Hospo family dinner is a beloved tradition in restaurants that actually care about their staff. It’s an opportunity for the chef to trial new dishes that might be too experimental for the restaurant menu, and a chance for the staff to sit down and enjoy each others company with some good food and drinks. Every Thursday, Chef Aliesha McGilligan puts on a Chef’s Table lunch where she opens that treasured experience to the public – anyone can come. Each week she puts together meals above and beyond the cafe cabinet and creates an atmosphere where neighbourhood tradies sit next to artists working at the XCHC, backpackers and foodies and CBD office workers all share a table and pass the plates around. Here, she tells me about Chef’s Table, her food philosophy, and what it’s like to be a chef in the middle of an arts space.
Aliesha got her early training by temping in various kitchens across Christchurch. “If you’re a chef in a restaurant you have this pride going on, and sometimes too much, but if you’re in a cafe sometimes you don’t have enough love. So there’s got to be a middle ground.” She’s found that middle ground at XCHC Christchurch, a hub for creative practitioners in an industrial neighbourhood in Waltham. XCHC houses working artist studios as well as exhibition space. Aliesha’s cafe bridges the gap in between, physically and conceptually. It’s both a studio for her to create the dishes, and an exhibition space for the public to consume them – canteen style. The cafe is a space for her to experiment with the freshest seasonal ingredients available, from local growers and producers around Canterbury, and even hyper-local from Cultivate Christchurch urban agriculture initiative just across town.
Taste Transfixed: Every day you’ve got something different here. Can you tell me a bit about the food you’re serving?
Chef Aliesha McGilligan: People always ask me if I’ve got a menu, and I have to say ‘no I don’t know what I’m going to do. It’s seasonal, deal with it, it’s going to be great, thanks for trusting me!’ But not everyone has that trust. It’s not really the format, especially in Christchurch. I’m asking people to do something that they don’t normally do. But that’s the point! I’m not going to put fifty things on my menu and have them sit there for ages. I know what’s good and available at the moment, and i’ll work with dietary restrictions and personal tastes, but I’m not going to have strawberries in winter.
TT: The first thing that people see when they walk into the XCHC is your kitchen, which is interesting because most kitchens are hidden away. Not all chefs have the desire or ability to work in an open plan kitchen. Is that something that you’ve learned or has that always been interesting for you?
AM: [Chef Jamie Bennett] saw that I could pull pork and talk at the same time, and so he put me at the stall [at Riccarton Market], in front of people. And when you communicate to people that you’ve done what you yourself would like to eat, then you get other people excited about it. It taught me a lot about communication, and about community. It’s pretty much the same word.
I think when customers come to an establishment they want the restaurant facade to be there, but they also want a touch of realness. I’m still learning where that line is. I think that appreciation goes a long way, I appreciate it when people come in, that they’re here. That’s definitely something that I learned at the [farmers] market, its like thanks for choosing my stall because there’s all these other stalls around so its really nice that you’re getting your wallet out for me – I can see that there’s tons of competition, I can see that you can go anywhere.
“[The Riccarton Market] taught me a lot about communication, and about community. It’s pretty much the same word.”
TT: Can you tell me about Chef’s Table? To me it’s like hospo family dinner, but for the public – do they know how much of a treat they’re getting? What is your aim with it?
AM: It’s about reconnecting, and appreciating food, and I feel like when there’s conversation you enjoy the food so much more. I think that’s a nice ethos, to push that culture of eating with other people, because even if you have nothing else to connect on, at least you have the food. There’s something truly special about sharing a meal, passing a plate and receiving it. You just don’t get that when you go to a restaurant and you order something a la carte and it comes already plated. But I do want people to understand that lunch time can be a meal, not just a grab and run. It’s hard to appreciate food when you’re trying to scoff a bite between changing gears on the road. Food is so much more than that. Food can be an occasion.
TT: Can you tell me what’s on the menu for tomorrow?
AM: No, I don’t know. Mushrooms? I just got a text today that a friend was bringing by a box of incredible mushrooms, look at those mushrooms! I just love to leave it as open as possible because something usually just opens up and I hate committing until the last moment.
“It’s hard to appreciate food when you’re trying to scoff a bite between changing gears on the road. Food is so much more than that. Food can be an occasion.”
TT: Talk to me about self-expression in food and how much of your personality comes through in your dishes.
AM: There’s a certain frame of mind that it has to be this or that, but you can truly break all the rules if you want. I don’t know if its creativity, but you at least want to define what you want the guest to experience. Like even how much do you toast a piece of toast, and how saucy you make something, there’s that mouthfeel that comes through, it takes planning and initiative and foresight. Combinations of things and thicknesses and ratios on plates, I think that’s all quite creative, I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rules.
