Strip.
Intriguingly, Baker also worked as a chef for an illegal spear-fishing yoga commune off the coast of Thailand. He taught villagers in the Himalayas how to make pizza and trained non-English speaking Indonesians how to run a sustainable kitchen on an island near Papua New Guinea.
Not satisfied with that, he created The Mist Project – a series of 'guerilla' dining experiences in different countries – and perhaps most interesting of all spent three months in Indonesia killing and cooking his own food with local communities.
His experiences are much broader than there is room for in these pages, but it’s clear he is not your average chef.
“I didn’t want to cook anymore unless I could kill and cook it myself,” Baker says of his Indonesian experience. The premise was to identify, understand and connect with the animals that fuelled his body, essentially earning one’s right to take its life.
“Scooping out warm blood from the animal, salvaging that, taking the organs of the animal and grinding them and mixing it with its own blood that’s still warm,” he says.
“Then adding some spice and putting it in its own intestines and wrapping it around a bamboo pole, and roasting that alongside the pig.
“That sort of connection with things is the same respect and integrity for the product that we use, certainly me as a chef, and [we] at Little Hunter.”
Given our society is so far removed from the hunter gatherer notion, the very thought of such an act for many is quite gruesome, although in reality we are all happy to consume many proteins at a rate of knots as long as someone does the dirty work.
Baker’s stance on the matter is as pure as the driven snow. “Can you kill an animal to cook if you had to?” he asks. “That’s what we did when I stabbed this wild boar in the heart and held it while it died, then broke it down on banana leaves, and placed it into bamboo and roasted over an open fire.”
Although it may be confronting for some, the experience had quite a positive and humbling impact on Baker.
“It was very emotional for me, life changing. When you take the life of an animal it’s a very necessarily emotional event. If you don’t feel emotion then you probably shouldn’t be cooking because you are going to miss the reverence that is needed to approach the cookery of it.
“This process [is] far removed from how many points out of 20 you might get and how many hats you get. It’s part of a daily process; you need to feed yourself and those around you, so you take the life of another animal then you prepare that together.
“The entire day is centred around preparing that. It takes hours to prepare this meal. Then you sit around and you eat together. You get up the next day and you are faced with the exact same issue.”
It is this sense of community of providing for each other and the nurturing it entails that is exactly what Baker is trying to get across at Little Hunter.
“[It's] the nurturing side of food, taking the time to respect the ingredients and the people that work with them, and then feeding others,” he says. “Maybe it does cross paths with the reviewers and media, but it certainly isn’t why we do it.”
Baker describes himself as primarily a vegetarian, but that's not because he doesn’t believe in eating meat. In fact he does eat meat when he knows its provenance, but he simply doesn’t trust the quality of the meat that is served in many restaurants.
“I don’t want to eat a battery-raised chicken, I don’t want to eat a cow that was slaughtered 600 in an hour in a slaughter house, I can’t bring myself to participate in that. The same thing with fish.
“I’m finding it harder and harder as the world has moved on to find food that I can eat without conscience, which is a good thing.”
These primal urges are met with an innate understanding and drive towards perfection to find the perfect dish, although it took Baker a long time to arrive at this point.
“I started cooking because I was shit at architecture,” he admits. “I had wanted to be an architect since I was two years old and when I finally went to school for it I thought, wow this is horrible, this is nothing like drawing at all, this is all maths and physics,” he says.
He spent his formative years from 18 to 22 in the US Marine Corps. Coming from a very small community in North Carolina, the military was the only way out, but in true Baker style of always pushing the boundaries to extremes, he chose the Marine Corps, notoriously the hardest branch.
“So sure, the discipline from there by all means transferred easily into the kitchen,” he says. “I came out of that thinking, man, I could survive anything, I was like the cockroach of all my friends. If the world ended I would somehow be the only one that survived.”
Thanks to his time in the Marine Corps, he was eligible for a college scholarship through the GI Bill and looked about for something to do with it.
He gave away everything he owned and moved into the mountains of North Carolina with his brother. They went to the local community college, looked at the blackboard to see what programs were on offer, and because it was the off-season, the only one available was culinary school, he says.
He had no other reason other than it started in nine days and he needed a purpose, but he soon discovered he was built for cheffing.
By the age of 24 he found himself running a restaurant. He believed he knew everything there was to know about food when he left North Carolina, but when he discovered New York he realised he knew absolutely nothing.
The move to New York fuelled a fire in his belly to not so much be the best, but work with the best to fully understand what it takes to play at that level. It’s a pressure that is his best and worst enemy.
“My therapist tells me that I put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself even by thinking I could work at the highest level possible. But I’m more curious though.
“Being number one isn’t what its about for me, I’m more curious of what does the world say is number one. I want to go there and see why it is number one.”
