Check out our expert interview with Australian chef Aaron Turner of fire-focussed restaurant Igni in Geelong, Melbourne. Interview conducted by Hilary Armstrong.
Three days before his new restaurant Igni was due to open in January 2016, Australian chef Aaron Turner had a crisis of confidence. He was, to put it mildly, in a state of existential anguish. His previous restaurant, Loam, had closed in 2013 following a devastating split from his wife, who was also his business partner. He’d sold the business, sold the house, and spent the past two years licking his wounds in Nashville, Tennessee. Cooking had become tainted.
“I tried to pick up where I left off,” Aaron recalls. “I went out to where I used to forage in the Loam days. It just felt hollow. It just wasn’t making sense on the plate. I thought, ‘we’re going to sink here because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing any more’.”
And so, at the 11th hour, he ditched the dishes he’d made his name with – the complex, pretty, multi-layered creations inspired by the land around the old place – and let the wood fire smouldering away in the heart of his new kitchen take the lead. The fact that he’d never cooked over direct flame before (save the odd barbie) didn’t faze him. “I sort of walked away from cooking after Loam. I didn’t really want to return to it, so I built this kitchen with stuff that I’d never used as this kind of subliminal sabotage. Turns out it sort of woke me up and sparked off a whole new adventure.”
The first reviews, uniformly glowing, rolled in within weeks of opening, and the gongs haven’t stopped coming since: Chef of the Year and Regional Restaurant of the Year in The Age Good Food Guide, Best Fine Dining and Chef of the Year in Time Out, Best Regional Restaurant at the Gourmet Traveller restaurant awards two years in a row. Not bad going for a 30-cover indie down an alleyway in Geelong, a blue-collar city an hour south-west of Melbourne.
In his debut book Igni: A Restaurant’s First Year (£30, Hardie Grant), Aaron lays himself bare in a way few would dare to. Here’s the side of the industry the peppy TV shows don’t show you: long hours, insomnia, drinking and chronic, crippling self-doubt. It’s brutal reading, interspersed with Igni recipes (an essential resource for live-fire enthusiasts) and haunting black and white photography. “I’m sick of picking up a book and it’s a happy food journey,” he says. “For some it is, but for others it isn’t. When you’re in it and you know people in it, you know the massive personal sacrifice that it takes to do what we do. I don’t know anybody that hasn’t had to sacrifice something, whether it’s a relationship or having kids or buying a house.”
Aaron’s career started casually enough, flipping a few burgers as a graphic-design student, then earning some cash while backpacking. “In the absence of a better idea” he did an apprenticeship, later supplementing his learning with stints at Noma and El Celler de Can Roca among others. He considers himself largely self-taught and still learning.
During Igni’s first year, he undertook his own ‘bush-tucker challenge’, taking himself off camping with just a fire to cook on. “What we do at Igni is quite delicate and refined,” he explains. “When you’re camping, people almost expect it a little bit burnt and charred. You can get a bit more loose and reckless. It taught me to just relax with the fire a little bit. I came back with this different relationship with it. I’m a bit more bullish now.”
“The food is even more simple than it ever was, and in turn a lot more focussed. You can achieve these crazy flavours just from the fire and the smoke [he burns the wood of the native red gum tree]. You just guide it along its way.”
He’s also nailed Nashville-style fried chicken, as seen at his casual Geelong joint The Hot Chicken Project. “After Loam, I was outta here. I sold everything, got a visa, and said I’m never cooking again, I’m going to America to find something else to do. Then I discovered Nashville hot chicken. I ate it and was like, hoooooooooly shit, I gotta figure how to do this.”
At Igni, he works closely with a select band of farmers and growers, “people that do things really well”, cooking with the seasons and fermenting and pickling any excess to see him through the year. “I’ve got this philosophy that more than three things on a plate is excessive. We might rely on just three things but we do those three things the best that we can do them.” There’s no formal menu: “It’s all about the conversations with the front-of-house guys and the guest. We’ll talk about their likes and dislikes, their loves,” and compose a five- or eight-course menu from around two-dozen seasonal dishes. “No two tables have the same sequence of dishes.”
After a difficult few years, Aaron and partners Drew Hamilton and Jo Smith (both ex-Loam front of house) are focussing on pushing forward creatively at Igni and nurturing a healthy, harmonious working environment for everybody. “We can pay our bills, we can pay our suppliers – that’s super-important. We can do everything we set out to do.” As Aaron himself writes: “We light the fire and see where it takes us.”
Aaron Turner In Short
Favourite dish Nashville hot chicken.
Favourite drink I’m a big fan of minimal- intervention wines and I’ve got a soft spot for really crappy domestic beer.
Most memorable meal Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns, New York.
Chef or food personality he most admires American food writer Shane Mitchell and James Lowe at Lyle’s.
Guilty pleasure Crisps. I glam them up sometimes – tomato ketchup crisps with anchovy will change your life.
In the Igni restaurant larder
Wallaby tail “It’s got a pretty unique flavour.” Used in a wallaby tail consommé with cured egg yolk, native pepper and celeriac roasted and smoked over the coals.
Finger limes A slim, citrus-like fruit with large juicy vesicles sometimes called lime caviar. Served at Igni with dry-aged, free-range Aylesbury duck, coastal succulents and grilled fennel.
Flowering gum A native eucalyptus used in ice cream with Davidson plum (a native tart plum) and pine-needle yogurt.
Saltbush The leaves are flash-fried and dusted with powdered white vinegar. An alternative take on salt and vinegar crisps.
Marron Freshwater crayfish, like a big yabbie, on the menu with macadamia and roasted nasturtium. “They’re beautiful on the fire.”