HE’S the heavily tattooed head chef with a passion for ice cream and chicken parmigiana, but Max Stephenson’s cooking is anything but basic.
The man in charge of Pikes’ stunning new Clare Valley restaurant, Slate, brings with him a reputation for meticulously crafted but accessible dishes, forged over 15 years in the restaurant industry.
“Slate is all about refined comfort food,” says Max. “We’re delivering bold, robust flavours that people are comfortable with but the dishes are quite sophisticated as well.
“It’s city-level dining with country hospitality.”
Max, 29, was born and bred in Toowoomba. Unable to embrace study, he decided to leave school to learn a trade and soon accepted an offer to become an apprentice chef.
“It was just a job initially, I wasn’t particularly driven,” he said.
“But three months in I realised I was loving it and I wanted to spend my life doing it!”
Max followed his dream to Brisbane where he grew his passion for cooking under acclaimed chefs Kym Machin at Urbane and Alastair McLeod at Brett’s Wharf.
“They were my inspiration,” Max remembers. “They taught me how to work a 15-hour day and love it. Their drive, their passion, their care for the food was contagious. They taught me that being a chef is a lifestyle, not a job. It’s all consuming, you have to think about food 24/7. And you’re always learning.”
Max joins Pikes from Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), where he spent four years as the executive sous chef at award winning restaurant, The Source under another of his inspirations, Vince Trim.
While Max is from the new school of cooking – he idolises Heston Blumenthal and is a keen student of molecular gastronomy – he also draws inspiration from the grass roots of food production.
“The farmer to chef process is very important to me,” he said.
“For us to cook the food, someone has had to put a lot of effort into growing it. I love the story behind that and I want their story reflected in my food. Treat the food with respect and understand it for what it is and where it’s come from.”
No surprise then that Max and his team at Slate will have a firm commitment to local and seasonal produce – from lamb and beef raised on the Valley’s farms to fruit and vegetables, honey and flour, all sourced from local producers.
“We want to keep everything as connected to Clare as we can,” Max said.
“We’re not here to compete with other businesses, we’re not particularly striving to be better than anyone. We’re here to help showcase what the region has to offer, bring more people to the Clare Valley and get them to stay for longer.”
Max is excited about running a kitchen within a winery. He intends to make chips from the leaves of grapevines, smoke fish with their wood, ferment sauerkraut in wine barrels and dehydrate grapes to make his own muscatels.
He’s worked and eaten in some of the world’s best restaurants but rates a dish he was served at Melbourne’s revered Attica as his most memorable dining experience.
“It was kangaroo tartare with bunya bunya and it is the best thing I’ve eaten. Phenomenal. And there wasn’t a lot of cooking involved, it’s all about getting the correct ratio of ingredients to showcase them to their maximum potential.”
As memorable as that experience was, Max is equally at home with some basic pub grub.
“I love a pub feed. Very passionate about it,” he said. “A Chicken Parmigiana, when it’s done right, is a wonderful meal.
“And my guilty pleasure is ice cream. At the end of a long day I could easily go home and eat a tub of ice cream in the blink of an eye. I’m passionate about eating it and making it and house-made ice cream is definitely going to feature on the Slate menu.”
As with many a modern chef, Max has plenty of ink, including “Memories Fourever” scrawled across his knuckles. A deliberate spelling mistake, Max is quick to clarify.
“I wanted it to fit across all eight fingers!” Max said.
“The phrase just reminds me to cherish my memories and enjoy life to the fullest.
“I don’t want to curl up in a corner and do nothing I want to keep creating those memorable moments.”
One gets the impression Max Stephenson is going to make his mark on the Clare Valley as well.