Phil Marchant, co-creator, Underground Food Project
We wanted to have complete freedom to play ...
The winds of change have been blowing through Brisbane’s food scene of late, bringing innovative small businesses and ambitious food producers to our doorstep. One of the latest culinary ventures to sweep into the city is Underground Food Project, a collaboration between Michelin-trained British chefs Phil Marchant and Josh Raine. The talented fellas debuted their creations at Small Batch Autumn in South Brisbane last month, treating local palates to tucker like chicken and tarragon hot dogs and whisky ganache with rhubarb ash. The boys plan to host a series of pop-up food events in unique spaces around Brisbane – cue a whisky-inspired breakfast in a boutique bar or a vegan tasting menu in a garden centre. The Weekend Edition caught up with co-creator Phil this week to talk collaboration and inspiration.
Congratulations on the launch of Underground Food Project! What were your debut offerings at Small Batch Autumn?
We had a little vegan snack that we were giving away of Jerusalem artichokes with lemon myrtle, then we had chicken, tarragon and fennel hot dogs, ceviche of scallops, avocado, yuzu and quinoa, mushrooms on toast with white coal, and then whisky ganache truffles with rhubarb ash and tonka bean ice-cream in liquid nitrogen.
It was an ambitious menu for your first public appearance – it must have been a big day!
Yeah, we learnt a lot! I suppose we set the bar pretty high in the beginning. At one point, we had about 20 strokes on the board, which was incredible – we were overwhelmed by the support but also just giggling at how far we were behind. Obviously it was our first full event so we had more people to cook for and more things to organise, but it went really well so we were pleased. There was quite a lot of interest and it was a good laugh, which is the main thing.
What’s the basic concept for Underground Food Project?
In essence, it’s a collaboration between Josh and myself. We’ll hold a series of themed pop-up events around Brisbane, collaborating with existing businesses that have space and don’t tend to serve food, and utilising them outside of their existing business hours. We’re already planning an American-themed dinner in a barbershop, a vegan tasting menu in a garden centre and a whisky-inspired breakfast in a boutique bar. So we’ll be matching the food to the theme or characteristics of the space. It’s going to keep us really busy!
You chose to focus on a pop-up rather than a bricks-and-mortar restaurant – do you think that’s the way the industry is heading, given the recent influx of food trucks and small food producers in Brisbane?
Pop-ups have been incredibly popular around the world, in London and New York especially. For us, it was just the fact that we wanted to do something now, we wanted to do something together and we wanted to have complete freedom to play – we didn’t want to be restricted. We don’t know what our food style is going to be, we don’t know where our food is going to go and we don’t even know where we’re going to go as individual chefs as well as a collaboration. We just wanted a platform to be creative and totally focused on the food – it’s the food for us that matters.
It’s been quite a journey since you two first met in a kitchen back in England …
Yeah we met in London and worked together at Pied à Terre. Josh trained at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons under Raymond Blanc and Gary Jones, and I did a bit of time at Rick Stein’s The Seafood Restaurant in Padstow and The French Café in Auckland, before we met in London. Josh did two years and then moved on to St Betty in Hong Kong, while I stayed on. We always chatted back then, as young chefs do, about how we’d do things but we never really thought it would come together – and then randomly we both ended up in Brisbane. Josh came to work for Alejandro Cancino at Urbane and I was travelling through Southeast Asia. Josh was my first stop when I came to Australia and he said, “We’ve talked about this before, do you want to do it here in Brisbane?” And I thought why not – it just felt like a good time to do it and that was as much thought as we put into it really, in that moment.
How long did it take to pull the business together?
It took about six months in total from the original chat and concept – I’ve actually only been in Australia for about seven months.
So you had been planning to travel around the country and take it easy?
Yeah! I’m really glad I stayed in Brisbane though, because my original plan was the generic one that everybody does where you head further south, but I really like Brisbane. Josh was working nights and I was working days so it was literally one day a week that we had to work on the project, but now a lot of infrastructure is in place and a lot of planning has been done so the next event will be a lot easier.
What’s been the hardest part of getting the project off the ground?
Getting the time away from our jobs to get a clear headspace has been a challenge and loading the Jeep is pretty ‘fun’. I’d say the biggest challenge for us has been logistics – as young chefs, and especially with the kind of background we’ve had, we were used to the pan always being in the same spot, the spoon and then the peeler next to it, and if anything moved you would have a moment of freak-out, but now we have to lug four boxes of equipment in and out of the Jeep and Josh’s basement, which can be a bit of a nightmare. Sometimes we forget things and turn up to places without scales, so that can be a challenge!
How will local foodies be able to stay up to date on your events?
We’ve got a newsletter sign-up on the website and we’re going to release bits of information through that. We also have Facebook and Instagram accounts with photo galleries of each event.
What would be a dream event for you guys – are there any local venues, growers or ingredients you’d love to work with?
That’s a good question. We haven’t sat down and thought about what we’d pitch as the pinnacle but I think the essence of all the events is to collaborate with different local producers and businesses. There are some incredible winemakers and brewers in Southeast Queensland, so we’re looking to do something with them, as well as other cool businesses – people who have unique spaces and similar start-up ideas to us.
How do you and Josh plan the menu for each event? Do you have different roles or is it a true democracy?
It’s completely 50:50, it’s equal. We’re fortunate that we do work very well together. We come up with a concept and then just sit down and try to be as creative as possible with things we can link back to the main theme. It’s just a case of playing around with ideas and seeing if we can come up with something that tastes good.
We’ve spied you on Facebook preparing food in a smoker full of moss. You’re obviously wanting to push the boundaries and challenge your customers’ tastebuds?
Yeah, just little quirks. Sometimes there are foods and techniques that we’re exposed to in the fine-dining scene that don’t make it to a lot of people out there. By no means are we trying to bring the whole fine-dining world to the streets, but there’s some stuff that’s really cool that people just wouldn’t see in the normal restaurant format.
FAVOURITE WEEKEND SPOT TO:
Perk up … West End Coffee House and Ugees in West End.
Dine … Gerard’s Bar & Charcuterie in Fortitude Valley and any restaurant along Hardgrave Road in West End, like Mizu.
Drink … Bosc and Cobbler in West End.
Be inspired … for me personally, it comes from a headspace more than anything else. It can be on the bus or on my bike; I always have a book with me that I’m constantly scribbling illegible jargon into. For Josh and I, it’s just when we get together and bounce ideas around. We’re really lucky.