Masterchef S02 ep8 : Justin North, Becasse Restaurant, [Sydney]

Interview with Justin North

A student of Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir, NZ born North found his epiphanies at Paris' Pierre Gagnaire and then, of all places, at Liam Tomlin's Sydney restaurant.


Becasse: Becasse means woodcock, which is a rare European game bird. Spiritually to me, it was
probably one of the best culinary experiences I’ve ever had, when I was working in England with
Raymond Blanc.

Becasse: And he roasts it with all its’ insides in and then when the bird’s resting on the bone you
take the insides out and you make like a rustic soul pate or foie gras and cognac. Spread it on
toasted brioche and if you put the breasts on top of that you suck the brains out of the head.

Becasse: A very good friend of mine, Alex McKay who was a director of Raymond Blanc’s
cookery school at the time, he managed to get some woodcock off a local shooter. We’d finished
service one night, it was probably about midnight, and we went back to his house and had a couple
of bottles of red wine and we all started plucking these birds, and we did it in the middle of the
night, he showed me how to you know cook them and all that.

Becasse: I’d done a lot of art at school and a hospitality course came up at the local polytech or
TAFE and we thought oh, that sounds quite fun, there’ll be lots of girls there and that sort of thing,
so we went an enrolled and … into that.

Becasse: At that stage it was a job really then and I was training and I did my apprenticeship and
going through the motions of malaclese, I wasn’t overly passionate about it. But the later stages of
my apprenticeship you know I sort of picked up these books that had just come out by Marco
Pierre White and White Heat and those and thought wow you know, what’s all this about.

Becasse: I’d been to Sydney when I was about 12 on a family holiday and I absolutely loved it and
the logical next step for my career was to go overseas and get some experience, so I came to

Becasse: When I left I’d heard about these great chefs called Ditma Sawyer and Liam Tomlin who
were at the Park Lane and I went, I want to have some of that, I want to go there and see what this
is all about. So I went to the Park Lane, I’d got there, I’d been there for a few weeks and then I was
like so where’s Ditma and Liam and they were like, they’re not here, they’ve opened up a
restaurant called 41.

Jewellery Theatre Carravaggio

Becasse: So I stayed at the Park Lane for about nine months and Liam opened his first restaurant
with the backing of Ditma which was called Brasserie Cassise. The real big difference to me was
from going from a hotel into a restaurant, that was like a huge, huge change.

Becasse: It was like what is this guy on, you know like Liam is such an absolute psycho but an
amazing chef and I just was like, I didn’t know you could take food this far, I didn’t know you
know people got that serious about cooking. That was my first real introduction and the first bit of
passion when I sort of started going far out you know, got a little feel for it reading these books
about you know White Heat and Marco Pierre White and then I actually saw you know the
Australian version of that I suppose which was Liam and his first restaurant. And I stayed there for
a year.

Becasse: I always said to him you know after Sydney I want to go to London and I want to work
with Marco or you know all these great chefs, so the first one on the list was Raymond Blanc and I
spoke to the executive chef and got a job there, I had to do a three day trial and cook a dish for
Raymond and sit down with him and I was there from about ’96 to ’99.

Becasse: By that stage I would have been 21, so I’d been cooking for what, 5, 6 years then so I
thought I knew a little bit about cooking but pretty much had to throw everything I’d learnt out the
window and start all over again because Raymond, as you may know, is completely self taught, to
the sense we didn’t have any schooling in terms of cooking, but also he didn’t have any mentors as
well. His idealisms and his thought process that he went through in terms of creating dishes and
that was just extraordinary, like he made you question absolutely everything.

Becasse: And he just taught you to always ask the question of why you know, why is the meat
caramelising in the pan, why is the soufflé raising, why is the vinaigrette not emulsifying, every
single thing he did, questioned why it worked, but also how can you make it taste better.

Becasse: And his biggest thing was teaching us to taste, every step of the way you know you’d
taste the sauce, 30-50 times from the stock and every moment through its production, you would
be talking about 3 grains of salt you know to phrase it was that precise and that you know tiny drop
of lemon to lift things up but after that you know you get such a clear, defined palate.

Becasse: I’ve always sort of encouraged young people not to go and work at 100 different places
and a little bit here and little bit there and a little bit there so you’ve got a beautiful looking CV
because we get that all the time, you get guys come in, you look at the CV and you think wow and
then you know they can’t fillet a fish properly, they can’t cook properly.

Jewellery Theatre Carravaggio

Becasse: Raymond ignored me for the first year I didn’t even, you know I knew what he looked
like and that was about it. But after 1 ½ years and you get his respect and after two years he’s right
by your side when I was in the sauce section every single day giving me shit and telling me you
know and throwing your stuff in the bin and telling you to do it again and then you know after the
third year you know, he’s your best friend. But you can’t get inside someone’s head and understand
what it’s all about by doing six months or by doing a year to get a reference and a piece of paper
you know, you have to be there for a long period of time.

