15 minutes with … chef Justin North

Justin North has designed the menu at Mister Percy in Sydney's Pyrmont. Here's what to expect from the acclaimed chef's latest project

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Q. You left Hotel Centennial after a three-year stint.  What inspired the move? A: I left Hotel Centennial in October 2017. It was later sold to Merivale [in December 2017].  I started Concept Hospitality with my business partner Will Talbot in February 2018. Will and I refurbished and re-launched the Centennial in 2014.
Q. Your latest venture, Mister Percy, opened in August. What’s your vision for the new restaurant and who is Mister Percy? A: Our latest project is a collaboration with Ovolo Hotels and Mister Percy – a super cool Mediterranean wine bar serving amazing pinchos. Percy Ewart was a wool classer at the original wool store where the wine bar now resides. He made his mark (literally) by etching his name into the sandstone building.

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Q. You started out as an apprentice in New Zealand in 1992 and won NZ’s Apprentice Chef of the Year. If you could go back and tell your 20-year-old self a bit of advice what would it be? A: Be patient! Learn and absorb as much as you possibly can, seek out good mentors, don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions and don’t cut corners. Work hard, follow your dreams and don’t leave anything behind.
Q. You are passionate about ethical eating and celebrating local producers. What excites you at the moment in terms of ingredients and producers? A: Bergamots – I LOVE them – Mountain Yuzu from Victoria are growing the best ever – I’m obsessed with them. I’m studying autophagy (the process that is the body’s system of cleaning our cells) and the benefits of this fruit are amazing.

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Q. What style of cooking should we expect from Mister Percy?  A: Uncomplicated cooking, beautiful flavours, carefully cooked and well-seasoned food. Pinchos and shared dishes inspired by the small coastal towns of the Mediterranean.  Luca Guiotto is the head chef – we are collaborating on the menu – Luca will be driving the kitchen; I’ll be in the background assisting.
Q. Who inspired you to become a chef? A: Other chefs and creatives. I love making things, cooking, drawing and expressing myself – food has always been a wonderful way of doing that – sharing with others.

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Q. You have worked alongside chefs such as Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat in France and Liam Tomlin at Banc in Sydney. You’ve also made cameo appearances on MasterChef . What do you most enjoy about having a profile? A: Everyone chooses their own journey and some people get recognised in certain ways. We all have different interpretations of success and profile and what that means and how we can use it. For me, I love channelling any goodwill I have in the community to charitable projects such as feeding the homeless or raising funds and awareness for underprivileged children. I am currently working on an amazing event for the New York City Marathon and NSW Variety Club raising money for Aussie kids and their families.

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Q. How has the restaurant scene in Sydney changed in the past few decades? A: It has changed massively – it is a completely different scene now to what it was 20 years ago. In the late 90s and early 2000s we were all about fine dining and everything else was crap – now we have such a diverse restaurant scene – so many talented cooks, sommeliers, barista, bartenders and FOH staff. The hospitality scene today is incredible, with the entire team able to express themselves.

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Q. On your night off, what do you like to eat? [And who cooks?] A: My partner Kate and I take turns to cook. I love making beautiful broths and ramen, Kate makes an awesome san choy bow and the kids love to get involved. It’s nice when the whole family prepares dinner, sets the table and has a tasty meal together.
Q. What’s in your repertoire for Sunday lunch with the family?  I have two kids, Charlie, nine, and Soph, 11. We love a large early dinner on Sundays – often I’ll put a lamb shoulder in the oven in the morning and slow cook it with garlic, rosemary and thyme for five or six hours. Or we’ll cook a big pan of corned beef with buttered cabbage, parsley carrots and hot mustard.

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Q. Your famously love French cuisine. How have you tinkered with that formula of adhering to French technique? A: I used to cook a fairly heavy rustic, regional style of French cuisine, something I still love. However, over the years that has evolved to a much lighter coastal style of cuisine, inspired by Japanese cooking. I love going on research trips to Japan – amazing technique and respect for ingredients.
Q: If you were to cook a dish that nods to your upbringing in New Zealand what would it be and why? A: I love doing modern interpretations of classic desserts. Mum was a great cook and always made us pudding – semolina and custard, baked rice pudding, stewed fruit, pavlova and beautiful trifle. I love the nostalgia of a well-made sherry-infused trifle.

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Q: If your life had a soundtrack, what would it be? A: I Lived – One Republic
Q: What has been one of your most memorable meals? A: I had an incredible meal at Marc Veyrat’s restaurant in the French Alps. We arrived by horse-drawn carriage through the snow and the food, the setting, service were remarkable. I have eaten at some of the best restaurants in every corner of the globe and this place remains the most extraordinary dining experience.

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Q: What’s been your most exciting food-focused adventure? A: There have been many. One, in particular, was a fabulous trip to Spain and San Sebastian with a friend where we explored local markets, tapas and pinchos bars, and fine dining restaurants. I love exploring new cities, especially beautiful areas like San Sebastian with such a rich food culture and extraordinary ingredients.
Q: Dessert-island dish? A: Sashimi.
Q: Who would you most like to cook alongside? A: My mum. She died three years ago from MND, such a horrible horrible death. I loved going home and cooking with her – just simple stuff – but it was all about love, sharing conversation and fun times. That’s what food and cooking is really about – bringing people together. ovolohotels.com.au

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