Concrete Playground Meets Muse on Allen's Samuel North
What were you doing when you were 21?
April 23, 2015
From exploding deep fryers to culinary acclaim; Samuel North has come a long way. North is one of Wellington's youngest yet widely acclaimed chefs. At 21 he opened his first restaurant, Muse on Allen, in the former site of Satay Kampong restaurant at the top of Allen St. At 22 he beat his former mentors and took out the top accolade in the Wellington on a Plate (WOAP) food festival for his Dine Wellington menu, proving that his age was not the only thing that made him remarkable.
His reputation has only grown from there, with Muse on Allen and North himself being the source of ever more praise. When I sat down with him he was actually not sure which interviewer I was, so swamped has he been with media attention. North's food philosophy is not complicated; he uses simple ingredients to create food that is magnificent. His restaurant is founded on love for stunning produce, great flavours and contemporary fine dining, implementing modern cooking techniques to create the best possible results. They are results which are making their mark; North's is a success story that would appear to be just beginning.
Concrete Playground: How's 2015 treating Muse on Allen?
Samuel North: It's been good. It was actually quite a slow start coming back from the Christmas break and stuff but it's sort of picked up and February kept on rolling. We've picked up quite a few regular customers and they're all still coming back and we're actually getting really good reviews through Trip Advisor. We're ranked number four at the moment which is something that the team's really proud of.
Going right back to the beginning here, where did your passion for food come from, and where was it honed?
SN: Um, well. If I wasn't going to leave school then I probably would have got told to leave school cause I'm a shithead, and I managed to get a job at Parliament, just working as a sort of prep hand. Kind of like an unqualified commis chef. But I hated it to be honest, it was shit. I got told off so many times. I even got sent home once. And then I ended up working for a café, like a steakhouse place and thought I might try and get back into cooking, challenge myself and get a proper job working at like a hotel. I did an apprenticeship through what was known at the time as HIS. It's a much better program than doing like nine months in a classroom and then learning. I was learning on the job. it was interesting actually, there were probably about sixteen of us who started the course and over the two and a half or three years it got down to about four of us who finished it. I wanted to quit all the time, I hated it. I actually didn't want to be a chef for so long because it was just so hard.
Right, my next question is super lame – you must get it all the time but it's got to be asked; what's your favourite food?
SN: Umm favourite food. It's like getting asked what you liked to cook. Shit. I don't even have one actually. I just love food.
Okay, I'll switch it then. Is there anything you hate?
SN: Yeah. Fucking like, brains and shit. Offal and that sort of stuff. I'm friends with MacLean (Fraser) from the Bolton Hotel and he's so into it, he loves it and I'm just like, ugh disgusting. I can't eat it. I can't cook it because if I don't really have a big passion for it then I don't want to cook it. When it starts getting to like brains and hearts and things it's definitely not me.
Okay well that was pretty categorical. What do you think are the most important components of a successful dish?
SN: I think covering all bases on the dish really. The flavour, the texture and what it looks like on the plate is so important as well. Those three things I think are really important. If it looks good it has to taste as good as it looks. A lot of chefs are using leaves and flowers and stuff like that, and I use a little bit of it but while it might look really pretty, who wants to eat that bowl of leaves and flowers? It looks cool, but I think it's about trying to find that balance.
On the back of that, what's a sure fire way to butcher a dish?
SN: Putting too much stuff on a dish. You look at some restaurants, some sort of, below average kind of places and it looks like the chef is just trying too hard to get the stuff on the plate. If it's going to be a basic restaurant serving basic food then all you really want is meat, potato and vegetables rather than doing this vinaigrette and this and that and none of it actually gels together – it's just a whole lot of stuff on a plate. You could cut them all out and just put like a nice mashed potato and jus or sauce and it could be amazing rather than have all this random stuff that just doesn't work together at all, you know?
Definitely. Speaking of butchering dishes, what's the biggest cooking disaster you've ever had?
SN: Ahhhhh, shit. I mean, there's been a few disasters with burning things but probably the worst disaster happened when I wasn't actually cooking. It was my first job at parliament and the chef told me to clean the deep fryer and I was like okay, how do I do that? I was sixteen years old and stupid. He was like, you put a pot beside the fryer, pull the thing and all the oil empties out and then you scrub [the fryer] out and clean it. I was like, sweet, cool. This was like five o'clock, just before service. So the hot oil all came out and I took a bucket of water and poured it into the fryer. Water and hot oil do not go well together - it went through the pipes and into the pot of oil and the whole thing just exploded. The chef went fucking ballistic. I just stood there in shock, like oh fuck, what have I just done. That was probably the biggest disaster.
Yup okay that was impressively disastrous. You've certainly picked up from there though, you established this place at 21, which is ridiculously young, what gave you the confidence to do that?
SN: My parents gave me really good support, they've supported me the whole way through it. Especially my dad, he's been in business before and really wanted me to do this I think. Probably not so young though. I could have waited a few more years but I was just too keen, too eager to own my own place, even if it was going to be something else. This place actually wasn't even supposed to be a restaurant – I just wanted to have a bar but it turned out completely differently.
What was behind that huge need to have your own place?
SN: I just really hated working for people to be honest. I hated getting told what to do all the time. It was driving me crazy. I was just like fuck, what am I doing? I just wanted to do my own thing.
Starting a business so young, was it kind of hard to get people to take you seriously?
SN: Yeah it was really hard, especially in the first year. I'd hired all these young people who were like fuck it, he's 21 what the fuck does he know? It made me realise that I needed to be hiring the right people who were going to support me and who wanted to listen to me. I find that actually hiring older and more mature is better. I've got a lot of older staff now. They're still in their like, thirties and twenties and stuff but they are passionate about the restaurant, the food and the service.
You've obviously been getting a lot of recognition in the way of awards and stuff, has that helped you to be taken a bit more seriously?
SN: Yeah definitely. People want to work for me now which is completely the reverse from in the beginning when I struggled to find staff. Now I've got CV's coming in all the time from people who want to work here.
What do you love about the Wellington culinary scene?
SN: There are just so many choices, so many options. There are lots of great new boutique places opening up now; although they might be burger places and that but they do things well. I also like the smallness of it – it's such a clique-y sort of town when it comes to hospitality. Everyone knows each other and everyone is supportive; if you need something you can just ring up another restaurant and they'll say yeah sure, I've got that, you can borrow it. It's a small community.
So what's next?
SN: Well we're doing some renovations starting next month. We're putting in a private dining area which will be able to sit around twenty five people. A new bar will be put in with a big wine display and a bar-lounge area, the floor of the restaurant will be getting levelled out and the entrance is going to be moved. We've got a big team who are looking forward to getting stuck in. We're excited too. And then perhaps another restaurant somewhere down the track. That's a definite possibility.