Artist and mentor, baker and cook, Phillip Searle has worn many hats, many of them at the same time. One of the first Australian chefs to successfully bring the flavours and textures of Asia into the world of fine dining, he’s also recognised as an innovative pastry chef. His influences and interests are diverse. "The more information that you have, the more you’re going to use," he says. "You broaden your field, you become more eclectic than less," even as those influences become harder for the outside observer to discern. Going from Adelaide’s Riley’s and Possums to the award-winning Oasis Seros in Sydney (our Restaurant of the Year in 1989) to Vulcans in the Blue Mountains, Searle has stood outside the mainstream of cooking, working very much in his own mode, fashioning ideas out of whole cloth and bringing a great deal of rigour to their exploration.
Where some of his peers viewed the move to the mountains as a retirement from serious cooking, it has certainly been no fallow period as far as Searle himself is concerned. Opening the Infinity Sourdough Bakery in Darlinghurst in the late 90s, he taught himself baking from the ground up. He’s a mushroom forager of some repute, and lately he’s been dabbling in cheesemaking. Cooking, he says, contains worlds within worlds, and working with the old bakery oven at Vulcans has proven immensely rewarding.
"Without being too esoteric, it’s the idea of a shared table. At Vulcans it’s a very small menu, so it’s a bit of an act of faith, because I’m going to cook something and it puts me in the driver’s seat. I roast a whole shoulder of pork, and you’re participating in eating it like a family might, because you’re going to get a piece of that pork the same as that bloke next to you is going to get a piece cut from a whole oyster blade of beef that everyone else is having."
Bentley Restaurant & Bar’s Brent Savage counts Searle among his mentors. "I think it’s amazing that Phillip’s still a hands-on chef, every day, after that many years in the kitchen,’’ he says. "The amount of energy he puts into his food is a real strength, and he has an amazing understanding of the balance of taste and textures."
Christine Manfield, recently returned to Sydney restaurants with Universal, also says working with Searle heavily influenced her thinking about food. "His disciplined focus and visionary genius has had a monumental impact on Sydney’s gastronomic landscape," she says. "Working with him was intensely satisfying, demanding and challenging – an unparalleled learning experience that has become all too rare."
The three-star chefs of today hold him in equally great esteem. Chui Lee Luk names him among her food heroes alongside Cheong Liew and Tim Pak Poy, noting his "well-researched yet intuitive understanding of cuisine," not to mention his sense of humour and humility. "Phillip is the rarest kind of chef," says Quay’s Peter Gilmore. "An original thinker."
Gay Bilson, a contemporary of Searle’s in Sydney restaurants and a fellow conspirator in the Symposia of Australian Gastronomy, sees him as an adventurer and an explorer. "The most intelligent and imaginative cook I know, a cook who loves the extreme and asks us to go along with him, and that takes courage."
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WORDS PAT NOURSE PORTRAIT CON POULOS