Shaun Hergatt: Nature is my inspiration

Chef Shaun Hergatt and his childhood memories, from planting seeds, to pick cherries with her grandmother, and the influence this has had on his kitchen

He grew up in the wilderness on a farm in rural Queensland, Australia in a culinary-oriented family. The australian Chef Shaun Hergatt was enamoured with cooking and nature from a young age, and still today many of his dishes reflect the observations of  the latter, and his childhood experience. After several years in Australia working like chef and receiving many prizes including an AHA “Best Young Chef” award, in 2000 Chef Hergatt moved to the United States and joined Atelier at The Ritz-Carlton, Central Park in New York City as chef de cuisine. In 2009, after several awards and after he worked five years like executive chef at The Setai in Miami, he open his eponymous restaurant, SHO Shaun Hergatt in the Financial District and he was recognized as “Best New Chef” by New York magazine. The restaurant received 2 Michelin stars, a 29 out of 30 Zagat rating across the board and “Best New Restaurant” accolades from Esquire and New York magazine. The new challenge of Shaun Hergatt is Juni  opened at the end of 2013 and was awarded “Best New Restaurant” by Esquire Magazine where eeverything from cocktails to the interior, is a celebration of nature. The boutique restaurant, set within Manhattan’s Hotel Chandler, offers menus that are highly responsive to the many micro-seasons within a year, so ingredients may only feature for a few weeks, as long as the ingredients are in season, and then disappear from the menu. We interviewed Chef Shaun Hergatt to make us better explain the reason of his choice and how does the love of nature.

You grew up in a farm, what is your dearest memory?
For three years my family lived on a remote farm where fruit and vegetables were a hugely important part of our day to day life. We had bananas, passion fruit, corn, cherries and tomatoes growing all around us and because we were never into TV and the next house and shop were miles away from us, hunting, fishing, growing and cooking were how I entertained myself as a child.

Growing up in the countryside was a massive education for me. I began to understand the importance of the soil and the seasons from a very early age. When you’ve seen and tasted guava fruit ripe on the tree, that hasn’t been treated with pesticides, you know what that fruit looks and tastes like at its very best. You inspect it and learn to respect it.

My family wanted me to understand nature and where food came from so taught me how to hunt and butcher animals whilst I was still at primary school. We’d head outside and shoot pheasants, turkeys and doves, then they’d teach me to pluck them, gut them and put them on a stick and roast them over a fire. We would head down to the river at the end of our field, catch fish then cook them straight away over the fire. The attitude was “what you kill is what you eat”. There was no waste, we understood that the earth gave us food.

A dish of your childhood that you mostly remember.
Childhood memories are central to my cooking. Not only because my childhood taught me about instinct and how food should taste but because most of my early memories revolve around nature. A dish I’ve created here at Juni- “Cherry Ripe”- is a perfect example of how I like to translate my memories- both nostalgic and observations of nature- onto a plate. Made of chocolate, coconut and cherries, this dish is an homage to the Australian chocolate bars I used to eat when I was a kid but also to beauty and simplicity of the cherries I used to pick in my mate’s yard. I think this is something that is really individual and that people can associate with my cooking.

A recipe that your grandmother taught you and that you still love cook.
My earliest food memories are of me making profiteroles and puff pastry in the kitchen with my grandmother. We had no shops so we had to be self-sufficient, we had to make our own bread and cakes as there really wasn’t anywhere close by that we could buy things. I had a kitchen filled with books on classical French cookery, an extremely patient, smart and precise grandmother and a lot of time to perfect things when I’d try my hand at a recipe. Profiteroles, puff pastry, soufflés… the first time I would try a recipe it would often be a disaster but I’d try a second time and a third time and then perfect them over many months. Without realising it, I’d become a perfectionist in the kitchen at a very young age- partly down to boredom and partly due to a determination to obtain consistency. That’s who I am and have always have been- if it’s not right, I’ll make it right. It has taken me almost 40 years to figure out that this precision is all from my grandmother. She programmed me from a young age. I always make sure to send her clippings and recently when I did a radio interview all about her influence, I played her the recording over Skype- she was very touched.

For each season, among the different seasonal ingredients, what are those you love most? 
One of my favourite ingredients from spring is the Fava shoot. Even with your eyes closed you can just feel that it is green. You can taste the chlorophyll. When you bite into the shoot it has a clean flavour, a really exquisite taste and texture to it, so when you pluck it out of the ground it is ready to go.

One of my favourite ingredients of all time is purple star fruit – fresh, ripe and chilled. It’s nature’s gift, you can’t replicate it. I don’t need to eat at the Fat Duck if I can have a Starfruit! There’s no chef in the world that can make something that delicious. I don’t think anyone will ever replicate something as original as what nature has produced. The true fact in life is that if you pluck the most delicious, 100% organic, sun ripened ingredient straight from the earth, there is nothing better.

A risky combination, but that works.
I like to treat beautiful, ripe ingredients with the respect that they deserve. And that involves rethinking its qualities so as not to constrain it to a particular course. We serve “Hudson Valley Foie Gras” as a starter with ingredients such as hibiscus and ginger bread which people are probably more used to seeing on dessert menus. For me, it is about viewing ingredients on their individual merit and seeing what works best, not churning out flavour combinations from other people’s kitchens.

Would you share with our readers one of your secret food places?
My local sushi place close to work is called Hasaki. I admire it because it is humble and the chef is excellent. He only lives to provide great food and doesn’t care about press or being the best…he lives for consistency and for his family. For me, good sushi exemplifies everything I love about food- excellent ingredients prepared honestly and with passion.

The worst dish you’ve ever tasted.
One of the worst things I’ve ever tasted in New York was a soggy pizza where the base was swimming in a pool of juice. Pizza is such a beautiful thing when done properly, its so sad when people get the balance of flavours and textures wrong.

Favorite food market.
Union Square Market is just around the corner from my home and Juni. In the spring and summer months, I like to go down there really early on Wednesday mornings (which is the best day to go) to check out the freshest produce on offer. This spring I started working closely with Windfall Farms who have a stall there and their flowers and blossoms are far superior to anyone else I’ve found in the city. Everything they sell has just been picked the afternoon before so it goes straight onto the Juni menu.

Favorite dish.
My most memorable dish was at Tetsuya in Sydney. It was very simple- half a peach with some peach sorbet- but was one of the most sublime things that I have ever tasted. If you pluck the most deliciously ripe, 100% organic ingredient straight from nature, there really isn’t anything better.

If you decide to become a farmer which fruit trees there would be in your farm? 
I think it would have to be some kind of very specialist, unique fruit from back home in Australia like Bowen mangoes, longan fruits, mulberries, or starfruits.

What of your dishes it has been the most loved by your clients in the past months?
“Cherry Ripe” is without doubt the favourite dish on the menu. People really love it.

A smell of food that you love and a smell that you hate.
The smell of any very ripe fruit makes me happy and I hate the smell of old seafood.

If you were forced to eat only two kind of dishes for all your life what should they be?
Rice and vegetables.

An ingredient that you dislike, that you never use to cook, and that you don’t eat.
The taste of Caraway seeds absolutely grosses me out and has done since I was a child. If they are in curries, breads or cakes I cant’ eat it.

Favorite wine.
White Burgundy.

The things that never miss in your fridge.
Scotch and chocolate (specifically Cadbury’s Dairy Milk).

Aside your restaurant what is the best restaurant in which you have ever eaten?
Tetsuya, in 2002, was the best restaurant experience I have ever had but there are so many restaurants that I love visiting around the world, especially in London, Bangkok and Scandinavia.

Favorite App.
Chef’s Feed.

 

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