For her Tasting Australia Glasshouse Kitchen event, Emma McCaskill has created a kitchen dream team drawing on her history as a chef. She spoke with CityMag about how Maggie Beer, Darren Robertson and Sat Bains each influenced her career.
Precision and produce: Emma McCaskill on becoming a chef
As Tasting Australia’s creative director Simon Bryant told CityMag recently, the food festival is ever evolving, with each year bringing a number of minor and major tweaks.
**Please note: Tasting Australia 2020 has been postponed since the publication of this article.**
Read CityMag‘s conversations with the other guest programmer chefs:
In 2020, one of the more interesting changes is the introduction of guest programmers: six chefs who will each program their own Glasshouse Kitchen dinner event at the festival’s Town Square.
Previously, the Tasting Australia team has put together a handful of chefs to work alongside each other, which has sometimes resulted in what Simon likens to “one of those weird, concept superbands that [don’t] quite gel, because they [don’t] have a conductor.”
In order to create a stronger sense of cohesion, Simon asked each of this year’s guest programmer chefs to pull together a dream kitchen team that draws on their own history.
In the first of a series of conversations about the inspiration behind these dinners, CityMag spoke with lauded Adelaide chef Emma McCaskill about her three ring-ins: Maggie Beer, Darren Robertson and Sat Bains.
The story begins with a throwback.
“I was a wild spirit in my youth. I used to skip school with friends, go home and smoke pot and we’d watch The Cook and the Chef,” Emma tells CityMag.
“No surprise, I left school in year 11 and got into cooking, and I’m pretty sure it was because of that.”
These were Emma’s first interactions with Maggie Beer and Simon Bryant – distant relationships that would eventually flourish beyond the screen.
Despite both being prominent South Australian food personalities, Maggie and Emma didn’t meet until 2014, at the hospitality conference founded by Attica’s Ben Shewry, What A Wonderful World (WAW) Gathering.
“It was a group of chefs and we came together, and we cooked together and talked about relevant industry topics, like work/life balance and having kids and running restaurants, that sort of thing,” Emma say.
“Maggie came to one of the lunches, and I first met her then. She ran up and she’s like, ‘Emma! I’ve been wanting to meet you for so long,’ because we’re both from Adelaide and had never [met].
“I was like, ‘Oh my god, Maggie beer,’” Emma laughs. “Then we’ve just kept in contact, and she supported me at Magill, and she’s come [to Fare] with Colin, her husband, and she’s been really lovely.”
The other two members of Emma’s team, Sat and Darren, had great influence on Emma as chefs, but Emma has always admired Maggie for her intimate knowledge of produce.
“She’s a farmer. She knows what’s growing when and what’s dictated by what, and I really admire that about her,” Emma says.
“She’s probably the most produce-driven person I’ve ever met in my entire life. I look up to her for that, and I hope that I can learn that, but it’s a lifetime of knowledge.”
Darren Robertson is the co-owner and chef at The Farm in Byron Bay, as well as Three Blue Ducks in Sydney and Brisbane, but he and Emma met while working at institutional Sydney restaurant Tetusya’s – Emma’s first job as a qualified chef.
Reflecting now on that time, Emma says the kitchen was full of promise.
“It was a pretty driven kitchen,” she says.
“We were all pretty serious and we all wanted to better ourselves as chefs. There wasn’t any fucking around, and we were pretty competitive against each other to do the fish better or set up quickest.
“A lot of chefs that came from that kitchen are now leading chefs in Australia. So Dan Hong, who has Mr. Wong; Daniel Puskas, who has Sixpenny; Phil [Wood], he was at Rockpool for seven or eight years and now he’s in the Mornington Peninsula.
“There are about 10 I was working alongside as a chef that have all gone on to do their own thing at leading restaurants.”
Getting Sat Bains to Adelaide has been a long-time coming for Emma.
“Sat’s never been to Adelaide, so it’s huge for me that he’s coming here,” she says.
“I’ve wanted him to come here for six or seven years. His wife’s come here, but he hasn’t.”
Emma worked at Sat’s Nottingham restaurant, Restaurant Sat Bains, in the development kitchen – a job that entailed creating dishes and researching ingredients.
“It’s a pretty amazing role,” Emma says.
Sat was not always an easy chef to work for – Emma recalls his sharp eye for fingerprints on glass and stainless-steel surfaces – but during her time in Nottingham, Emma learned how to forage, and a cooking-from-scratch culture was even deeper instilled.
“His technical skills as a chef are incredible,” she says.
“So in particular sauces, the basis of the sauce is not just stock, you have to do everything properly from start to finish, and it’s how you cut something, and then cooking it, and adding this to it to get the end result.”
For Emma’s Glasshouse Kitchen dinner, happening on Saturday, 28 march, the four chefs will split their duties across courses, with Maggie producing the starter, Darren putting together a seafood course, Sat is on mains, and Emma has dessert.
The details on the full menu are scant when CityMag speaks with Emma, but she has her dessert locked in already: an Indian dish called jalebi.
“It’s like a donut soaked in honey and saffron syrup,” Emma says.
“Next to Troppo, there’s a group of apartments, and on those apartments there’s a garden, and there’s beehives… so we have local beehives 500 metres from here. I’ve made this Indian donut and soaked it in a local honey. It has notes of lemon and honey and saffron, and then I’m making labneh. It’s pretty yummy.”