CLAYTON Wells... hmmmmm...
The name sounds familiar. It takes a few more minutes before the real impact of the brief message on my handphone begins to sink in. Ahhh ... now I remember. Clayton Wells was in the news not too long ago when he was bestowed the honour Weekend Australian Magazine’s Hottest Chef of 2016.
That accolade is a well-deserved recognition of the 35-year-old chef’s work history which includes a bucket-list of prestigious restaurants from around the world. What makes his phenomenal rise even more amazing is his humble beginnings.
Wells started with an apprenticeship working in hotels some 15 years ago. At that time he had just finished high school and a typical nine to five desk job was never on the cards at all. His stint with hotels lasted five surprisingly long years before he finally took the plunge into the restaurant industry.
His first foray into the restaurant scene happened when he began working for Peter Gilmore at Quay in 2006. This huge leap of faith opened his eyes to an entirely new world of amazing Australian produce. Among the many things learnt during his stint at the bustling Circular Quay outlet was the need for constant attention to detail. That, Wells discovered, was the very essence for a respectable restaurant with calibre to rise above the pack.
Back to the message on my phone and the invitation from my friend, Emmanuel Benardos, to dine at Automata, Chef Wells’ new restaurant. I met Benardos when I visited his Bincho restaurant in Singapore sometime back. Somehow I must have told him about my intended visit to Sydney. Thanks to him, I finally get the chance to meet with the up-and-coming Australian sensation, Wells.
LABOUR OF LOVE
“Pardon my voice. It has been acting up over the past few days.” Those were the first few words uttered by Wells during our introduction. Without wasting any time, he proceeds to take me on a tour of his latest “baby”, starting with the private dining area on the upper floor.
As we sit below a very mechanical-looking set of ceiling lights, Wells tells me that the name Automata came up during the restaurant’s design stage.
“Right from the beginning the inspiration when building this 60-seat space had always been ‘automation before electronics’. We’re very hands on and don’t quite like complicated electronics,” he says, chuckling.
In his simple, down-to-earth manner Wells walks me through the formative years of his career. “After Quay, I was with Tetsuya Wakuda until 2009. You can say that I was very much influenced by the use of very fresh seafood to highlight the natural flavours while at the same time employing the fermentation process to tantalise taste buds with various umami-like sensations,” he shares.
Wells subsequently had a brief stint at Noma in Copenhagen. He confides that heading out into the world was really an eye-opener for him. “For once, I saw things being done differently and that gave me a lot of self-assurance, guiding me along the right path,” adds Wells before relating how the newfound confidence led him to open two of his own restaurants — Viajante in East London with chef Nuno Mendes in 2010 and Momofuku Seiobo with Ben Greeno in 2011.
As the topic of his first solo restaurant Automata comes up, Wells’ demeanour turns a little more serious. It’s obviously a project that’s very close to his heart. “It was at Viajante that I reconnected with Loh Lik Peng, my old Singapore-based acquaintance. At that time he had expressed his desire to join forces with me to build a new modern dining venue within the up and coming Chippendale district in Sydney. One thing then led to another and this is where we’re today,” says Wells, gesturing proudly before ushering me to a table with an unobstructed view of the street outside.
“The natural light will do wonders for your photos but most importantly be like us, keep it simple and fun,” he tells me with a wink before leaving me in the capable hands of waiter Tim Watkins.
Over the next two hours, the affable waiter walks me through a culinary adventure like no other. Right from the start, the crispy fried barramundi skin sprinkled with seaweed powder already gives me an inkling of what’s to come. This tasty appetiser, which is not listed in the five-course set menu, is already a surprise in itself, embodying Wells’ vision of preparing fine dining styled food cooked with a casual restaurant feel. This Japanese rice cracker-styled snack with its cleverly spaced roe emulsions is simply delightful.
Still on the Oriental theme, the next dish featuring cuttlefish is light and bright. I’ve often found cephalopods to be tough and difficult to handle but the one here is surprisingly tender. I particularly like the accompanying water kimchi, which unlike its Korean version, is rather tame and goes excellently with the subtle cuttlefish taste.
The restaurant, explains Watkins, reduces the fermentation period to just 1 ½ days for the kimchi to reach its desired texture and flavour.
“The tasting menu at Automata changes regularly for dinner from Wednesday to Saturday and Sunday lunch. We keep evolving our dishes so that diners are assured of something new each time they return,” explains the waiter noticing my scrutiny of the food list.
Later while enjoying my stracciatella with juicy South Australian mussels, a taxi pulls up to the entrance and soon after, three travellers enter the restaurant with their trolley bags in tow. I soon lose sight of the trio as they disappear to the back. Not giving much thought to this, I continue with my meal. The black garlic garnish is a treat in itself. While enjoying each flake on its own I begin to understand how Wells and his team cleverly build flavour, using little additions to give a great impact on the overall result.
Soon, however, my curiosity regarding the disappearing trio prompts me to highlight the matter to Watkins. “Ohh... they must be guests of the Old Clare Hotel. We’re actually on the hotel’s ground floor and there’s a connecting passageway to the lobby from here,” explains Watkins, before adding that most hotel guests prefer to alight at the quiet Kensington Street in front of the restaurant rather than the busier Broadway thoroughfare a few metres ahead.
Another dish soon appears on the table and I discover, to my delight, that the sugarloaf cabbage used in this creation has come from the Hawkesbury River region. I excitedly tell Watkins that I’d passed by the scenic waterway while on my way back from Newcastle just a day earlier. History tells me that back in the early days, settlers found fertile soil around the semi-mature tide-dominated estuary and one of the best vegetables has been planted there ever since.
Ever so helpful, Watkins advises me that it’s best to drizzle the mushroom butter collecting at the base of the deep plate before relishing the dish. The ensemble is lightly garnished with crunchy buckwheat and bits of cured New Zealand venison liver.
The chef’s take on duck is almost picture-perfect. Cleanly deboned and roasted to perfection, the medium rare meat is set against a vibrant lime green braised fennel sauce. Best of all, the granite blue serving dish blends everything together perfectly.
After my first bite, I can appreciate the chef’s reason for choosing the free range ducks from Picton, a small town some 80km southwest of Sydney. The relatively high year round diurnal range coupled with the humid subtropical climate clearly has a positive effect on the texture and overall flavour of the meat.
Minutes tick and soon it’s time for dessert. Watkins must have detected my downcast look as I’m hit with the realisation that soon my amazing experience at Automata will end. “This will quickly cheer you up,” says Watkins encouragingly, placing the white dented table tennis ball-like item in front of me.
“Don’t just take the sorbet. Check out the goodies hidden below as well,” he adds. Coupled with delicious bits of tasty prune and crunchy sunflower seeds, the rich dessert certainly does wonders to my spirits.
My visit to Automata has been nothing short of breathtaking. If I’m ever back in Sydney again, this place will surely be on the top of my very short list of places to eat.
For details, go to www.automata.com.au