Restaurant News

On the pass: Sam Ward, El Público, Perth

We catch up with Sam Ward from Perth's El Público to talk about snacking on grasshoppers and using chocolate in savoury dishes.

By Max Veenhuyzen

What's a kid from Christchurch doing cooking Mexican food, Sam?
It went from reading and researching in my spare time to an obsession very quickly. Like most people, I had the classic Mexican food upbringing of Old El Paso. One day I was making a dish for a competition and my head chef told me to put chocolate in my sauce. I was, like, what are you talking about? He told me about mole and it went from there.
How would you describe your cooking at El Público?
It's my interpretation of traditional, regional Mexican food. Things like guacamole and tacos people already know, but then there are dishes like the beef mogo mogo balls - fried balls of slow-cooked spiced beef brisket coated in a banana batter. Even in Mexico City, I saw only two restaurants serving them. But really, I want people to leave with a greater understanding of Mexican cuisine's depth. It's more than just lime, coriander and chilli.
In the lead-up to opening El Público, you cooked your way through Mexico and also spent some time with Mexican food doyenne Diana Kennedy. What was that like?
Life changing. Her food was really simple and she used native herbs and cooked over wood to bring out the essence of the ingredients. I remember these tamales with roasted chillies, red sauce and cheese she made us. So simple, but so intense. The corn was from one place in Oaxaca and the tomatoes were from her garden. With Diana, it's about using the best quality you can buy. If you can't get the quality, don't bother making the dish.
What struck you most about Mexico?
How much people rely on street food. Comida is the main meal of the day, which happens between two and four o'clock. People will sit down and go to the local market or cantina and have a three-course lunch, so they don't really have dinner. Then at eight, you'll see this wave of people walking down the road just eating: middle-class people, guys in suits, all eating from these little tiny taco stands run by old ladies.
What's top of your Mexican ingredient wish list?
Chapulines, or grasshoppers. The grasshoppers you get in Mexico are a good three centimetres long. As well as deep-frying them and eating them like snacks, you can do so many other things with insects, like grind them up and use them in sauces. There are these ants that go bright purple when ground up. They're really sweet and get used in desserts. Basically, all the bugs.
"Things you can eat from your backyard with Sam Ward": sounds like a fun night to us.
That'd be cool, actually. I've got some herbs growing in the backyard. I wouldn't mind being able to go outside to grab a few crickets and cook with them. That would be quite funny.
El Público, 511 Beaufort St, Highgate, WA, 0418 187 708.

  • Author: Max Veenhuyzen