Talking sea food with Curtis Stone

Curtis Stone

Curtis Stone

The critically-acclaimed Australian chef shares his fondest food memories, his favourite LA dining spots and what it's like to curate a menu for the high seas.

We hear you were always obsessed with food.

My mum and granny were the first people to open my eyes to the joys of food and cooking. My mum, Lozza, is a great cook, in particular a phenomenal baker, and I would watch her every move while she baked. I am very partial to her corn and bacon muffins so she makes these for me whenever I visit. 

I was four years old when I had my first, truly memorable food experience. I tried my granny's Yorkshire fudge and it was one of the first really sweet things that I'd tasted. I just couldn't get enough of it. From that first taste forward, whenever I went to granny's place, we'd get busy in the kitchen and make fudge together. It was our thing.

It was also around this age that I tried my hand at cooking. I love to eat. I've always been a greedy little monster who can't get enough food. Learning how to cook was sort of an extension of always wanting to eat. My best mate's dad was a chef. He sort of lived this rock star lifestyle; he'd come in late from work and he had long hair and tattoos and he didn't conform to my dad's social circle where they all wore suits. I wanted what he had. 

Tell us about the first time you set foot in a professional kitchen. 

It was complete madness; extreme heat, long hours, sharp objects, crazy people, blood, sweat and tears. It had my name all over it; I bloody loved it! I did my apprenticeship at the Savoy Hotel in Melbourne to get my feet wet in the industry.

What sparked the decision to head to London? 

I headed to London chasing a dream to work for Marco Pierre White. His cookbook White Heat was the first I'd ever read. He had this huge reputation for being crazy, working ridiculous hours, and I knew I'd thrive working for him. I offered to work for free just to learn from the absolute pinnacle of chefs! This pivotal decision to seek out Marco paid off. I started working at the Grill Room (Café Royal) on the very same day I met him. This was a place where if you didn't get fired that day, then you did a good job.

What you were first tasked with?

My first kitchen job was to peel a sack of onions. When you're finished, you peel another one. And then you end up spending the entire day peeling onions for the chef. In the moment, tears rolling down your face, it's hard to understand there is a reason behind it. But, guess what, I can cut onions really, really well now and I appreciate the importance of finishing an apprenticeship under the right tutelage and building a strong foundation of skills.

Tell us about the Grill Room.

It was long nights on the stoves, early mornings sourcing produce and prepping and not a whole lot of sleep. The fierce work ethic came from the top, from Marco, and you either fell into line and became part of his brigade or you realised this job and lifestyle wasn't for you and got out of there pretty quickly.

While it was challenging most of the time, I thrived in that environment and went on a steep, steep learning and discovery trajectory and enjoyed the camaraderie that came with spending hours upon hours with the same group of people working towards similar goals. Some of the chefs I worked with in London are now working with me at Maude and Gwen in LA, which is pretty special.

Try recipes from Curtis Stone's restaurant Gwen.

How did London influence your food philosophy?

My eyes were opened to the natural beauty of seasonal, local produce while in London. I spent a lot of time in Borough Market chatting with purveyors about the best of the season, so my seasonal cooking philosophy certainly spawned from my Marco days. When food is in season, it has more natural flavour, is abundant and grows locally, which equals less cost to you and the environment. I also believe that if you use the right ingredients at the right time of year it's hard to go wrong.

What did Marco teach you that you still follow today?

I think his unrelenting drive and work ethic have left an imprint on me. His memoir The Devil in the Kitchen is kind of Marco's tell-all about his hey-day in the kitchen and I have highlighted numerous passages throughout the book that really speak to me and inspire me.

What prompted the move back to Australia?

I was asked to co-host Surfing the Menu with my mate, Ben O'Donohue (aka Bender). We were both working as chefs in London at the time so we headed back to Oz together for the show. We got to travel around Australia and meet loads of passionate food producers and cook their produce. It was the best job in the world - being paid to travel and cook my way around my home country after being away for so long was a real treat. Though I have put down roots with my young family in LA, I'm back in Oz at least five times a year.

Curtis Stone welcomes the Sun Princess to Sydney last month.

You've mentored budding chefs on TV; rewind the clock, if you had one chance to impress your culinary heroes, what would you cook?

