Clayton Wells shares recipes from Sydney's Automata, translating fine-dining food to an easy-going lunch with friends.
Automata chef Clayton Wells makes entertaining sound easy. "Prepare as much ahead of time as you can, drop everything on the table at once and then join the party," he says. It all sounds very casual and seems at odds with the chef's background: before opening Automata, his first solo restaurant, six months ago, Wells was sous-chef at Sydney fine-diner Momofuku Seiobo and he's also clocked kitchen time at Tetsuya's and Quay.
The five-course tasting menu at Automata, in Chippendale's refurbished Old Clare Hotel, shows just as much polish as Wells' glittering CV, but with the party dial turned up a notch or two. "We're pretty free-flowing," he says. "We change a dish or two every week and don't overthink things too much - we just come up with something that's tasty and roll with it."
Wells might be rolling with it, but his attention to detail never wavers.
He builds flavour with the likes of mushrooms, seaweed stocks and fermented juices, and turns to native coastal herbs and blistered fruit for sweetness and tang.
For an off-duty lunch with friends this translates to soy-pickled eggs with black garlic ("they can be done a week before, so on the day all you need to do is put them on a plate," he says) and light and bright dishes such as raw kingfish with crème fraîche, shiso and finger lime.
Since the restaurant opened last spring, plenty has been said about the steamed hapuku, but where that particular fish comes veiled under a sheet of wet laver, the chef's take on flounder here is very much ready for its close-up: the fins, head and skin are removed, the rich butter sauce tinged a vibrant green by wakame. "It takes a little longer to prepare but it's a great way to eat," Wells says, "especially in a group environment where everyone's digging in."
"People still think we're fine-dining, which is great because I love cooking that food," says Wells. "But we've taken the fuss out and scaled back on all the extras. Let's keep it simple and fun."
Automata's lunch menu for six:
Automata, 5 Kensington St, Chippendale, NSW, (02) 8277 8555, automata.com.au