CONVERSATION WITH A CHEF | TYLER PRESTON
By Jo Rittey
Tyler Preston is the epitome of hospitality. We first met him when we were checking out the Sunday night barbeque at Dr Morse. He could see we were wondering what it was all about and strolled on over and started chatting. That’s what you want in your local bar; good food and drink and people who want you to feel at home.
Tyler, how long have you been at Dr Morse?
I was here when it opened three years ago but in a different capacity than I am now. My wife and I had built Sir Charles in Fitzroy with Dave Makin from Axil and his wife and another partner and then we sold it six months later. I had always been mates with Jon Costelloe and Pete Walsh, the majority partners here, and we wanted to work together, so we sat down and had a talk and now here we are two years later.
Where did it all start for you?
I was in cafes in Wellington from a really young age and cooking from about 16. When I came here in 2003 I started working at Vegie Bar. I worked there for six years. I was 18 and I met some of my best friends there. I was also studying audio engineering and doing music and production on the side. I tried to get out of hospitality and got a job doing radio communications for the MCG; mixing the audio for sporting matches. I thought it’d be great but it was boring. There was no creative side.
It was the opposite of hospitality. I was also working part-time at De Clieu on Gertrude Street when it was still owned by Bridget Amor and Mark Dundon from Seven Seeds. It was a new café and a few things happened and the head chef wasn’t coming to work. Mark was overseas sourcing coffee and Bridget was pregnant and they had no one. The manager asked me whether I could do it and I was, like, shit yeah. There was no gas and we had a limited amount of equipment so there was almost no pressure and no rules and it was the perfect place to find my spark. I put together a menu that was predominantly French, because I thought De Clieu is French and I’ll roll with that. I remember thinking, that’s it, that’s all my ideas. I thought I’d never be able to write another menu. Then two weeks later I was bored of a few things and I started coming up with more ideas and that’s where I think I got my drive.
So where did you get those next ideas?
I don’t know. Just reading cookbooks, I think. It wasn’t revolutionary stuff; it was more things that were probably a little beyond the vision of a line cook. I started looking beyond what was in front of me to technique, and to chefs I was inspired by, like Under Pressure by Thomas Keller. While I don’t really vibe on Thomas Keller’s food that much any more, that book was pretty inspirational back then We were doing a lot of sous-vide cooking because we only had a sandwich press, a sous-vide, a toaster and a salamander. You had to be creative. That’s where I set the tone for my future and that’s where I decided this was what I wanted to do.
You tend to have Asian flavours on the menu at Dr Morse. Is that your thing?
There is a lot of Asian but a lot comes from traditional technique as well. That comes from me playing with French stuff at a basic level and then going to Chin Chin. I learned so much there. It was a lot of hours and it was sometimes stressful and unhealthy but I knew I would get something out of it. One year of pain could potentially mean massive success and sustainability.
I know you’re talking about your personal sustainability as a chef, but I know that sustainability is part of the ethos here at Dr Morse as well.
We made the switch to ethical and sustainable produce, mainly proteins, about a year ago. We were all eating differently at home and trying as much as possible to be organic and sustainable, not just for personal reasons but for the external benefits of the environment and we realised to really have an impact we would have to do it as a business. It was challenging because immediately you make a decision for your business that isn’t based on a spreadsheet, but is based on a heart feeling or an ethical or moral element, your bottom line just goes crazy. Some of our most popular items doubled or tripled in price straightaway. Without being wanky, you want to educate your customers. You need them to understand why they are getting 100 grams of bacon when they can get 200 grams down the road. 200 grams is a shitload of nitrates. It’s delicious. People will want to eat it and I want to eat it too but if we can explain that it seems like less, but really it’s so much more long term.
How do you let them know that?
To be honest we are still working on it. The front of house staff is really knowledgeable. We have the information available. We put the farm or the butcher or breed of pig in the description. We try to make the information available and we are careful to assume that everyone cares. And actually not everyone does. It’s challenging. Now that we have had a year’s worth of experience we can probably be smarter with how we implement this model.
Obviously you came back to hospitality because you missed the people aspect and the exchange but what does keep you in it, what is the thing that drives you to face those sorts of challenges?
On a basic level, it’s satisfying. I’m creative and it comes naturally to me. Being in a position to express and constantly challenge is great. I feel satisfied all the time.
274 Johnston Street, Abbotsford
Jo Rittey is a freelance writer who wants to live in a world where apostrophes are used correctly and smiles are genuine. When she’s not roaming the streets of the northside in search of great food, she likes having wildly enthusiastic discussions with chefs.