I'd cook a dish from one of my restaurants, either Maude, Gwen or SHARE Restaurant on Princess Cruises. We test and re-test our restaurant dishes until we are super happy with them, so I'm always excited to cook for my peers at one of my restaurants.

What has surprised you most about LA life?

From a culinary standpoint, it has some of the most unbelievable produce in the world: the microclimates and a hippie attitude. It's unique. I've lived here for around 10 years; I've watched the scene change. LA's gone through this transformation. The food was secondary [to the scene and celebrity], and, now, it's the complete opposite.

What was the first meal you cooked your wife?

Seafood fettuccine with lobster, prawns, clams, radish and micro herbs. Extra brownie points for making the fettuccine from scratch, ladies and gents.

Are your sons big fans of food, too? 

I think they enjoy the process of cooking together just as much as the eating of the food. I usually have a lot of time to hang out at home in the mornings before heading to the restaurants for the day, so breakfast is our thing. My older son Hudson and I are cooking our way through a beautiful cookbook called Falling Cloudberries: A World of Family Recipes. We still have a ways to go, but we're enjoying the process. 

We've got 24 hours in LA, where should we go?

The Hart and the Hunter
The seasonal produce used to make the Californian cuisine here is vibrant, locally-sourced and super fresh. It's open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but it's their brunch menu that excites me most. They get it right every time, from their kale salad with seasonal fruits, pecans, sheep's cheese and walnut vinaigrette right through to their heart-stopping croque-madame with country ham.

The Oaks Gourmet
When it comes to Sunday and Monday (my days out of the restaurants), I loved being cooked for and especially so when it comes to breakfast. The brekky burrito at the Oaks Gourmet is pretty insane, especially when slathered in hot sauce.

Guelaguetza
An authentic Oaxacan restaurant located in the heart of Koreatown; this is my favourite place for mole.

El Carmen
Given the proximity to Mexico, LA has great Mexican eateries in every pocket of town. I find myself going again and again to El Carmen in West Hollywood to wash down a round of tacos with their sought-after spicy margarita.

Urasawa
You basically have to sell something before you can pull up a seat at the sushi bar here, but it's well worth every penny. The space is intimate and exclusive, with approximately 10 seats, and head chef Hiroyuki Urasawa is a true master of his craft; an exquisite dining experience.

Sushi Park
On the other hand, you don't have to sell something to dine at this little eatery located on the second floor of a nondescript strip mall on Sunset Strip. They serve some of the most authentic sushi in the city - just don't ask for a Californian roll, because you're not going to get it here.

Chung Ki Wa
For super tasty and old-school Korean BBQ, Chung Ki Wa hits the nail on the head. I'm usually the only non-Korean person in the restaurant each time I go here, so you know the BBQ is the real deal.

Tell us how you came to be involved with Princess Cruises.

One of the Princess Cruises execs actually came into Maude and loved what we did, which started the conversation about working together that night after service. SHARE combines all the things that I'm most passionate about, being on the ocean looking over the water, escaping to visit new destinations, and sharing stories and good times over a delicious meal together.

What's different about curating a menu at sea?

Whether a restaurant is on land or at sea, so much goes into the entire project from the dining concept, through to the actual restaurant design. I also have a very specific vision of how I want my restaurants to look, feel and most importantly, taste and I like to throw in the personal touches to add something a little different to the dining experience.

I've been working closely with the Princess team to bring my vision to life onboard Princess' ships. With SHARE, it's been a labour of love. I've been heavily involved in sourcing produce from the best Australian suppliers, sharing personal family photographs on the walls, right down to the selecting the books on the shelves in our interior design scheme - they're the same books you will find in my living room at home. It's this personal touch that is really important to me.

From a food perspective, the Princess culinary team have come into my test kitchen in Los Angeles and I've worked with the chefs at sea. The menu for Sun Princess in Australia alone took about two months to finalise; I wanted to get the look and feel just right for the Aussie market.

After travelling, what's the one meal you always crave?

A nice warm shower followed by a simple home cooked pasta, like a spicy salami rigatoni with capers and olives paired with a fresh, seasonal salad. For all its simplicity, this is an intensely flavoured pasta dish that packs a real punch. It calls on staple pantry ingredients, such as dried pasta, capers, olives, white wine, as well as fresh tomatoes, so it can be cooked up quickly which is exactly what you need post-travelling.

This article is presented by Princess Cruises


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