Food & Culture

Erik Thomson: ''As a kid I ate whale''

The New Zealand-Australian actor on growing up in Scotland, '70s delicacies, and his new role as a disgraced celebrity chef.

By As told to Karlie Verkerk
Aftertaste star Erik Thomson.
I was born in Scotland and my family left the country when I was seven to move to New Zealand. My mother is from the Shetland Islands, way up in the North Sea. Every summer we would go up there and stay with my grandparents for about a month. My grandfather and uncles were fishermen and we'd head out on their boats in the evening and go fishing for trout in the lochs or dredge for scallops. We'd have these long summer evenings surrounded by lots of food.
My Scottish grandmother used to make a thing called reestit mutton, which is dried mutton. The Norwegian and Russian whalers would come to shore and they had lots of whale, but they didn't have any mutton, so my grandmother would trade the mutton for whale. As a kid I ate whale. I often drop that into dinner party conversation for effect.
We recently had a '70s party to celebrate my daughter's 13th birthday. I made devils on horseback; my mother-in-law made a salmon mousse, which was set in a fish mould; and we had a fondue. We realised as we were eating all this food just how horrible it was and how far we'd come.
It's safe to say the '70s was not a great culinary period. Growing up in New Zealand during that time my mum would make casseroles using pre-made powdered bases, which to be fair were quite innovative then. It was very standard colonial, meat and two veg; mince and potatoes. I didn't try sushi until I was about 30 years old.
I live in Willunga in South Australia. There's such a strong focus on food and produce down here. During summer it feels like the Mediterranean – you've got the food, the wine, the sea. It's such an easy place to live.
I've just bought a little runabout boat that I've named "Milky Way", after my grandfather's boat. I'm looking forward to getting out into the gulf and catching a few fish; there's a lot of squid out there as well. My in-laws had a place down at Myponga Beach – somewhere we'd holiday as a family – and there was a guy there who we called squid man. He would stand in his boat and hand-catch squid then sell it to the restaurants.
I like to cook although I don't get wrapped up in fancy stuff. My style of cooking is more Jamie Oliver – rustic, throw-together kind of stuff. I prefer winter because I love to make bourguignon and shepherd's pie. I also enjoy sourcing quality produce, and we're spoilt for choice here. South Australian King George whiting has to be the best tasting fish – throw it in the pan with some butter, Murray River pink salt and a squeeze of lemon juice and it's as good as you can get in any restaurant.
Aftertaste, a new television show we've recently finished filming, was the first production to start filming in Australia post-COVID. The show is centred around a disgraced celebrity chef (my character), his path to redemption and what happens behind the scenes – he's a little bit washed up and is still behaving like an absolute ass. You could get away with that back in the '90s but you can't get away with it anymore. We wanted to explore power, fame and food.
The more research I did, the more I realised that cheffing, like acting, is an art – it's an expression of someone's ego. Especially with stage acting; you prepare and prepare and once the curtain comes up, it's performance time, which is the same for a restaurant service. Given the adrenaline levels are high, there are actually quite a lot of parallels. Everyone is seeking perfection. And then the curtain comes down and the service is over. ●
Erik Thomson stars alongside Rachel Griffiths in the new comedy series Aftertaste, which premiered on February 3 on ABC.
  • undefined: As told to Karlie Verkerk