The Aussie chef making Aria Beijing hot

25 Jan 2012

Author: Heather Jacobs

Photography: Ben McMillan


Sydneysider Matthew McCool is considered the secret ingredient behind the revival of a leading Beijing restaurant.
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In Australia, Matthew McCool is barely known. But in China, it’s a different matter altogether. The 27-year-old former Sydneysider is considered the secret ingredient behind the revival of a leading Beijing restaurant – Aria, housed in the luxurious China World Hotel, part of the upmarket Shangri-La chain.

Dishes like smoked goose, green tea noodles and tuna belly; veal with autumn vegetables, truffle and foie gras, finished off with desserts such as melting chocolate terrine with salted caramel, have won the baby-faced head chef a swag of accolades including Chef of the Year at the 2011 Time Out Beijing awards as well as Best International Restaurant and runner-up for Best Restaurant. Add to that Best Restaurant for a Special Occasion at the 2011 Beijinger awards and Restaurant of the Year by City Weekend Beijing and it's small wonder McCool is hot right now.

Time Out Beijing commented that “there is almost a child-like quality to his playful approach … It’s clear that this chef is having fun – something visible in the bright, positive streak that is conveyed in his food. There’s a curiosity that is balanced by a maturity, level-headedness and learned technique that just isn’t common among young chefs.”

Not bad considering it’s the former Sydneysider’s first appointment as head chef. A recommendation from another chef saw him relocate to Beijing in August 2010 with free reign to make Aria, which is based in Shangri-La’s China World Hotel Beijing, the toast of the town.

If McCool isn’t yet a household name in Australia it’s because he moved to London soon after finishing his apprenticeship to cook at the Michelin Star restaurants, Chez Bruce and Gordon Ramsay’s Maze.

Australians have long had an influence on Aria – the last three chefs before McCool were Australian and the general manager John Rice, restaurant manager Matthew Lance and executive sous chef Hamish Neale are all Australians. As well as being GM of the China World Hotel, Rice is area manager of the China World Summit Wing – a hotel on the top floor of the 330-metre tall China World Tower – and Trader Hotel, Beijing. All three hotels are located in the China World Trade Center complex, which houses the largest skyscrapers in Beijing and offers panoramic views of the city.

“I think Australians chefs have a good reputation for being strong-minded, hard working, dedicated and well trained,” says McCool. “We are grateful for the awards, which have done a lot for Aria’s reputation. We have put a lot of work in over the past 14 months and have been driving the restaurant to the extreme, getting to know all our guests and wining and dining a lot of media.”

McCool – who is of Scottish descent – grew up on the Central Coast and served his apprenticeship at Peter Gilmore’s Quay restaurant in Sydney. He had stints at Sydney’s Wildfire and Prime before heading to London in 2004 to spend 18 months at Maze. So, what was it like working for the notoriously fiery Gordon Ramsay?“

Ah yeah, it was quite difficult but it was also inspiring. The discipline that you learn from there is second to none,” says McCool. “Unfortunately you don’t get to work hand in hand with Gordon, but the guys he has in place in his restaurants are all very good chefs and you learn a lot from them. His restaurants are run a little bit differently to what you see on television, it’s not as showy. I was at Maze which is half tapas, half fine dining restaurant so it was quite an upbeat restaurant/bar atmosphere.”

From Maze, McCool worked at other Michelin-starred restaurants including Bank, Tom Aitkens and Chez Bruce before heading to France and Italy. Prior to Beijing, he spent a year at La Baronia resort in Sicily.

Ready to leave Europe, but not quite ready to return home to Sydney, McCool put the word out among his contacts, which led to the position at Aria. He’s enjoying living in China, saying it’s the first time he’s worked in a country where the culture is so strong and diverse. He also likes that in Beijing the fine dining scene is just kicking off, so he’s experiencing it at the ground level.

“Beijing is a happening place and it’s just going forward so it’s very cool and everybody’s open-minded to new changes; it’s a good city to be in at the moment,” he says. “You have a lot of people who are very interested in trying different things and for some of the people we cook for, some products we’re using are new and exciting. Food here is one of the biggest pastimes making it a very good place to be food wise.”

He’s worked hard for the past 14 months and overcome plenty of challenges, starting with adjusting to being in a different culture, but says the role isn’t much more difficult than working in London. It also helps that he has a strong management team behind him. Lance moved to China at the same time as McCool, after five years working for Ramsay at Boxwood and helping to open Plane Food at Heathrow.“

Probably the biggest challenge was the supply of product, consistency of different ingredients and training in fine dining, but the restaurant’s been here for a while and my team have been here many years. They’ve seen western chefs come and go and they’ve had good training in the past, so I was quite lucky,” says McCool. Time Out Beijing credits the synergy between Lance and McCool with putting the restaurant back on the culinary map.

“It is nothing new for a bunch of Australians to be at the helm at Aria, but something different happened this time,” they wrote. “Synergy has been created, based on the creativity of a young chef who fears nothing and embraces the newness that is China, and a sommelier and manager who understands that great service ultimately lies in ensuring that guests are happy. The exciting menu that McCool unleashed on the city shortly after he arrived has proved a hit. What happened at the table was an explosion of gustatory adventure.”

“We’re very product focused, sourcing products that are second to none,” says McCool. “It’s keeping it fresh, keeping it new, keeping it exciting. We do monthly promotions, seasonal menus, weekly rotating menus and wine dinners. We’re sourcing exclusive products; we use a lot of high-end produce to take it to the next step.”

All of the fish and beef are shipped from Australia, a move driven by the fact that he’s familiar with Australian suppliers including Victorian farmer, David Blackmore, who he credits with supplying fantastic wagyu beef.

“We don’t play around too much with good produce,” says McCool. “We emphasise what the product is. We do play around a lot with the starters and the desserts. You have to be careful not to go too far here because we have a lot of people who think of one thing and expect it.”

Aria started off relying on internal hotel guests, but since garnering media attention has attracted a greater outside crowd, especially at lunchtime. The dinner crowd is about half local and half expats and travelling Chinese. There’s even a regular Friday night barbeque for the Australian Chamber of Commerce, serving comfort food including chicken schnitzel, French fries and steak sandwiches. “Food here is one of the biggest pastimes making it a very good place to be.”

Owning his own restaurant is on the cards for McCool. Meanwhile, although there’s plenty he misses about home – Bondi Beach, lattes, beers at the Ship Inn, thick Greek yoghurt, his family, lukewarm meat pies at the rugby league and swimming – he’s having too good a time in Beijing to leave.

“At the moment, I am having a lot of fun producing good food and working with my guys here. Every day I get rewarded in one way or another,” he says.