The biggest flop ever is when a dish is boring, if people don’t remember it. But I also don’t like being quirky for quirky’s sake. I’m not a food snob or an elite chef, it can be simple. I mean I love pork crackling, the first time I tried it, dehydrated pork skin, I thought it was amazing. It had the texture of a prawn crisp, and it highlighted the cellular structure of the animal’s skin, which was freaky, but it was beautiful in its bio-freakiness. I love the simplicity of dishes. I don’t think anything is better because its different, its just different.
“The biggest flop ever is when a dish is boring, if people don’t remember it. But I also don’t like being quirky for quirky’s sake. I’m not a food snob or an elite chef, it can be simple.”
TT: When you serve a dish to people, you’re always really good at telling them a bit about how its made. How do you find people react to that?
AM: You’re actually enlightening people into the history of that gunk on that plate that they’re about to eat – it could be crème fraîche, could be yogurt, could be whipped ricotta, nobody knows unless you talk to them about it. But if you bring it alive they have a real sense of anticipation and appreciation and there’s so much more depth to their experience. It gives them another level of what goes on, instead of just ‘I got this out of a container.’ I planned it, cured it for three days, then washed it ever so gently; people can taste the process.
TT: I love your food because you use simple and recognisable ingredients in new and surprising ways. Can you take me through how a dish is put together?
AM: A lot of it comes down to knowing the rules so that you can break them. Break them just enough to make it yours, but not so much that you ruin it. And it’s exciting to feel like you’re teetering on the brink or playing with fire. So that recipe [potato gnocchi with crisp potato skins and sauvignon blanc cheese sauce from the previous week’s Chef’s Table lunch], I didn’t know how the potatoes would react because I’d just gotten a brand new load of the moonlight variety from Logan – Springfed Organics at the Farmer’s Market – and he said that they are between waxy and floury. And I thought, I don’t even know what that means, what am I going to do with that? What does it taste like? So I baked them, then pushed them through a sieve, and then I lightly smoked that to dry them out even more, and I used a really rich egg yolk recipe with lots of flaky salt, and strong flour to hold it together. The smokiness was from a seafood smoke wood mix, I didn’t go foraging for my own bark off a tree and then soak it in angel tears, I just soaked it in wine… I know you can take everything to the extreme, but you need to ask if it’s going to make it any better. Smoking something on the spot and making gnocchi is quite intensive, that’s enough for a simple lunch. The moonlight potatoes had this really nice sweetness that complemented the smokiness, and then I just happened to have some oxidised wine, a Sauv, that worked really well for the creamy sauce. And that morning I’d picked some rosemary and it just sort of all came together and happened at the last moment. It’s not a sustainable model for the way that all restaurants should operate at, but it’s exciting!
“I didn’t go foraging for my own bark off a tree and then soak it in angel tears, I just soaked it in wine… You can take everything to the extreme, but you need to ask if it’s going to make it any better.”
TT: Is there anything else in the wider world that inspires your cooking?
TT: You’re aware that there is a wider world outside of the kitchen?
AM: I haven’t actually been exposed enough to the wider world. I used to think I’d like to do a different job, just for five years. Something that would push you the brink of what you thought you were capable of, help you experience those outer realms. Like a policewoman or a firefighter, all these extreme male dominated jobs.
TT: Kitchens aren’t male dominated enough for you?
AM: [Laughs] Well, exactly.
But I think it always comes back to community for me. Food is where it begins and ends, but there needs to be something in the middle there. Helping people every day experience the little pleasures in life. And supporting other artisans and growers who are trying to make a life doing what they do. And being here in the XCHC, it means so much more than working in any other cafe. Keeping it simple is always my goal, but then I just have so many ideas of where I want to go, and it’s about reigning in those creative impulses so that I don’t create my own coffin by offering too many different things. And people play a big aspect because this business is very much customer driven.
“It always comes back to community for me. Food is where it begins and ends, but there needs to be something in the middle there. Helping people every day experience the little pleasures in life. And supporting other artisans and growers who are trying to make a life doing what they do.“
TT: There has to be a balance between introducing something new and serving what is popular.
AM: It’s about attention to detail and humble food. It’s what people want.
TT: What does it mean to push the boundaries as a chef?
AM: Presenting people with something that they’re not yet familiar with. Pushing preconceived boundaries that you thought you had. Sometimes boundaries aren’t really boundaries, they’re just markers.
There’s a lot of thought processes that go on that don’t get put out there, sometimes you stick with what you already had because if its good, so why change it. Or sometimes you develop something without being aware you’re doing it, things reveal themselves to you, which is pretty cool. I’m not talking about magic here, it’s just food, but sometimes it feels like magic on the spot.