He says his yearning to work at the Fat Duck was not about getting it on his CV, but about truly testing his skills. It was while he was working in Germany during the 2006 Football World Cup that he began pestering Blumenthal for a job, writing a letter once a week every week for five months.
“I want to come work there, I want to come work there,” he says of his letters. Finally he decided to simply go there and land on their doorstep. “My letters changed to ‘ok, I’m coming tomorrow’ until finally it was like, ‘ok I’m outside now’,” he laughs.
Baker fell in love with the Fat Duck immediately. “Whether it was at the Fat Duck or with some of these tribal communities, I felt like I had something to gain from learning from these people.
“There’s 47 chefs at the Fat Duck and one of the beautiful things about working there is that everybody working there is as good at their job as you are at yours.”
He describes the experience as akin to finding a special club of individuals with the same OCD problems that you have, where you can all get together and understand each others ways.
“It was the best restaurant I ever worked at in my entire life,” Baker says.
Baker held a permanent position there for two years, and by the time he left, he says “the technical term for my position was junior sous chef, but no one had the heart to call me junior because I was so f@#%ing old”.
But the Fat Duck was not the only inspiration to drive Baker to excel. During a two-year stint for a restaurant group in the States, he was told his standards were too high.
“I was told that if I wanted to be successful, not just in their restaurant group but in life, I had to lower my standards and not try so hard,” he says.
It was a defining moment for this culinary crusader. “I just said, I’m sorry man, I can’t. No, actually I’m not sorry, I just can’t.”
He resigned and The Mist Project was born. What started as a guerrilla dining project soon became about where art meets food at its most perfect.
“The fleeting beauty of what we do as chefs, there is a very small window of when a chef creates something, it’s like a volatile living organ that you are holding in your hand and it’s warm and it's quivering and you have a very finite amount of time to get it transplanted,” he says.
“Food is the same thing. You have this dish, you send it out to the person to eat and you know right away whether it is done perfectly, and that moment of when they get it and they get to enjoy it is a beautiful moment.
“I wanted to make sure that the art side of that was captured, and that is what Mist became. It was an opportunity to work on dishes, as perfect as you could make them, and then present them as if it were a living, breathing gallery of food.”
While the Mist project was spawned in defiance to the statement that Baker needed to lower his standards, even Baker concedes Mist originally seemed a bit self-serving.
“'I’m gonna open a guerilla restaurant to show everyone how pretty my food was' – it was born out of that but after researching foods in general, and holding on to a lot of lost ways and using what we now call modern techniques, I realised Mist was about a journey for me. How can you convert tribal food into three-hat food?”
Baker did more research into lost foods and soon enough found himself in Indonesia working with the tribes for three months. Expect to see something from the Mist Project in Australia this year, but for now, Baker's journey has led him to our shores and he’s revelling in it.
With the backing of a group including Pete Evens, the doors of Little Hunter swung open earlier this year in a basement on Little Collins Street in Melbourne. The space may be oh so Melbourne – dark woods, intimate nooks and a bar to drink and eat at – but the experience is worldly. It would be easy to classify it as a modern steakhouse, but nothing is as simple as that when it comes to Baker.
At Little Hunter the ethos really is quite simple – get the absolute best products and do the absolute best they can to them. Think Wood-roasted pork with kale, cider vinegar, fresh sausage; Chatham Island blue cod with sea grasses, leeks and brown butter; Koonwarra natural NY strip steak with roasted tomato and bearnaise; or Licorice ice cream with milk crumbs, bee pollen and candied citrus.
Then there is that pull-apart bread with a chicken skin butter that all of Melbourne is talking about.
He describes his food as deceivingly simple, but in truth in the back-of-house engine room elements of some dishes can take days to prepare.
“Three to five components on the plate is what I look for. They need to be as technically beautiful as possible and deceivingly simple for the guest.”
For instance, the grits are made with parsley butter, a process that takes eight days to make. You don’t see that and it’s not mentioned on the menu.
“That for us means we don’t need to run around and make a big deal about the technique we are doing from our side. Chefs like that level of detail.
“The same thing can be said for most of the products that we use, which are either organic, sustainable or local – they are all of those things for the most part, but they are that by default.
“There’s not this need to sort of go on to this long description of where the chicken came from. In this day and age, if you don’t know the provenance of your ingredients, and you’re not sourcing quality meats, you’re simply out of the game.
“So we don’t make a big deal out of it, it’s just assumed that the stuff we have on the menu is well sourced and well looked after because that’s the type of people that are in the kitchen.
“At Little Hunter, I’m really just looking for close-your-eyes-delicious moments with every dish.”
Isn’t that what we all want when we dine out? •