Luke Mangan, Man of the Land

17 Apr 2015

Author: Richard Cornish

Photography: Images courtesy of Luke Mangan

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On the eve of a high-profile dinner highlighting Australian produce at his Tokyo restaurant, chef Luke Mangan reflects on his international career, the changing face of Australian dining, and the evolving attitudes international customers have to Australian food and beverages.
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Reading the menu at Australian chef Luke Mangan’s Tokyo restaurant Salt is like taking a tour around his home country. There are oysters from Tasmania, lamb from Victoria, rock lobster from Western Australia and wines from around the nation. This hardworking chef has deep belief in the quality of the food and wine grown in Australia and made it the backbone of his successful businesses stretching across Asia. In addition to Tokyo, he has restaurants in Jakarta, Bali and Singapore and on-board three P&O cruise ships, as well as bars and restaurants in Sydney.

Mangan’s love of local produce was instilled in him from a very early age. With boundless energy that could not be contained by a classroom, he left school at 14 and found employment at the restaurant where his brother worked. The restaurant just happened to be the seminal Melbourne restaurant Two Faces and the chef was Hermann Schneider, who had arrived in Melbourne from Switzerland to cook during the 1956 Olympic Games. “He made Gordon Ramsey look like a puppy dog,” says Mangan. “But he taught us a love of fresh, quality local produce long before these became buzzwords.” Schneider also taught Mangan a strong work ethic and the language of classic European cuisine.

Mangan moved to London in the early 1990s where he worked under three-Michelin-star–chef Michel Roux at the Waterside Inn. “There I worked even harder, honing French technique and learning some of the modern attitudes towards food.” At 24, Mangan returned to Australia, this time to Sydney where he teamed with Australian hospitality entrepreneur and now Chief Executive Officer of Merivale, Justin Hemmes, to open CBD restaurant. Just half a decade later, in 1999 he opened the first incarnation of Salt, a restaurant with DNA based on quality, fresh Australian produce and great Australian wines.

Mangan hit a chord and was asked to cook at events such as G’Day USA. “I was always happy to cook but I didn’t want to showcase just my skills,” says Mangan. “It wasn’t about me. I wanted to show the world our great food and wine.”

Although passionately proud of Australia’s produce, he is not jingoistic. He is respectfully enthusiastic when asking his audience in international markets to try Australian product. “We don’t say that Australian food is ‘better’,” he says. “We say that it is ‘different’. And people appreciate that. Take Petuna Ocean Trout, for example,” he says, referring to the fish grown in deep cold water in Tasmania’s Macquarie Harbour. “It has a lovely amount of oil in the flesh but it is never fatty. It has a fresh taste and lovely clean finish,” he says. Other products he enjoys using include Pacific oysters from Tasmania, tuna from Port Lincoln and Spencer Gulf prawns from South Australia, as well as Blackmore Wagyu beef and Yarra Valley Gournet Greenhouse zucchini flowers, both produced in Victoria.

What Mangan has noticed is that customers in his Asian restaurants are recognising the clean, green credentials of Australian produce. “In Japan in particular, people have a long relationship with our country,” says Mangan. “They know a lot about Australia, with many having visited on holiday. While people coming to Australia have traditionally come here to experience the beaches, wildlife and laid-back lifestyle, attitudes are changing and Australia’s premium food offering is gaining more and more interest.”

Mangan has witnessed this himself from his time working in Japan. “There they have watched us change the way we present our food and the way our restaurant culture has developed and evolved,” he says.

“At Salt, Tokyo, we are full every night of the week. People know that Australian product is reliable, consistent and has great flavour.”

On the evolution of Australian dining, Mangan enthusiastically launches into a rollcall of Australian chefs who are among equals on the global cuisine stage. “Look at what Peter Gilmore from Quay is doing,” he says, referring to the modern, seasonal produce–based fine dining that Gilmore is serving at his harbourside restaurant in Sydney. “There’s Ben Shewry down in Attica in Melbourne doing really intelligent cuisine,” he says. Attica is currently number 32 in the S. Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurant list. “And there’s Martin Benn at Sepia. They are leading the new age of Australian dining,” says Mangan. “Fifteen years ago Australian chefs were mostly looking over their shoulders. Now people are looking at us. They are flying to Australia to eat in our restaurants.”

It’s not just the Australian dining scene that is evolving but also the export of manufactured food products. “When you walk into a department store in Tokyo and see Maggie Beer products on the shelves, it really gives you a thrill,” he says. “It’s great seeing Australian producers evolve and succeed.”

According to the Australian Government, the Japan-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement (JAEPA) will see more than 97 per cent of Australia’s exports receive preferential access to Japan or enter duty-free, such as beef, seafood and wine.

Mangan’s wine list at Salt, Tokyo reads like a list of the best of the best of Australia’s food-centric wines. There’s Farr Rising Chardonnay from near Geelong, Moondarra Pinot Noir from Gippsland and Moss Wood Semillon from Margaret River. A self-confessed chardonnay drinker, Mangan champions wines from the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and Margaret River.

The man who has cooked for Tom Cruise, President Bill Clinton and Danish Crown Prince Frederik and Princess Mary at their wedding also supports up-and-coming stars. Mangan is co-founder of Electrolux Appetite for Excellence, an Australian award scheme that recognises young, talented chefs, restaurateurs and front-of-house professionals. As well as substantial prizes, finalists are taken on a tour of a food- and wine-producing region of Australia, where they learn where the great produce comes from and meet the people who grow and make the food and beverages, perhaps inspiring a new generation of premium Australian produce champions.

It’s Mangan’s vision, however, that spearheads the work of those producers into the Asian market. He presents the food and wine in a unifying context and never overworks the elements. “When you have such good ingredients to work with, you don’t have to do too much,” he says. “You have to let the produce do the talking.”

For more information

Luke Mangan

Austrade is running an event series this month in Japan to highlight Australia’s premium food and beverage offering, culminating in a premium ‘Taste of Australia’ VIP dinner at SALT Tokyo on April 21, featuring a six-course degustation menu designed and presented by Luke Mangan. A number of international 5-star hotels and restaurants will also be participating in the ‘Taste of Australia’ promotion campaign across Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, providing a unique opportunity to plate up a wide variety of Australian premium products to Japanese consumers.

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