Matthew McCool sounds like an international man of mystery, but there’s no second-guessing his impeccable taste and talent as a world-renowned chef.
Following award-winning stints in China and Australia, McCool is now Chef de Cuisine at W Retreat & Spa Bali – Seminyak.
But first, some background on how a lad of Scottish decent, who grew up on the Central Coast of New South Wales, became one of the hottest names in the kitchen.
McCool finished cooking school in Sydney in 2002 and started as an apprentice at Quay, with stints at Wildfire and Prime. Europe was calling, where he worked at Michelin-starred restaurants in London, such as Maze, Bank and Chez Bruce, before upping the international flavour in France and Italy.
In 2010, knowing he was ready to leave Europe but wanting more adventure, McCool took his first Chef de Cuisine posting at Beijing’s prestigious Aria Restaurant at China World Hotel (part of the Shangri-La Group). It was here he really started turning heads, winning Chef of the Year and International Restaurant of the Year at the 2011 Time Out Beijing Awards.
Always keen to keep learning, McCool came back to Sydney two years later and after a year at GPO moved to Altitude Restaurant at the Shangri-La Hotel, bagging both Best Restaurant at the Tourism Accommodation Australia Awards for Excellence and the Australian Hotel Association’s Best Restaurant (Accommodation Division) in 2013.
In 2014, he started the Sydney-based consulting company Chef McCool before being lured back to Asia in April 2015.
BISTRO magazine was fortunate enough to spend time with McCool to learn more about his ideas and the importance of Aussie chefs travelling overseas.
BISTRO: You have worked for the Shangri-La and now the W Hotels. What is it about international resort-style hotels that appeals to you?
MATTHEW McCOOL: International hotel groups vary from city to city, each very unique and vibrant in their own right. At the W Retreat here in Bali, we hold ourselves at the top of the market and strive to be competitive and grow every day in all aspects of the industry. The appeal of international hotels is that it is international, meaning you can work anywhere in the world within the group. Also, you get to see and learn about so many different cultures and work with passionate people.
B: How are you finding the move to Bali?
MM: The move has been great; the team here is so friendly and accommodating. I am lucky to work in such an amazing environment.
B: In your professional life you have moved around a fair bit. Has this been coincidental or do you see change being important to growth?
MM: I always tell younger chefs that they should work in the top restaurants and learn as much as possible from different chefs. It’s very important to develop different skills, learn from different chefs, cook different menus, work in different countries and meet new people. In saying that, to really learn the most from a kitchen and team, a minimum of 18 months is required when you’re just starting out. When you are in a senior position, this is much more.
B: Why do many of the good Australian chefs go overseas?
MM: Australians love to learn new techniques and work with different products. For example, we don’t have real French foie gras in Australia, which for me was my highest priority when going to France.
B: As a Chef de Cuisine, what are the main points of difference working in Asia to working in Australia?
MM: Respecting where you are. You need to adapt yourself to the culture and understand your team. Product is not the same as what you are familiar with at home, so you need to be adaptable. Plus, being a leader from the front, as you might be showing some techniques or combinations that may be very new and have never been taught before.
B: How important is it for young Australian chefs to work overseas and which cities do you think make the best training grounds for young chefs?
MM: It’s important for young chefs to get out and see the world. It even gets down to eating food in different environments – things never taste the same as what they do in their original origin. You can learn so much just by eating in a hawker market in the back streets of Malaysia. I learn daily from my team here about different flavours that we don’t see at home. So, it’s very important.
In regards to cities, as far as Europe goes, try and get to the little towns of France, Spain and Italy. There is so much raw original culture, that you’re learning the minute you order a coffee at the airport. For Asia, I would recommend first-tier cities for the vibrancy and push to be competitive. Places like Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Bali.
B: Are there any notable differences between working for W Hotels and the Shangri-La Group?
MM: All hotel groups are different in many ways, none of which are better or worse, just delivered to different crowds. W is very trendsetting and upbeat; we have international DJs weekly here and sunset sessions by the pool, whereas Shangri-La delivers a more traditional 5-star approach.
B: You worked as a consultant for a year just prior to joining the W Hotel in Bali. How did you find working for yourself in the consultancy business?
MM: It was great; I had a good time and taught myself about business models, which can help me now but on a larger scale. I worked with some really cool people and got to travel the country doing it.
B: What’s your assessment of the fine dining scene in Bali?
MM: What Bali does really well is good restaurants, beautiful designs and thought-out food designs. There are so many options to choose from in Bali, from street food to a dessert degustation restaurant in the mountains. Fine dining, I guess, comes under the banner of a fine dining ‘experience’ more so than what is classed as fine dining in Sydney.
B: You have worked with some of the world’s top chefs including Gordon Ramsay and Tom Aikens. Do great chefs necessarily make great teachers?
MM: Yes, I would say, because if you are passionate and hungry you can learn a lot surrounding yourself with great chefs.
B: Can you see yourself returning to work in Europe?
MM: I wouldn’t say no. I have always had a personal goal as a young guy to push for Michelin stars. But if I had to choose to work between W Bali on the beach in a stunning 5-star property, with friendly, talented chefs, or a basement in a 3-Michelin-star restaurant in rainy London …
B: With regard to your current position, where do you source your produce?
MM: We have a motto – if it can grow in the ground we always use local. Bali has some of the most amazing fruit and veg. For fish, we are trying to do the same, but we also fly fish in from Japan. Meat we are using the highest grades from around the world.
B: Can you tell us the challenges (if any) of finding good produce if you are based in Indonesia?
MM: It’s just about supporting local farms. At the moment, we have an organic supplier that literally can only produce 1kg of this here and there. But I am sure in time, with our support, they will be able to grow more and we’ll have a good chain of locally produced organic vegetables. Sometimes shipping and timings with meats and fish can be difficult, but it is also fun landing some new products. The logistics of it travelling from a farm in Melbourne to the diners here in Bali is pretty cool too.