Peter Gunn, chef/owner, IDES
I love just walking in and creating something different. Not whizz-bang creative different, just different ...
Looking at the delicate plating and respect for produce that goes into each of Peter Gunn’s dishes, it’s hard to believe that food was not his first love. Enrolling for culinary school on a whim, he soon found great enjoyment in kitchens – loving the process and precision it took to create each dish. After five years of studying, learning and working in restaurants in New Zealand, Peter moved to his current culinary home of Melbourne. His determination and daring approach to cooking saw him land roles at some of the country’s top restaurants, including Ezard, Royal Mail Hotel, and five years as sous chef at Attica. After running a series of successful monthly pop-ups, Peter opened his first bricks-and-mortar restaurant IDES in March this year. The much lauded chef will be making his way up to Brisbane with his team in July for Good Food Month, partnering with the team from Gauge for an intimate chefs’ table dinner. We caught up to chat inspiration, feijoa ice-cream and squeegeeing basketball courts.
Let’s start at the beginning – where did your love for food stem from?
I actually just started by doing dishes while I was still at school. When I left school in New Zealand – got kicked out of school actually – I had nothing to do, so I decided to enrol in a culinary school. It was actually my friend’s idea – he wanted to do the class, but then I got accepted and he didn’t! He wasn’t too happy about that. Prior to that I never really had a desire to work in kitchens – I just stumbled across it because I needed money.
Was it when you started culinary school that you realised your talent and enjoyment for cooking?
Kind of – I really did enjoy it. But in those early days I didn’t have this massive love for cooking food, I just liked the process behind cooking and the difficulty that came with that. I liked the way you had to slice things and have a streamlined work method – they were the things that grabbed my attention before the food. And even to this day my ultimate drive isn’t to make delicious food, it’s the act of being involved in the kitchen. Cooking at the top of my own kitchen gives me the opportunity to direct, command, change, create … all things that I take a lot of pride in.
You’ve worked in some incredible Australian restaurants such as Ezard, Royal Mail Hotel, and most recently five years as Ben Shewry’s sous chef at Attica. What was your most memorable experience over that time?
It would definitely be my time at Attica. It would be pretty hard to take that time away from me, both in my personal and professional life. I think I certainly found my rhythm as a professional chef then, in terms of being creative, being a manager and also being a staff member – because it was obviously Ben’s show. But we always worked together in tandem to come up with dishes and new ideas. I also looked to Ben as a personal mentor as well. For someone at the top of his game, he still always found the time to listen and give back to people in the industry.
Tell me about how IDES began?
Because I worked quite heavily on the creative side with Ben, I started to generate a lot of my own thoughts about food. Some of them had no place at Attica, because I wanted to play with a range of ingredients and styles from all over the world. I started to realise that I needed a creative outlet so I could still be focused on Attica. Before I started at Attica, my friend and I decided that we might set up a catering company, and somewhere in that process I came up with the name IDES. We spent a couple of hundred dollars getting business cards done, but then nothing ever came of it! We didn’t get any jobs.
There was local bar that we used to go to, Tonic, and it was a really cool space, so I thought I would ask them if they minded me taking over the kitchen occasionally. This is when pop-ups were happening all over the UK, but they weren’t so big here. So I went home and composed this email, and thought maybe I should resurface the IDES brand. They said ‘why not?’, and I started taking over the kitchen once a month. Our first dinner was 24 people and I never wanted to do it again. But they talked me into it, and our numbers grew to 26, 28, 30 … and by the end of the year we had gained a bit of a following in Melbourne. We soon outgrew that place. We checked out Persillade through a friend and it was pretty much perfect. After a while we rebranded and refined a few things, and eventually we were doing 65–70 covers, and I had a team of 12 chefs, I had to start turning people away.
You transitioned from pop-up restaurant to the bricks-and-mortar IDES in March this year. What inspired you to turn it into a full-time restaurant?
After a while of doing the dinners at Persillade, I bluntly put it out there and said, “I want to open a restaurant. Who wants to jump in my corner?”. I was already talking to my now business partner Dave, and he asked what my plans were. I said that I wanted to open a restaurant in March and he told me they had a space available. I came and met Dave at the space, and we made the deal right there. I haven’t looked back!
