CONVERSATION WITH A CHEF | GABRIEL ALONSO, JULIET MELBOURNE
By Jo Rittey
Juliet Melbourne is a new wine bar, restaurant hybrid below Punch Lane in Little Bourke Street. Owned by Martin Pirc (Punch Lane, Saint Urban), the space caters for up to 100 guests. The carefully curated drinks list is one of the few in Melbourne that champions female winemakers (more than 80% of the list is made by women), spirit-makers and producers.
Jo Rittey had a chat to chef, Gabriel Alonso who has designed a food offering which focuses on sharing and is designed to complement the drinks.
Hi Gabriel. Let’s start off with how long you’ve been a chef.
I’ve been a chef for nearly 10 years now. I started working in hospitality when I was 15 or 16; I went from kitchen hand to waitering, bartending, Then worked in the kitchen from about 16.
So did you always know that you wanted to be a chef?
Yes, I’ve always loved cooking. I have a strong family background in cooking. My dad is Uruguayan and my mum is Greek, and my grandparents pretty much brought me up and there was always food. My dad is a big cook as well which is good.
Do you tend to like cooking food from that background?
It definitely has a big influence on what I do in terms of, not just creativity, but the palate and the centre of my dishes. They’re very wholesome. There’s a lot of love in them. They are very simple and without the love they wouldn’t be as potent as they are and should be. Simple things, like a tortilla we do is just caramelised onions, potato and egg, but done right it’s the best thing ever.
Where were you before Juliet Melbourne?
I’ve been at Punch Lane for about four and a half years cycling through, before that, Smith Street Alimentari, MoVida, a place called Eat Drink Man Woman on Brunswick Street, I opened that up with the head chef of now St Urban, Dan who went into that and we’d worked with one another over a number of years. It was pretty cool to work with someone and see them develop and you develop in the process.
Over the ten years you’ve been a chef, have you noticed changes in the industry?
There are definitely shifts. Trends in food are always cycling around. I think within the industry now you’re seeing a lot of different people coming in. When I started, it wasn’t as streamlined, you had to work from the ground up, whereas now I think people expect results a lot quicker and when they find the romance isn’t there and that there’s a lot of hard slog in between, they get perplexed by it and don’t have what it takes to continue. Those that do are generally the standouts and there are quite a few of them around here.
So to get to where you are now, do you think you need creativity, passion, persistence and drive; are those the things that make a good chef?
I think…I don’t want to make this sound wanky but a lot of the culture for chefs has been about being staunch and like rocks, but the key to any kind of business or development of any kind, be that personal or otherwise, is being fluid; saying yes to things. Nothing should be too hard. If it seems too hard, find a new way to make it work. That positivity and drive helps. Working with someone like Marty, the boss here, has really enforced that. He’s the kind of person that when we get bookings here, it’s not, ‘this is what we have and this is how we do it, here’s the menu and these are your options,’ we like to get to know our clients. We call them up and ask them what they’re thinking and get a vibe for it and tailor something around them. We like to invest something in them so that they get the best experience and we also get the best experience. I think that’s the key to longevity. Especially in hospitality. If you get back to the real meaning of the word, hospitality; you have to be hospitable.
I’ve eaten at Punch Lane a couple of times and I love it because it’s so cosy and the food is a coming home kind of thing because it’s so delicious and not tricky. It’s creative but it’s not out of control.
Yes. How different is Juliet to Punch Lane?
Punch Lane is quite structured in terms of an entrée, a main and a dessert. Here we base it a lot more on sharing. You can have a complete meal but it doesn’t necessarily have to be three courses. From a price point and sizing perspective, we encourage people to order quite a few things. It’s the kind of place you come and spend the night. We just want to have a chat at the bar with customers and ask them what they feel like. We have our dry ageing cabinet so it’s always fun to ask them if they feel like a steak and then we can tailor something around that.
It’s more than a wine bar?
But it’s different to a restaurant?
Yes. Cocktails have really taken off here in terms of giving us a status but wine is always gong to be the driving force. Punch Lane is a big wine institution and, as you can see, Juliet has a lot of wine.
And I was reading that 80% of the wines come from women producers. That’s obviously a conscious decision.
When we chose the name, the concept became quite feminine. Punch Lane feels more gentlemen’s club wit the old cinema chairs and dark, heavy woods. It’s very masculine. We wanted this to be more feminine. It’s still a basement and there are a lot of hard surfaces but there are soft touches; the curves, the accents that make it a feminine environment. It’s cool, especially with our women wine producers and I’ve been looking for different food producers we can use too. Some of our cheeses are made by women. But it’s not like we’re trying to change the world, we just want to acknowledge that women in our industry produce a massive amount of things.
Do you work between the wine list and the kitchen in matching some of those flavours?
We’re definitely working towards that. Our wines by the glass rotate every night. It depends on what people want and what gets opened. Depending on what they’ve got, we liaise with the bar. That’s the best part of my job here is that I can be on the floor and in the kitchen.
That goes back to the whole hospitality thing, doesn’t it, being able to embrace all aspects.
As a chef, it’s a really great opportunity to interact with your clients and find out what they want and develop that.
We were talking when I arrived about how the lights were hand-blown and everything down here has been made form scratch with lots of input from the team, so it feels as though you’re all really invested in this and you’ve been upstairs for a number of years, so it’s really like family here.
Very much so. In the first days we opened, people freaked out because they thought we’d been here forever. There’s a cohesiveness in the team because we’ve all worked together for a number of years so it doesn’t feel like a new venue.
In terms of the menu, you talked about the wines rotating, are you changing the food offer all the time?
Definitely. We have a couple of staples on there that stay on but we have a limited specials menu every day, well for the three days we trade, I’ll talk to suppliers and find out what’s current and what’s the best in availability and get it in and do something really special with it. This week we’ve got a beautiful artichoke wrapped in sardine and hard roasted and served with a beurre blanc. It’s really simple but super tasty. It’s fun.
37-41 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne