Watch our exclusive video interview with Warren Turnbull.
He doesn’t own a striped T-shirt, and admits to having never bicycled with a baguette tucked under his arm. He doesn’t speak French, is not known to be rude and, perhaps most shockingly, this proponent of French style was born not in Normandy or Nice, but Nouvelle-Zélande. It’s true: what Warren Turnbull knows about French culture has been absorbed primarily through that great bastion of French cuisine, the restaurant kitchens of London. While his menu at Restaurant Assiette in Sydney’s Surry Hills makes reference to onion bhajis and avocado ‘sushi’, the wealth of purées, confits and sauces matelote to hollandaise make the idiom he’s working in very clear. “To be honest, I don’t really know what to call the food I do at Assiette,” says the 35-year-old chef, “but the technique underneath it all is most definitely French.”
Moving to London in 1994 to work at Kensington Place, Quaglino’s and Marco Pierre White’s Criterion (“he came in on Thursdays”) was something of an eye-opener for the boy who had thought, coming from work in Auckland’s best restaurants, that he knew a thing or two about good cooking. But it was working in the kitchen of the now-defunct Sydney fine-diner Banc, with chefs Matt Kemp and Justin North (now two of the country’s most emphatic Franglais specialists, having carved out their niches at Restaurant Balzac and Bécasse, respectively), that really gave him a sense of what he wanted to do.
While the likes of Paris chefs Pierre Gagnaire and Guy Savoy are more of an inspiration for his work at Assiette than blackboard-and-beefsteak bistros, the lunch Turnbull has put together here is as much about what he enjoys eating as cooking. “I really love Onde at the moment,” he says, speaking of the Sydney bistro landmark. “I love to eat steak frites, beetroot salad, the salt-cod brandade on potato bread, things like that. When we first started Assiette, our food was a lot more like this, but we’re always working to keep up with everyone else. I wouldn’t say our food is experimental now, because that’s not quite right, but it’s definitely freer. We’re having a lot more fun with the way we plate stuff, too.”
With Assiette reaching the three-year mark, Turnbull and co are considering a new site for the restaurant. “But if we moved, it would be a Balzac-style upgrade rather than a Bécasse-sized one – I don’t want to do anything that big, and definitely not in the city.” For now, it’s pie-in-the-sky, and Turnbull comes back to earth with some practical advice for his own recipes. “Just get in there, have a go and enjoy it. Make sure you do it with friends so you can sit around, get sloshed and be merry.”
Restaurant Assiette, 48 Albion St, Surry Hills, NSW, (02) 9212 7979.
WORDS PAT NOURSE PHOTOGRAPHY WILLIAM MEPPEM
This article appeared in the July 2008 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.