The menu at IDES is constantly changing, so it’s hard for diners to know what to expect! But can you give us an insight into an IDES experience?
Our style of food and offering is quite raw, but also quite sleek at the same time. The way I would describe my offering at the moment is like working on a Rubik’s Cube – we’re constantly shuffling our food, wine, service and ambience to all line up. At some point – I don’t know when – we’ll get those four colours all in line, and then we’ll just mess it all up again and start fresh.
I love just walking in and creating something different. Not whizz-bang creative different, just different. We still use the basic fundamentals in our cooking – stuff requires discipline. You have to weigh the ingredients out, you have to have a strong base recipe to start with. We are looking to traditional methods of cooking quite heavily – not altering it to make it modern, we’re actually trying to come up with a new method of doing something rather than just ‘insert flavour here’. It adds to the challenge.
We start off each sitting with sesame sourdough with peanut butter, which we’ve been working on for a while, and then we do four savoury and two sweet courses. We have a dessert at the moment that we are getting some really great feedback on – it’s a tart with date and pistachio puree, which is formed into this tart shell with orange chocolate, feijoa ice-cream, honeycomb candy and a sauce of yoghurt and honey. Its really, really tasty. So the other challenge with that is trying to come up with something that can surpass that and again raise the level of our cooking. That is a pretty hard challenge.
Where do you draw inspiration for your dishes?
The first part of the inspiration and the motivation is the set plan to change one dish each week. Something always eventually has to go. Last week we changed the broth, tomorrow we’ll change the pear dessert, next week we might change the oyster or the fish dish – it’s really at random, but something does change once a week. That of course excludes the refinements that are constantly happening to each dish once we start rolling with them. Inspiration wise, its really what’s out there and what’s in season. What we can get our hands on, what we haven’t cooked with for a while, what’s interesting. I know our supplier supplies to five or six other restaurants in Melbourne – and he tells me what’s really popular at the moment. And I tell him we’ll take the opposite of that.
I’d love to hear more about your One Day Sundays …
They are part of just trying to keep the philosophy of IDES alive, and keeping it attached to its pop-up restaurant roots. The word ‘ides’ means a day falling roughly in the middle of each month. With One Day Sundays, one Sunday a month we change the concept of the IDES offering as much as we can, from the food, to the style, to the space. We hang different artwork, we alter the look our facade at the front, we change the lighting. We completely transform the restaurant into something new!
You and Zach Furst will be partnering with Gauge chefs Cormac Bradfield and Phil Marchant with an intimate chefs’ table dinner for Good Food Month. Can you give us a hint of what diners might be treated to?
I met [Gauge owner] Jerome a few months ago when he came in for dinner at IDES. Then a few weeks later he called and asked if I wanted to come up for Good Food Month, and I thought it was a great idea. He, Cormac and Phil came down to IDES a couple of weeks ago, and after service we sat down to work out what we wanted to do. We decided we’d do an alternating course each, but we’d choose their ingredients, and they’d choose our ingredients. They had just had a big night here and we had just finished service, so by this point we were starting to take advantage of what we were choosing for each other! So the first course we’ll choose Gauge’s ingredients, for the second they’ll choose ours. The same will go for the fifth and sixth courses. For the third and fourth course we’ll both work with the same ingredients, one raw, the other cooked. And finally there will be two dessert courses, where we’ll again both use the same ingredients.
I am pretty excited for this dinner – over the last few years I thought that I didn’t love collaborations. But then I realised I have never been able to sit down with the fellow chefs before, like I did with the Gauge guys, to create a menu like we’ve created. I’ve always steered away from collaboration dinners that have been organised by other people where I don’t have a say – I usually just show up and cook my dish. But I am actually really excited that we agreed to this one and that we’ve had an equal play in the whole experience and menu, and it’s going to put out there perfectly how we operate. It’s funny – before I spoke with Jerome about the idea of coming up there – I had planned a One Day Sunday that was a restaurant swap. And Jerome was actually the first person I was going to contact, to swap Gauge and IDES. We’ll hopefully do it eventually.
What occupation would you love to do, if you were not a chef?
I’d probably like to squeegee basketball courts.