Introducing our Chef's Table interview series
178 Degrees is focused on showcasing the finest New Zealand products in Hong Kong. This couldn’t be done without the support of dedicated chefs who care deeply about the provenance of the food they serve, and inspire us with their innovative cuisine and cooking philosophies.
We’ll be sharing a few of their personal stories, what they like to cook and where they think the future of food is heading. First up in the series is New Zealander James Cornwall, former Executive Chef of J Sheekey.
Born: Ashburton, New Zealand
Claims to fame: J Sheekey (London)
Specialty cuisine: Seafood
Favourite ingredient: Oysters
Why did you decide to become a chef and how did you get started?
I've always enjoyed cooking and my mum and grandmother were both passionate home cooks. They were always baking, pickling and preserving which I guess rubbed off on me. I left school underachieving and had a couple of different jobs but it wasn't until after returning from the traveling and working in the US that I decided to become a chef. My friend got me a job at the local restaurant where they offered to train me one day a week to cook, and I was a kitchen hand the other four days. My friends thought I was crazy because I had to take such a cut in pay and move back into my parents' house. But I loved the buzz of the kitchen straight away and found a way to express myself.
What are you doing now?
Currently I'm running my own series of pop-up restaurants (Home Pop) and bespoke events which has seen me cook in Melbourne, London, Singapore and Hong Kong this year. I also spent the season harvesting Yarra Valley Salmon Caviar and I work alongside them on different projects. In November I will be head chef at the Victoria Hotel in Melbourne so I'm busy designing the kitchen and menu.
What’s your favourite part of the job?
Cooking gives me a platform to express myself and I've been fortunate enough to have cooked all around the world and met so many great people along the way.
Which ingredient do you most like working with and why?
Oysters, depending on the time of the year and location, they constantly change taste and texture. They are so versatile you can have them natural, garnished, cooked and my favourite way is to use them in a steak tartare as seasoning.
What’s your favourite dish to cook at home?
I love to cook comfort food. This winter it's been red wine-braised lamb shanks and creamed polenta. I like to braise the lamb shanks the day before so the flavour develops overnight.
What’s been your best meal in the last six months?
Last month I was in Singapore cooking at an event with a friend and we asked the local organiser for a recommendation. So she said to go to this chilli frogs' leg and porridge restaurant. It was 11:30pm by the time we arrived and we sat outside in the heat drinking Tiger beers, eating chilli frogs' legs and porridge. It was one of the best dining experiences I've had.
What do you think is the biggest challenge in the culinary industry?
Sacrifice. From the moment you step into your first kitchen you have to sacrifice. You will miss birthdays, concerts and quality time with loved ones. Chefs are working when everyone else is out having a good time. But the rewards will be worth it, if you're passionate and motivated.
What’s the future of food?
Semi-vegetarian. I think everyone is more and more conscious about cutting back on their meat consumption for a day or two each week. I think we will see restaurant menus with more vegetarian options on them.