Every famous chef photo shows a guy using a pair of tweezers to put something on a plate. So, it’s a refreshing change that Blackwattle’s executive chef Clayton Wells does not allow tweezers in his kitchen.
“If I saw my chefs putting things on with tweezers, I’ll throw them in the bin,” says Wells.
“The tweezers, I mean, not the chefs,” he adds with a chuckle.
To Wells, using a pair of metal pincers to gingerly place garnish on food has its place in certain high-end restaurants. But this is not a category he wants modern Australian restaurant Blackwattle in.
“I don’t want Blackwattle to be a fine-dining restaurant. I want it to be a bit rowdy, a bit loud, and a bit fun. It creates a good atmosphere,” says Wells. “And you can’t have fun in the dining room if people in the kitchen are not having fun.”
He is just 36, but Wells already has a resume studded with fancy names. Tetsuya’s and Quay in Sydney, and the acclaimed Noma in Copenhagen. From Tetsuya’s, Wells learnt precision and efficiency — part and parcel of being trained to cook 10-course menus for 140 people every night. “Every course we sent out had to be exactly the same. Everyone got exactly the same thing,” shares Wells.
“If I saw my chefs putting things on with tweezers, I’ll throw them in the bin.”
– Clayton Wells, executive chef of Blackwattle
Quay was where he discovered Japanese produce, and working with certain ingredients to enhance the flavour of food that isn’t Japanese. But it was opening Momofuku Seiobo in Sydney with David Chang — the man currently cooking up a storm on Netflix with his Ugly Delicious series — that changed his perception of dining.
“Working with (Chang) was an important moment in my career,” shares Wells. He recalls a memorable episode where Chang served his diners a sweet, sticky glazed pork shoulder sans cutlery, so they had to dig in with their hands.
“It was the point where I moved away from traditional fine-dining and gained a bit more freedom as a cook to test things out and make mistakes,” says Wells.
The open-concept kitchen is where the buzz at Blackwattle happens. Here, the kitchen team bustles about in plain view, turning out plates of delicious food that hold no punches. Take a dish of steamed greenbone. The delicate flesh of the New Zealand fish is amped up with smoky char from roasted lettuce, and deep savoury flavour from a layer of lardo.
“I love cooking different types of fish. The precision it takes to slice the fish, and how to cook it well,” shares Wells.
His most interesting find here is sharkskin flounder, brought in by a Japanese supplier. “The skin is so interesting and beautiful, in an ugly way,” he chuckles. “I felt it would be a shame to cut the skin off. We found a way to pan-fry it to a crisp so the skin comes off like crackling,” says Wells.
“Fish is my happy place.”
To the Australia-born chef, a bad fish course is criminal: “You don’t want to pull an animal out of an ocean and waste anything.”