The Deck, Sydney: Behind the scenes + making paella!10

Posted on February 29, 2012 by ChristieEvents

Stunning view, isn’t it?

It was one of those perfect sunny Sydney afternoons when I visited The Deck Restaurant & Bar. Located just inside the face of Luna Park at Milsons Point, it enjoys uninterrupted harbour, opera house and bridge views.

The sun hit the water and sparkled just the way I like it. It’s cheesy, but I almost get a tear in my eye looking at that view. After travelling all over the world, seeing all the big attractions in Paris, Istanbul, Barcelona, Tokyo and more, Sydney Harbour is still my favourite iconic vista.

But I digress, you are here to read about my behind the scenes look in the kitchen and chat with chef Michael Roper, so let’s get on with it.

{Photograph above of Michael Roper courtesy of Luna Park}

I tried my best to provoke chef Michael with confronting and provocative questions. But he’s one cool cucumber. Not at all like the hot-headed, fowl-mouthed chefs we’ve all been fooled with on TV (ahem, not mentioning any names!).

In fact, Michael is one of the most diplomatic and well spoken people I’ve ever met, chef or otherwise. That’s not to say he dances around questions to avoid answering them, he is actually very direct and we get along quite well from the start, as we find we have similar ideas about good work ethic, aptitudes for cooking and how to appreciate great produce.

Michael is originally from Yorkshire in the north of England but his 25 year career has taken him around the world, most notably to Shanghai for a seven year stint working alongside internationally acclaimed chef Andrew McConnell and restauranteur Michelle Garnaut at M on the Bund.

There he cooked for royalty such as the Queen of Holland and a Thai princess (who wanted a specific type of steamed dumplings called Lion’s Head, in case you were wondering) as well as plenty of movie stars such as Ralph Fiennes, Liam Neeson, Edward Norton, Natasha Richardson – the list goes on.

In a moment of confusion he says he cooked for John Howard in Shanghai, but then corrects himself to say “no, it was actually Bob Hawke”. A mistake that no Australian should be allowed to get away with, but as he’s a Brit, I let it slide.

I’m curious to know if he showed off his Chinese-cooking skills to these famous people, but Michael tells me that all they wanted was “Western food, cooked really well. Especially if they were on foreign business, because they would have been taken around to so many Chinese restaurants. They are basically just craving a good steak”.

After our quick chat in the bar we head straight down into the kitchen for a tour. It is always such a special treat to be allowed into a commercial kitchen – to experience the hustle and bustle, see fresh produce on such a large scale and be privy to the regimented procedures (a real bonus for an organisational freak like me).

A perfectly stacked and labelled cool room, colour coded chopping boards to separate meat, fish and vegetables, high-end super sharp knifes and aspirational cooking equipment (vacuum sealer anyone?). It would just be so incredible to have a big kitchen like this at home. Well, as long as someone else came and cleaned it!

The tour ends with me popping on a chef jacket (which looks like a knee-length dress on little short me) and jumping behind a chopping board which has a container of squid to be cleaned and sliced. Hmmm.

The squid are for a Spanish paella that Michael is showing me how to make. The paella is their signature dish and a famous menu item due to a promotion the restaurant has recently introduced where you can purchase the paella for half price on Wednesday nights (a tiny $15!).

While I get all the squid cleaned and sliced, the whole time feeling terribly inadequate with my knife skills and lack of speed, Michael gets out some pre-prepared ingredients and shows me a whole raw pork belly. When I exclaim about the size he tells me that one of his first jobs was working as a butcher in an abattoir where he saw much larger pork bellies than this one.

Hands-on jobs like that are fascinating to me, although I don’t think I’d be strong enough to do it, let alone the squeamish factor. It all sounds exciting from afar but the reality would, I imagine, be something else altogether.

Back to the paella. The pork belly is braised and then pressed overnight to ensure nice, even cubes that melt in the mouth. I am salivating just thinking about them right now. There are also prawns, mussels, peas, pork and chorizo – one with a bit of chilli heat – as Michael says this is authentic. Having been to Spain, I definitely agree that spicy chorizo is a must.

Next on the agenda is the stock. Michael uses chicken stock in this paella and is quick to defend this choice as people may think that fish stock should be used in a predominantly seafood-based paella.

He sensibly explains “I use chicken stock because there is no actual fish in this paella, so it would be confusing for the palette to taste an overly fishy aroma”. Yep, that makes perfect sense.

Meanwhile, I just had to take the photo above. It may look like an ordinary beaker of stock, but look closely, that is a 20 litre (22 quart) container, yikes! I don’t think any of us will be needing that big beauty in our kitchens.

The chicken stock is flavoured with real saffron that is crushed up with salt in a mortar and pestle before being dissolved into the stock to give it a rich amber colour that is so iconic of a good paella as it also colours the rice a golden yellow/orange.

I mention to Michael how I love the way real saffron adds such a nice flavour and colour to paella and he laughs as he recalls a story about a customer complaint. Apparently, a few weeks ago a male customer asked to speak to the chef about the paella his party was served. Just to preface the story a bit, keep in mind that the man was at what appeared to be a business lunch with three or four other men (yes, I’m referring to his ego).

He queried the waiter on the fact of whether or not real saffron was being used. He said that real saffron is orange and this paella rice was yellow, so real saffron could not have been used. Michael came up to talk to him and showed him the strands of real saffron and explained that it was ground up and put into the stock and once diluted this way it turned the rice yellow, not orange, but was indeed the real thing. Apparently the man continued to argue his point and could not be satisfied.

As far as I’m concerned that guy is a fraud! He has obviously never cooked with saffron before, nor had he eaten a proper paella. If the paella’s he has eaten have been bright orange then that is when some kind of weird fake saffron has been used, and if he had cooked with it before he would know that is that case! I think complaints from stupid customers would be the worst part of running and owning a restaurant.

The finished dish is garnished with some parsley and a squeeze of fresh lemon. As they say in Spanish “buen apetito!” (good apetite).

Just as I am about to leave I notice a whale watching boat cruise by and think that would be a perfect date or day out – whale watching then drinks and dinner at The Deck. If you give it a try, then do let me know how you go!

Very special thanks to Michael and restaurant manager Jeff for showing me around. I had a lovely afternoon and then had an awesome paella dinner to take home! I’m looking forward to heading back to review the restaurant – so stay tuned for that coming soon. In the meantime, if you would like to make a booking, click here to visit their website. Don’t forget to tell them I sent you!

Are you craving some more behind the scenes action? Check out my dinner service experience at Cafe Sydney.

Tell me, have you ever been into a commercial kitchen?

Christie x

This feature article was made possible courtesy of Beyond The Square Media and The Deck Restaurant & Bar (thanks Melissa!).

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