Out with the ‘old’
Home from Melbourne, Millennial chef Hayden McMillan is set to bring some new flavours to a popular capital eatery, writes Sharon Stephenson.
It’s 38 degrees Celsius in Melbourne the day I chat to Hayden McMillan. Fires are raging across Victoria and thick smoke clogs the Australian state capital’s streets. In Wellington, where the acclaimed chef has recently moved, it’s a pleasant 22 degrees and no forests are burning.
McMillan knows where he’d rather be.
‘‘I’m a passionate Kiwi and I’m really happy to be home,’’ says McMillan, who spent a year in San Francisco and another five in Melbourne where – among other things – he and wife Dominique opened the celebrated East Brunswick restaurant, Etta.
Carved into the shell of a former fish and chip shop, the 80-seat restaurant became well known for blending the cuisines of the nationalities that call the suburb home – Greek, Italian, Asian and Middle Eastern – with the freshest local produce available.
It’s also known for throwing in indigenous Australian ingredients such as wattle seed and salt bush.
The contemporary neighbourhood bistro earned 34-year-old McMillan a legion of dedicated followers and favourable reviews.
But a few months ago, McMillan sold the restaurant to his business partner and hopped across the Tasman to buy into iconic Wellington restaurant, Floriditas.
He and his wife are now in partnership with Floriditas’ founder Julie Clark and her husband James Pedersen, who’ve operated the Cuba St eatery for 15 years (in 2017, their former business partner Marc Weir left to run Loretta, which the trio set up five years ago).
For Clark, who’s responsible for some of Wellington’s most popular and long-standing eateries, including her eponymous cafe in the now closed central library, inviting McMillan into the business was a decision that wasn’t taken lightly.
‘‘Let’s face it, I’m not getting any younger,’’ says Clark who won’t reveal her age but will say she’s been in hospitality since finishing her law degree.
‘‘I want to stay in this industry but the pressure gets greater and greater, and Floriditas is a big beast – a seven-day-a-week operation from 7am until 10pm. It takes a lot to keep it afloat, so I was looking for someone who could help us do that.’’
It was also about needing to breathe new life into the restaurant.
‘‘After 15 years, I wanted to get some fresh eyes on everything, from the food to the decor. Hayden has a modern approach and knows stuff that I don’t know. I knew I could learn from him.’’
They met a few years ago when McMillan came back to New Zealand to speak at an industry conference. Julie was in the audience and liked what she heard.
‘‘I felt a bit like an old lady stalker but I waited until the end to speak to Hayden. I’m not good with small talk, but I really wanted to get to know him.’’
Fast forward a few months and Clark and Pedersen were in Melbourne on holiday and emailed McMillan to see if they could dine at Etta.
They managed to get a table and were blown away by what he served them.
‘‘The food was tasty, modern and interesting, just like Hayden. In fact, his food is an extension of his personality,’’ says Clark.
One dish even reversed Pedersen’s life-long dislike of brussels sprouts.
‘‘After trying Hayden’s take on them – super fresh and served with seaweed butter – my husband now loves brussels sprouts.’’
The two chefs kept in touch and, in early 2018,
Clark hit on the idea of partnering with McMillan for that year’s Wellington on a Plate chef collaboration series, in which an overseas chef takes over a local restaurant’s kitchen.
Clark asked if he’d be interested, McMillan said yes, and in August 2018 he flew over to recreate Etta’s food for four nights.
The event sold out in hours, but Clark had to scramble to find some of the ingredients McMillan asked for, such as finger limes and tasty pumpkins.
‘‘One of the dishes Hayden is famous for is tamari roasted pumpkin with sunflower cream, but it was the end of the season and all we could get were those huge, tasteless pumpkins, so Hayden really had to pump up the flavour with that dish.’’
Last year, when Julie had the idea to bring fresh blood into Floriditas, McMillan seemed the obvious choice.
‘‘But I worried he wouldn’t be interested. Floriditas is old-school and he’s a Millennial who specialises in cool food.
‘‘To be honest, it was a bit like asking a guy out on a date – I won’t be offended if you say no, but I’d really like you to say yes!’’
So what would make a successful chef, killing it