Becasse: When I was with Raymond he’d send me on my holidays, I was lucky enough to work
with Pierre Ganyer and Gisawa … I’ve never felt so awkward in my life, I was still a young man
you know, I was probably 21 I think when I was there and they were big men and they were
pushing and boy they were like running from one end of the kitchen to the other and I was like a …
you know chopping shallots you know on dirty pans with a board on top sort of going like this and
felt so uncomfortable when everyone would just sort of bump you as they walked past and would
ignore you and you know I just didn’t want to be there, and then I thought well come lunch service
you know they’ll be concentrating on plating and all of that and I’ll just sneak out the back door
and go but I stood there and I saw them in action at lunch time and I saw the food coming up on
the pass and I was absolutely blown away, I just couldn’t believe it and I was just like, thank God I
didn’t leave.

Becasse: Gisawa, it was a lot more cool, it was a lot more calm. Very, very disciplined, very, very
strict amazing, amazing food, there I was sort of involved a lot more, they were making an effort
to talk to me, they were you know I was on a section, I was doing a mousse … and helping them

Becasse: Those lunatics that we’re talking about, they were lunatics, they were geniuses but they
were also very caring and they were very humble, they were very honest human beings. Although
during the service times you were f-ing this and f-ing that but you’re also very, very well respected
by them and you respected them a lot. They sort of became part of me I suppose and that pushes
you, you know failure was never, never an option you know just, they you know the toughest,
toughest times it’s like they’re sort of there just in the background going, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon.

Becasse: And that’s the sad thing I think about the industry today, not so much in Europe I don’t
think, but especially in this part of the world is the skills and everything there that I think are
lacking and the training that’s lacking in chefs I mean you know when a mate of mine would be
getting whole pigs and whole lambs … we’d get chef de pardis coming around here looking for a
chef de pardi job who’d been cooking for 6-8 years, and you give him a whole you know trout to
fillet and they have no idea what to do.

Becasse: We go down to the markets every morning, we go up to Flemington, down to the fish
market, you know we’re buying whole beasts you know direct off suppliers that sort of thing and
you know to be able to utilise those because if you don’t have those skills you can’t get creative
you know, if you don’t know how to break down a whole pig or a lamb or a deer or whatever and
you know you can’t utilise those pieces, you can’t come up with new dishes, you can’t use you
know different cuts.

Jewellery Theatre Elements

Becasse: When I left Raymond’s he’d set me up with … Daniels in New York. I met him and I
loved it, it was fantastic and then I went to New Zealand in, because I had that six months
whatever to kill, so I rang up Liam in Sydney who’d just opened Bank then and I was like you
know I’ve got six months to kill have you got any jobs? And he’s like yeah man, come over and
you know so I was just like chef de pardi in the kitchen and the day I arrived in Sydney I’d met my
wife Georgia, so I sort of didn’t quite make it to New York.

Becasse: I stayed at Bank for about 2 ½ years I think it was, found a little restaurant in Malabia
Street called Table 48 and it’d been closed down in receivership, it’d been empty for about six
months so we went in there with very, very little money and I think it was me and two others in the
kitchen, and Georgia and two others on the floor for about 30-40 people and that was five nights
and then we stayed there for about 3 ½ years and built the core of a business up.

Becasse: I suppose our philosophy in terms of food is very, very produce driven and very local
produce you know, we’re all about getting the absolute best produce we go to and we go to huge
lengths to get that you know, if that’s, means you’re getting up at 5.30 in the morning to go out to
Flemington market to get the best vegetables or going down to the fish market or you know
speaking to suppliers and all that sort of stuff in Tasmania and Kangaroo Island and Western
Australia to get the best produce, then that’s what we do and then once we’ve got that best produce
and we use what we call intelligent learnt French I suppose technique to get the best out of that
produce and being able to let it speak for itself and heighten it a lot more.

Jewellery Theatre Fairytales

Becasse: In Australia we’ve got some amazing produce. The first book we wrote, Inspiration and
Flavours, we spent about three years travelling around Australia on our day off you know
researching the best produce that was available in this country.

Becasse: It’s evolved a lot as well in terms of that, from when we were at Picass in Surrey Hills it
was a lot more rustic, it was a lot more ballsy, there was a lot of duck fat, a lot of cream, a lot of
real guts to it you know it was sort of real traditional, rural style which I think is more suited to
Europe and especially now being in the city we’ve really tried to refine our cuisine a lot more,
we’ve eliminated a lot of the cream and a huge amount of butter from it and trying to you know do
I suppose more of a modern Mediterranean sort of style almost where we’re using a lot more olive
oils, a lot more you know, vegetable infusions, we’ve taken you know all the flour out of our
sauces and all that nonsense and doing a lot more sort of lighter reductions and a lot more fresher
vegetable purees and you know just the food that you can really, really taste because obviously
once you eliminate all those fats from it, it’s beneficial for the waist line, but it’s also much more
cleaner on the palate. And you’re not masking those flavours, you’re intensifying them and
becoming a lot more real and a lot more clear.

Becasse: So Alain Ducas was presenting the awards for the Sydney Morning Herald and we won
Restaurant of the Year that year and he was giving out the prize. I was in Singapore at the time so
my wife was very, very heavily pregnant with our first child and was on the stage accepting
Restaurant of the Year off Alain Ducas like one of my heroes and there I am in Singapore doing a
promotion, but then two days later he turned up in Singapore at Raffles Hotel where I was doing
the promotion and I got to meet him and spend some time with him there, just coincidentally so it
was quite funny in the end.

OFFICIAL WEBSITE: Justin North, Becasse Restaurant, [Sydney]