Out Of The Frying Pan: John Branagan, Australasia
Alaka Prodhon explores the inner psyche of the Living Ventures head chef
JOHN BRANAGAN is Executive Director Head Chef of Living Ventures, the company behind brands such as The Alchemist, Blackhouse, Australasia and The New World Pub Co. (The Botanist and The Oast House). Together with co-founders Jeremy Roberts and Tim Bacon, he wants to bring affordable quality to Manchester’s culinary scene.
What is your favourite dish on the menu at Australasia?
I love the pan-fried ocean trout fillet with quinoa and miso micro garden. It’s a beautiful dish. It’s not salmon and it’s not trout – the flavour is in between those. I like the flavour of trout but it can be a little too earthy, and the texture can be a little bit too bitty in your mouth, whereas salmon is a bit smoother. It’s a lovely colour, very natural, and we do it with an onion soubise with a little bit of soy in it and very crisp shards of pancetta.
What’s your favourite pudding?
Cheese. I’m not really a sweet-toothed person. My favourite cheese is Époisses – it’s a French, rind-washed soft cheese and it stinks to high heaven but I love it. I also love Shorrocks Lancashire – it’s the most un Lancashire cheese I have ever tasted. It’s like a strong cheddar and they do an extra mature one which just blows your socks off. As for blue, I’d go for a sweet gorgonzola.
What’s your favourite fruit?
I’m more of a vegetable person but I like plums to cook with and I love rhubarb, but I’m not sure whether that’s a fruit or a vegetable. It goes so well with game like venison or ostrich – we might put that on our summer menu.
What’s your favourite vegetable?
I absolutely adore vegetables so it’s very difficult to pick one. I love artichokes. I love asparagus. I love roasted shallots or roasted onions – if I roast a loin of pork or beef, I put half-onions and half-carrots, raw, underneath and then roast the meat on top. I also love sprouts – I could eat them all year round. But you can’t eat them al dente – they have to be cooked right the way through, seasoned with salt and pepper, with a knob of butter and tossed in a little bit of sesame oil. They’re also not half bad with truffle oil.
What’s your favourite cut of meat?
I shot a couple of wood pigeons in my garden the other day with an air rifle and they were divine. It was like eating velvet. What else... I just like good meat. I know it sounds a bit of a cop out, but I mean things like roasted pork collar. Or a good duck confit. Or a cassoulet. My favourite meat is probably beef, and my favourite cut is rib eye or rump. Sirloin should be roasted, in my opinion.
What’s your favourite fish?
Black cod. It’s a deep water fish and it has a lot of fat in its flesh. We do it here. It’s god awful expensive, about £40 a kilo, but it’s divine.Do you prefer Chinese or Indian?Probably Chinese, now. Hand on my heart, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten authentic Indian food. I’ve eaten on the Curry Mile but I’m not sure whether I would consider that as being authentic. My favourite Chinese dish is chicken cashew nuts with yellow bean sauce.
Your guilty pleasure?
Heinz Salad Cream. There are two scenarios: one is slightly warm roast chicken, watercress, no butter, with salad cream all over it, between two slices of proper white bread; the other is a salted crisp butty. Delicious.
What’s the biggest mistake chefs can make when starting to learn the trade?
Over-pretentiousness. I once told my mam how to cook Sunday lunch. She was doing it wrong, so I told her. That was a big mistake. Not only did my mother get upset, but my dad bloody well went at me with both barrels.
If I were to give someone advice starting out I would say don’t get wrapped up in the so-called “celebrityville” of being a chef. ‘Cos being a chef ain’t glamorous. You have to work your knackers off.
What’s the most complex dish you’ve ever made?
I think I’m going to struggle to answer that one, because I feel my forte is to make things simple. That’s what I strive to do: take something that’s quite complex and turn it into something that’s quite simple so people can replicate it and keep that consistency. I can’t remember the last really complicated thing I’ve done.
What's your favourite meal ever?
I’ve eaten a lot of meals… and I don’t think I can pinpoint one. But for me, the best meals are meals that someone else has cooked, in their house, for me, or for me and my family, and they’ve put their heart and soul into it. It doesn’t matter if it’s not 'gourmet' – it is what it is, and someone’s gone to a lot of effort. Those are the ones that I really do enjoy.
What’s your idea of a perfect service session?
One where people care. Where people notice, and care about, and take pride in what they’re doing, both in the kitchen and out of it. I’m not so bothered about the guests – as long as they’re enjoying themselves, that’s all that matters. But for me, it’s when someone in the kitchen tastes something and goes, “You know what, I’m just going to chuck a little bit more salt in it.” It really matters.
So then, when we put the salt and pepper out on the tables, it’s for comfort only really – you shouldn’t need them. It’s a bit like a good television programme – I’ve still got hold of the remote control, but I’m not going to turn the channel over because I’m enjoying it so much and I’m thinking “What’s next? What’s next?” It’s the same with food.
What inspired you to become a chef?
My dad said, “Get out and get a bloody job,” and he was a chef so I became a chef. But I’ve never looked back. I look at people who are accountants, or office workers, or bankers, or what have you, and they don’t get half the excitement we get, I assure you. It’s brilliant being a chef, providing you want to work like a donkey for most of your life and then maybe, if you’re lucky, you might make it.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Being allowed to be creative. Being allowed to experience things that I would otherwise never be allowed, or could afford, to experience; but because of my job I get to go to Bilbao for lunch and eat at the best restaurants in the world. And I get to work with some very creative people.
And the least?
People failing. People giving up. Whether they’re old or young, that is what I hate the most. It makes me very sad. Sometimes it’s too easy to give up. Life’s tough. Embrace it, get on with it and, you know what, you can make it.
What is the craziest moment of your career?
I don’t know… it’s crazy every bloody day! But the most surreal moment of my career was when we won an AA Rosette for The Living Room in Glasgow. The letter came through to me on 1 April and I saw it and I thought, “Yeah, right.” I remember having this meeting with my boss where I said, “We’ll never ever win any Rosettes for the style of food that we do.” But six weeks later, we did. And we maintained it for four years. I’m not too sure, but I think we might have been the first chain restaurant to get a Rosette. It was very bizarre.
A menu of Pacific Rim flavours underpinned by European cooking tradition, an exotic blend of Indonesian and Southeast Asian influences. Australia's strong ties with Japan also help determine taste and style.