The essence of creativity is “elevating classic dishes without losing their origin”, according to Cian Curtin, Head Chef at Midnight Shanghai, Christchurch, New Zealand.
It’s one of the finest of culinary arts, to which, must be surely added, another vital ingredient – experience. Its as if the sheer joy can be tasted in a chef’s cooking decisions, traced flavour by flavour, from preparation to plating up.
Today, Life on the Pass follows Cian’s fast-moving career. It’s a well-travelled journey of discovery that’s taken Cian to restaurant kitchens in very different parts of the world.
Early years on the pass
Cian admits that he decided to become a chef because it “kept him out of trouble when a teenager”. His early years on the pass would definitely be keeping him busy!
Between 2009 and 2012, Cian studied a short culinary course in Ireland, moved to Australia to work in a 2-man team for Eitan Doron as KP/Larder chef, “learning organisation”, before a short stint at Tomislav, a 2 hat Restaurant in Kings Cross, Sydney.
After a period travelling around south east Asia, Cian spent the next two years working at hotels in New Zealand before moving to Korea in 2014. Here Cian was introduced to the skills of fermenting, such as Kimchi, a traditional Korean side dish of salted and fermented vegetables, and Gochujang, a savoury, sweet, and spicy red chile paste containing glutinous rice, fermented soybeans and salt.
Cian returned to Christchurch in 2015 and the Bamboozle with Chef Phillip Kraal, working on the ‘robata’. A type of hot charcoal grill used in Japanese cooking in which food is cooked at varying speeds. It’s not surprising that Cian felt he was “learning high quality food, done at a fast pace”.
“This was a huge turning point for me”
Soon after, however, Cian would encounter a different approach to cooking. All the while, making fresh pasta when working part time in 1 hat fine dining restaurant, Saggio di Vino under Food Director and self-styled Queen of Nui, Carlita Campbell.
“This was a huge turning point for me to see her ethos on preparing food and her creativity. Carlita taught me that a great dish needs to make sense, and tell a story”.
Cian’s own story was about to take another twist and a new set of valuable experiences. The restless chef relocated to England in 2017, first working in the well-known 1 star public house, The Harwood Arms in Fulham, London. Then off again to Brighton the next year to the 1 rosette, Ginger Dog before moving on in 2019 to 3 rosette restaurant, ‘Etch’ under Stephan Edwards.
3-rosette restaurants are awarded for standards achieved demanding wider national recognition, including selection, preparation and cooking of the highest quality ingredients, and consistent excellence in flavour combinations.
Cian’s year in England was another important milestone, “It really opened my eyes and got me focusing more on flavour, and using one ingredient in various ways to create a dish”. 2019 was not yet done with Cian, returning to New Zealand and becoming head chef at ‘Midnight Shanghai’, where classic Chinese cuisine is reimagined in new, stylish combinations.
“Lack of organisation is a big cause of stress”
It’s a food philosophy built upon Cian’s decade of non-stop travel and exploration, working in kitchen restaurants from east to west, and back again to ‘down under’. “Creativity is key”, says Cian, adding that, so is the everyday practicalities of “dealing with good local suppliers”.
This also includes the daily demands and challenges of working in the kitchen. Cian feels that lack of organisation is a big cause of stress, saying, “There should be no reason to shout if everybody knows what they are doing”. Cian believes that talking is very important, “I always tell the younger chefs that if they need to talk just ask! There’s no shame in not being OK – we need to lose the ‘macho!’ He also has some straight-talking, practical advice for all those starting out in the industry, “Get in to the top restaurants, keep your head down, mouth shut – and absorb everything!”
Cian says that his way of managing wellbeing when away from the pass is lots of physical recreation, such as, playing basketball, football, ping pong – as well as some online gaming!
Cian’s goal in the next five years is to have his own restaurant but, in the meanwhile, sees the current Covid crisis as an “opportunity to brainstorm the direction that Midnight Shanghai can work towards”.
The restaurant only opened its doors for the first time a couple of months before the outbreak of the epidemic. “We are still finding our feet and trying to make a positive from a negative situation – and the support from the locals has been outstanding”.