Philip Johnson and the iconic e’cco

We claim him as one of our own, although this Brisy boy is a New Zealand-born import, but Philip Johnson has become one of Australia’s most celebrated chefs. His culinary skills have been flavoured by his time in Australia, London and New Zealand but it is Brisbane that he is proud to call home.
I arrive at e’cco on a typically perfect Autumn Brisbane night and as per usual with e’cco, everything is in place well before the first guest arrives. Philip is working in the open kitchen as one of the crew and the front of house manager greets me like an old friend. I can’t help but think the ongoing success of this place has a close tie to the consistent team and the fact that Philip has always remained grounded and continues to be part of the crew.

Philip opened his landmark Brisbane bistro, e’cco, in 1995 but it was in 1997 that we all sat and paid attention when he won the 1997 Remy Martin Cognac/Australian Gourmet Traveller Restaurant of the Year award, a great coupe for Philip, but a message to the rest of Australia to take the Brisbane food scene seriously. E’cco has remained a consistent winner ever since, continuing to receive national and international respect and positive review for its uncomplicated, yet sophisticated culinary offerings with elegant simplicity.

For me, each dish on the e’cco menu is a competitor for the number one spot. e’cco is one of the very few restaurants I go to which I have never settled for my personal favourite dish, they are all equally vying for attention. The dishes seem to draw from the classics, but with a modern complexity and a level of consistency that runs through all aspect of this ongoing winning bistro.

One of the amazing aspects of e’cco is its location, if you were to guess where you’d find it you’d never suspect it to be tucked away in side street outside the CBD in an area of Brisbane that still to this day is kind of out of the way, and a bit of nightmare to find a park. I am continually amazed with the odd restaurant I come across in these locations that would seeming just not work, but for some reason the guys or gals that start must know something that the rest of us don’t. Or maybe, if you get everything right the diners will come and we only ever know about the ones that work and the failures are gone before we notice them….

Anyway, enough sidetracking, back to Philip. Beyond working in the kitchen at e’cco, Philip runs numerous cooking classes, demonstrations and also does his share of guest chef appearances, both here and internationally. Previous appearances include The Treasury Restaurant and The Essential Ingredient in Melbourne; the Radisson Playford and Red Ochre, Adelaide; Accoutrement in Mosman, Sydney; and Berardo’s and Spicers Peak on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.
Philip has never really rested on his laurels and regularly travels overseas to broaden his outlook and techniques. In fact prior to the opening of e’cco, Philip worked in London at Antony Worrall Thompson’s bistro, dell’Ugo and when some might consider they had all the answers in early 1997 he again returned to London, working for several weeks at The River Café with Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers.
From 1998 to 2004, Philip was appointed as Air New Zealand’s Australian consulting chef, joining a stellar global team including Peter Gordan of The Providores in London and Chef Katsuo “Suki” Sugiura of The Beverly Hills Hotel Los Angeles.
Philip has also continued to be a supporter of his culinary homeland of New Zealand where he has been a regular visitor for cooking classes at Epicurean Workshop and guest chef spots at Harbourside and Soul Bar, Auckland, as well as at the beautiful Seresin Estate, in the Marlborough Sounds and Craggy Range Vineyards in picturesque Hawkes Bay.
Venturing further afield, Philip headed to Dubai in 2004, joined by fellow Aussie chefs Geoff Lindsay of Pearl Restaurant in Melbourne, Peter Doyle of Est and Guillaume Brahimi of Bennelong, both in Sydney, where the foursome participated in a week long campaign to promote Australian food, wine and produce in the luxury hotels in the desert region.
In 2006 he travelled to Chicago as guest chef at a Queensland Government business reception launched by, then Deputy Premier, Anna Bligh, which coincided with BIO 2006, the world’s largest biotechnology convention and trade show, helping to promote Queensland food and wine – which backs up him becoming an adopted Aussie, and a definite Queenslander.

He also puts in time for many charities, working alongside an impressive line-up of industry peers to raising very much needed funds for many worthwhile causes, including the Starlight Children’s Foundation, Bestest, Mission Australia, AEIOU and The Leukaemia Foundation.

During the years at e’cco Philip has translated the recipes that were once mainly all stored in his head to paper in contributing to a multitude of books including Simply Australia, Australian Food, Providore and Great Australian Chefs, where Mietta O’Donnell named Philip as one of 50 chefs at the cutting edge of Australian cuisine. Philip’s recipes have also featured in publications by both Maggie Beer and Iain Hewitson and he also featured as a weekly columnist for The Courier Mail’s Good Life supplement from 2002 to 2008 and is a currently contributor to Brisbane lifestyle magazine, Brisbane News.

With all this going on, Philip has somehow found the time to author his own six cookbooks. Although each book is complete by itself they all have enough of a common e’cco thread that you could mix and match dishes from each to develop a well flowed menu. The common link with this collection of recipes in my opinion is that they are all very Philip Johnson – the food reflects what is served in e’cco, it’s about the ingredients, it has a relaxed ease about it yet sophisticated, simple yet stunning – which is all a pretty good reflection of what e’cco is all about and the backbone of what made it a continual success to this day. Philip will tell you that his latest book, Eating In, is his best work, but I gotta tell you I find it hard to get past Decadence, some of those rich chocolate desserts are outrageous and send me into a spin.

When I stop and think about what he has achieved and taken part in over the past sixteen odd years since opening the doors of e’cco, it really is mighty impressive, particularly for a guy who always seems to appear relatively relaxed and layback.

With the honour of being named 1997 Remy Martin Cognac/Australian Gourmet Traveller (AGT) Restaurant of the Year Award, did it come as a surprise?
Philip – Most definitely, the award had never gone to a Queensland restaurant, we thought we may have had a slim chance, but it was a total shock and a good one.
Did you feel receiving this award brought a new level of pressure and expectation?
Philip – The pressure increased from the first day, the phone rang off the hook, we were booked out three to four months in advance, it was amazing.
It is now around fifteen years since you won the AGT Restaurant of the Year and it seems you have certainly kept the game up, you seem as busy as ever, what is the formula for the successful longevity of e’cco?
Philip – Consistency and good team – the food, the service and the staff, and I like being here and I think that flows through to the staff.
So what is next on the agenda for Philip Johnson?
Philip – I still think I have another one in me, I’m not done yet, and a new venture just may be on the horizon.
We will definitely be watching this space!