5 Minutes with Australian Chef-Entrepreneur Luke Mangan
Popular restaurant-in-the-sky, Salt Grill & Sky Bar, celebrated its fifth anniversary in Singapore with an exclusive dinner, and the event saw fans of both the restaurant and chef filling up the premises of the lauded eatery. On that evening, iconic dishes created by five of Mangan’s chefs, who each helm an international Salt restaurant, were served to all guests over a celebratory five-course dinner — fittingly named Fea5t.
Not only did each chef get to showcase his interpretation of Mangan’s recipes using fresh Australian produce, all dishes were also carefully paired with top drops from Australia’s Penfolds Wines. In celebration of this unique occasion, a Salt-exclusive cocktail, "Hibiki 5ive", was also developed by Australian Beam Suntory Whisky Ambassador Dan Woolley, and was unveiled on the night.
In fact, the cocktail was so well-received that it has now gained a permanent place on the restaurant's menu, albeit renamed as Hakushu 5ive.
Mangan is no stranger to the international culinary scene, having been invited to cook for both royalties and the rich and famous, from the former President of America, Bill Clinton, to Hollywood veteran, Tom Cruise. With 17 restaurants globally, the stalwart on Australian TV and radio is also the resident chef of Virgin Australia and helms a growing empire of restaurants across Asia, including Singapore’s very own Salt grill & Sky bar and Salt tapas & bar.
He is also the only chef in the world to have restaurants onboard five P&O cruise ships. As if these were not impressive enough, he recently started taking charge of the entire F&B offerings for two island resorts, Amilla Fushi and FINOLHU in the Maldives.
On this night, Mangan was assisted by some of his top aides, such as executive chef Shannon Binnie, who has clocked over 15 years with Mangan’s restaurants, and Mathew Leighton, who heads up Salt Grill and Sky Bar in Singapore.
These guys set the bar high, with the first course by Chef Binnie being a lively ayu with grilled watermelon and salsa verde, paired with a 2014 Penfolds Koonunga Hill Autumn Riesling from Barossa and Eden Valley, and Chef Leighton’s course being a tender and delicate wagyu with cauliflower, horseradish, and beetroot, which was paired with a 2012 Penfolds Bin 389 Shiraz Cabernet from McLaren Vale and Barossa Valley.
In spite of his big night and slew of important guests, we managed to pull Mangan aside for a brief chat.
What are the challenges of running so many restaurants? All my head chefs have come up through the ranks so they have all been with me for a long time. the quality is what we want and we work together as a team. the staff in the lower ends are always a problem to train and motivate, but our job is to try and do that and keep it consistent. In terms of challenges, whether you have one restaurant or ten restaurants, to me, it is all the same. If you have good people in the restaurant running it who are passionate and who care, then generally it should all come together.
How do you ensure each restaurant has its own identity, but still also be representative of you at the same time? I think that comes down individually to each chef, but every Salt Grill has a set standard menu that the team is told to work with and cook, but at the same time they also have their own freedom to create their own dishes as well. It is kind of like a franchise, though I don’t think it’s the most suitable word, and each place will have certain items that remain consistent through all the menus, such as a certain type of fish beef, for instance.
How do you maintain quality across all the restaurants? Well basically, just training the head chef and making sure that he is ready for that position and also rotating the chefs between the different restaurants, so they see and understand the differences.
What do you have lined up next? We just opened in the Maldives, we have another island opening soon. We have a team in Tokyo already and hope to sign two more. But I am lucky and I enjoy this.
Tonight we had pairings with wine, but quite often now there are dinner pairings with other beverages, such as whisky and cocktails. What are your thoughts about that? We have done that, with beer too, because not everyone likes wine or cocktails, so we have to mix it up. However I am a traditionalist at heart and I still prefer to pair wine with food, it’s still the most perfect combination. That said, I have had a great cocktail with a nicely aged wagyu beef, so really, it’s all about whether or not it pairs nicely.
How much of this is about experimenting with new flavours and how much of it is just purely for the novelty? There is definitely some degree of experimentation involved, however, I think with any food there has to be a foundation, just like maybe writing is the foundation of journalism - for me, my foundation is in classic French flavours. And just take molecular cuisine as an example: it is unusual and exciting and many people love it, but t is not something that I personally enjoy because it doesn’t taste real (to me).
You mentioned your training is in classic French — what would you consider as classic Australian cuisine? It is what you see here - Australian cuisine is about using Australian products, fish and meat — Australians are very lucky, we steal a little bit from all around the world. French, Japanese, Italian, Spanish… all these have influenced Australian cuisine, and we are free to do whatever we want, so it’s really like its own entity. We don’t tend to listen to other people so much, we do our own thing.
What do you get inspired by? Do you try to travel to get ideas? I travel a lot and it keeps me going - trying different chefs food, going to local markets, and eating local food, i love it. Even coming to Singapore and having a laksa - it just gives me ideas for when I get back to Australia and try new things out, such a a beautiful barramundi fish with nicely cooked noodles with a nice laksa sauce. To me it is really cool and is a dish that we have done before.
What is the biggest misconception people have about what you do?People ask me how I do 18 restaurants, and I would say that I am lucky enough to have good staff under me and everyone has worked their way up the ranks. They are good guys, they work hard for me and make me look good — the the biggest misconception is that I did it all on my own.