Organization is the Key
On a quiet Monday morning I found myself driving down the peninsula, enjoying the wonderful scenic vistas offered by this part of the world. My destination was Flinders a small town south of Melbourne, to meet a good friend and an awesome guy, Michael Cole, at his restaurant Moke. Which, until today I had not yet found the time to visit, so what a perfect opportunity to do it all, and get some relaxation in at the same time.
In 2019, Michael was Australia’s representative in the prestigious Bocuse d’Or culinary competition finals in Lyon France. He has also won Australia’s Chef of the year competition on multiple occasions, competed in numerous competitions overseas, is passionate about food and is a downright nice guy.
Arriving for the first time at Moke, I didn’t really know what to expect, the building is situated on the man drag through town, a beautiful, historic weatherboard building with an old-style veranda at the front. Michael took me for a tour through the restaurant to begin with, there are two main dining areas, plus a huge outdoor area for the summer months. It is obvious that there has been a lot of hard work and love required to transform this old bakery into a modern cutting-edge restaurant, and it is a perfect canvas for Michael and wife Alex to create their gastronomic masterpiece.
One thing you quickly learn about Michael is he loves to talk, to tell his story, he took over form the start, which I didn’t mind at all. My first question was, Where did it all begin?
The story begins with his mother, who he tells me was a great cook, taking the produce they grew in the garden and utilising it all in the kitchen. She was a vegetarian cooking teacher in the eighties, and so the family was brought up as vegetarians, including Michael of course.
I come from a small country town called Mansfield, in Victoria there was not much there in the way of restaurants when I was growing up in fact, I think there was only about 5 kitchens or restaurants, in total.
I was able to study Home Economics in high school, and it was at about that time that I got my first job in a local café, as a kitchen hand / dishwasher, I worked fast, and hard. Soon I gain a reputation for this, next moving into a restaurant, who then moved me into a Bed & Breakfast place, I was sort of the town prize at that time, and soon enough I had working in every kitchen in town.
Soon enough I found my love for snowboarding, which consumed all of my spare time, what a great way to live. My family, friends and even the councillors at school convinced me at the time not to become a chef, so I started working as a builder, obtaining a carpentry apprenticeship. That only lasted a year though, I soon realised that cooking was where my passion was, while my co-workers were talking about footy, I was thinking about recipes.
I started back in the kitchen as a dishwasher for the chef I had worked for some 5 years earlier, who reminded me how he advised me back then to start my apprenticeship in cooking, and that if I had I would be fully qualified by now. Luckily the company I was employed by had a variety of venues, which exposed me to many differing catering scenarios, often unsupervised. By the time I had completed my apprenticeship, apart from the knowledge and experience, there were a lot of bad habits I had picked up along the way. Once I completed my apprenticeship they sent me down to Melbourne to work with an old Austrian chef who would straighten me up and help to implement the classical techniques into my repertoire.
Michael stayed there for a couple of years learning all he could, and had his first taste of competition, entering, training and winning gold. From there he went to a 6 star resort on Hamilton Island where he learnt many more techniques, this time from a French Chef who appreciated Michaels work ethic, and attitude.
Leaving Hamilton Island Michael spent some time working in Nice in France, before heading back home to work in Mt Bulla. I spent seven seasons in Mt Bulla during the snow season, then in the summer months I went to work in Niseko Japan.
Moving back to Melbourne after that, Michael didn’t really find a place to fit in, so packed himself up and moved off to Japan to enjoy his other passion, snowboarding. Unfortunately, about six months into this adventure he got caught in an avalanche and was hurt badly. This required multiple surgeries and a year or so of rehabilitation, back in Australia.
Eventually Michael got back into the kitchens, and found his way down to Flinders which opened up an opportunity to compete on the world stage. He now had the time and support to train and compete in culinary competitions, and an opportunity came up for the biggest one of them all the Bocuse d’Or.
Michael had back in his mid-twenties competed in the Australian selections, though as he readily admits, he was woefully underprepared.
This time I wanted to do things correctly, I started by searching for a commi to assist me. Once I had secured Laura the rest started to fall into place, we trained hard, and qualified. Then went to Food Asia for the regional selection and qualified, Laura was awarded best commis at that event, such an honour and well deserved for her. Then it was off to Lyon France, what an experience of a lifetime.
Returning to Melbourne Michael and Alex had the opportunity to open a place of their very own in Flinders, which they called Moke. It is our place where we can do what we want, I can cook the food I like to eat, and share it with our guests.
What is the appeal of this area for you both?
Personally, it is a work life balance we are looking for, both Alex and myself, we get to surf, jog, and incorporate all of that into our working life with the restaurant. The community is special, we all know each other, we want a relaxed lifestyle and the peninsular offer that.
I then asked what he thought the main issue facing the culinary Industry today, and for Michael it is wages.
How can any small restaurant survive having to pay these exorbitant wages, its crazy. I am literally paying to teach employees the skills they should already have for the position they are employed for. There is this sense of entitlement, that people are entitled to everything just for turning up. I remember going in to work when I was younger, on my days off, working half a day in exchange for knowledge, that was my payment.
What do you look for in a restaurant when you go out for dinner?
To be honest I have been so disappointed with dining experiences in the past, you go out to a supposedly nice restaurant, and pay a lot of money, and walk away disappointed. The kitchen, or staff within just don’t understand the basics of food, and ruin the food. I would rather go to the local RSL where I know they will overcook my steak, and serve up tasteless veggies and a paste they call sauce. I know that so cannot get disappointed. Do you know what I mean?
Do you have favourite ingredients, you cannot, not have in the kitchen?
Eggs they are such an important ingredient in the kitchen, they are the pillar of so many recipes that without them I wouldn’t want to think about how we would get on. Other than that good butter, and salt. If you can master the use of salt, I mean really understand the principals of seasoning, then you are half way there already.
Looking back on your career so far, what would you change, what would you have done differently?
My career has been such a winding journey, I would say without structure one thing has sort of lead into another. So in effect if certain twists and turns never occurred it would not have opened other doors that have provided other opportunities for me.
Tell me about some of the unexpected benefits you have experienced in life, so far?
That is simple, it is the generosity of those I have worked for, without them I would not have been able to reach the heights I have thus far. They provided me with kitchens, equipment, and produce to play with, that is a huge help, which I didn’t expect.
Do you have any hints or any tips for the home cook to make the kitchen a little less daunting, a bit less of a chore?
Clean as you go! Organisation is the key not just in the kitchen but throughout life in everything that you do, it may sound simplistic though it is vitally important, especially in what I need to do in the kitchen, without that I cannot, no kitchen can operate successfully. Preparation or as we call it mis en place.
Lastly, I am interested to know your perspective, as you would have worked with a variety of differing personalities in the past. How do you convince a person to do something they don’t want to do?
You have to plant the seed in their heads and have them come up with the idea themselves, that is the only way. They think it is their idea though in reality it was you who did the hard work by planting they just did the harvesting.
It is always a pleasure to catch up with Michael, and he is so interesting to talk with, and get him talking about food, and ingredients, you will have to be pried away. I happened to mention my interest in fermentations and vinegars, and he showed me his selection, and that started a whole new conversation.
Michael has provided a recipe for us to follow Stained Ora Salmon and Smoked Beetroot, if you feel like treating yourself to something special.
If you ever get the chance to visit Moke in Flinders, make sure you take the time to say hello to both Alex and Michael, you will not regret the experience.