Chris McLeay, chef de cuisine, Garden Kitchen & Bar

... Keep it simple, don’t be afraid to fail and continue to innovate ...

Overseeing the kitchen of one of the Gold Coast’s largest restaurants – Garden Kitchen & Bar at The Star Gold Coast – is no small feat. But chef de cuisine Chris McLeay takes it all in his stride. From cooking pikelets for his mum in the third grade (using a recipe borrowed from none other than the Woman’s Weekly cookbook) to travelling the world as a chef, Chris has perfected his craft and remains driven by an innate passion to create and deliver quality – even if there are 500 different sets of tastebuds to please on any given night. It’s a busy life for Chris, but he took five to chat to us about food philosophies, his top picks for spring, and why you shouldn’t be afraid to fail. 

Take us back to the very beginning. Do you remember the moment when you realised knew you wanted to be a chef?
When I was in my final year of high school, a good friend of mine had dropped out and started a pastry/baking apprenticeship at the Sheraton. Hearing his stories, it sounded like never ending feasts, creativity and almost like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory. I thought that sounds like the job for me. I took a slightly different path and went with the culinary degree. The early morning starts would have been torture for me if I was to be a baker!

What’s your earliest memory of cooking?
The very first memory I have is a cookbook that was a class project when I was in grade three. It was for a Mother’s Day present. A super simple pancake recipe (I’m sure I borrowed the recipe from the Woman’s Weekly cookbooks). I still have that cookbook and still use the recipe to this day.

Tell us about your role at Garden Kitchen & Bar. What would you say is the most challenging element and, on the flip side, what would be the most rewarding?
As chef de cuisine of Garden Kitchen & Bar my main priority is delivering great food consistently, that’s in season and food that keeps our customers coming back. One of the biggest challenges is producing a menu that suits so many different tastes. The restaurant can accommodate up to 500 guests in a single evening. Having so many different palates to satisfy is the biggest challenge and also the most rewarding when we get it right. Having an open kitchen, we often have customers come up and thanks us. Those are the moments that make it all worthwhile.

How would you describe your personal food philosophy?
My philosophy is to keep it simple, don’t be afraid to fail and continue to innovate. All my mentors over the years have had a similar philosophy – use good quality ingredients and research how to use them.

Overseeing the kitchen of a venue with such a unique style and offering (and large capacity) requires a lot of creativity and constant innovation. Where do you draw your inspiration from when it comes to menu development?
Garden Kitchen & Bar has three unique entertaining areas – the bar/lounge area, the main dining floor and the spectacular outdoor lawn. Each of these areas has a need for different offerings. The lounge bar needs bar snacks that pair well with cocktails, the main floor al a carte dining and the lawn for large groups of people all looking for quick bites. The first step is to create seasonal menus using ingredients that are at their peak. I also listen to what customers want. Feedback is what helps us to deliver a great product. I also draw a great deal of inspiration from cookbooks. I have built up quite a library over the years and always go back to the basics when necessary.

Spring is coming! What particular ingredients are you excited to be working with over the coming months? What can diners expect to see (and eat!) at Garden Kitchen & Bar this season?
Spring is a great time to be a chef. The garden grows quickly and vibrantly. In spring, I love zucchini flowers, peas in the pod and spring lettuce varieties. Along with seasonal updates to the menus, our signature Macadamia Crusted Salmon will be getting a seasonal makeover which is sure to delight. The Garden Container Kitchen on our lawn will also be coming on line with the warmer months, and the menu is full of spring surprises.

You’ve been lucky enough to work across the world in places like Switzerland, Dubai, Canada and the UK. How does Gold Coast dining stack up against these cities and what is it about the coast that keeps you here?
The Gold Coast is in a great position. There has been a number of fantastic restaurants open on the Gold Coast that has diners spoiled for choice. The quality of restaurant that has opened has improved over recent years and continues to do so. I thoroughly enjoyed travelling and being able to experience everything that goes with it. Family and the Gold Coast lifestyle is what drew me back. I have a family of my own now, and couldn’t think of anywhere better for them to grow up.

What are your three key ingredients for a weekend well spent?
Family, friends and a barbecue. Super simple and some of my fondest memories!

Finally, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
It would have to be “don’t be afraid to fail”. An early boss of mine always told his crew; “that if you never fail, you never succeed – not all experiments work and that’s okay. Innovation comes from trial and error”. That has stuck with me from my earliest years as a chef.

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