Not content with everyday cooking, Russell Molina is taking food to the next level
When Russell Molina was studying engineering at university, a career in the food industry was probably the furthest thing from his mind.
But a casual job as a kitchen hand to pay for his studies unearthed a passion for the world of cookery. Now the executive chef of Vivo bar and grill at Palm Cove, Russell says he has never regretted his decision to drop his studies in favour of an apprenticeship.
“I had my parents and other people telling me don’t make your hobby your job,” he says.
“I still haven’t looked back and I still enjoy it today.”
Russell puts his love of cooking down to creativity, customer feedback and being able to “constantly learn and evolve”.
He completed his apprenticeship at Jupiter’s Casino on the Gold Coast and worked his way up the food chain at a number of major hotels in Perth and Darwin before taking up a head chef role at a boutique restaurant at Hervey Bay. He says the return to a small restaurant was grounding.
“From hotels you get caught up in the production side of things and the management side of things so this boutique restaurant was great for me because it got me back to food,” he says. “As the chef, you could go out and talk to people and really work out what they wanted.”
Russell was drawn to Cairns in 2006 to work at the Cairns International Hotel as sous chef garde manger, but a year later the kitchens of Vivo were calling.
“There was a lot I thought I could do here and it was a bit of a challenge,” he says.
“I looked at the kitchen and thought there was a lot I could improve on. And the location was fantastic. In hotels you are basically in a basement looking at four walls and here I get to see the ocean every day.”
Putting more focus on beautiful fresh produce was Russell’s first move at Vivo.
“They were doing a lot more traditional Italian before and I freshened it up,” he says.
“There are now hints of Asian cuisine. I don’t like to use the term modern Australian cuisine because it’s used very loosely, but I use a lot of surprising ingredients as combinations. Experimenting keeps me interested. The fact is it (the food industry) is always changing and you have people who you can look towards for inspiration.”
As for specials, they are Russell’s time to shine and the executive chef says many of his more successful trial runs end up on the menu. One example of this is his tuna carpaccio, using yellow fin tuna with strawberry and ginger jelly, fried egglpant, micro herbs and flying fish roe.
“It’s a very simple dish using good produce, but the combination works. With specials, I definitely change them a lot for a few reasons because if there’s some produce I get that’s very good I will implement it and I like to experiment a lot.”
As well as trying interesting combinations in the kitchen, Russell is dabbling in taking food technology to the next level. He says world-famous chef Ferran Adria’s revolutionary new recipes are his inspiration.
“He (Ferran) closes the restaurant El Bulli for six months of the year so he can learn about the chemical side of the food,” Russell says.
“It’s pretty impressive because it’s so different and there are limited places in Australia that are actually doing it.”
Although Russell describes Ferran’s techniques as using chemicals to do such things as solidify food on the outside and liquefy its centre, he says the chemicals are a harmless derivative of food. “It’s something I’m hoping to play with in the next few months,” he says.
“I think the trends will come back and go traditional again but it’s more about bringing something that people haven’t seen before.”