“You’re only as good as your last meal,” explained Etienne Karner, Executive Chef of The Dining Room at the Park Hyatt Sydney. In an interview with Karner, we discussed his approach to cooking, early inspirations, how best to maintain a high-bar of culinary excellence, the creative process for new dishes, and much more.
How would you describe your approach and philosophy to cooking?
I believe being a chef is one of the most exciting professions in the world today. Creating food and especially creating good food can be very satisfying for a chef.
My philosophy to cooking is to be open towards food, be adventurous and to come out of your comfort zone. At the end of the day cooking is about creating a good tasting dish. Once you achieve that, you can continue working on it - add garnishes to make the dish visually appealing or add more flavor components. A dish is not set in stone; you can keep improvising on it. If the dish doesn’t work for some reason, there is no shame in it.
When I create a new dish or menu, it is really important for me to sit down and taste the whole dish, only then can I know if the balance is right or if the dish requires something else, many chefs nowadays don't do that.
Was there a moment or experience early on that led you to a culinary career, or have you always been drawn to becoming a chef?
I always wanted to be an architect but since my grades were not good enough, I decided to concentrate on my next preferred career option which was to be a Chef. My mother is a great cook and so is her mother.
Growing up with a French mother there was always good food on the table and for every meal there was an entrée, main and dessert. Her food is light but full of flavor. I remember spending a lot of time in the kitchen with mum, tasting her dishes when she was cooking. I am not sure if that’s the reason I got into cooking but it definitely laid a good foundation for my love for food.
With The Dining Room being one of the best restaurants in all of Sydney, how do you maintain such a high level of excellence?
We are fortunate to have the best ingredients and suppliers here in New South Wales. We hardly import anything from abroad, meat, seafood, cheese, vegetables & fruits you name it, all produce is sourced locally. We serve Blackmore Wagyu steak with mustard from Tasmania. We even create a tasting menu around the Australian truffle in July.
I work with a great team of chefs who are as passionate as I am about food and quality; they make sure consistency is maintained in order to be at par with the restaurant scene in Sydney. Last but not the least, having such a beautiful venue with an amazing view makes the restaurant even more successful. It’s the cherry on the cake.
What are some of the dishes and cocktails that have come to be symbolic of the restaurant?
The first signature dish we came up with was the kangaroo tartar. I am a huge fan of the classic beef tartar and I had heard of chefs serving raw kangaroo meat so I gave it a try. We served the tartar on the first menu with truffle beignets, soft boiled quail egg and pickled onions.
With every menu we change it slightly. Now it has a more Asian influence and the next change will be around beetroot and horseradish.
Then we came up with a signature seafood platter for two or more which has been so successful, that we have now added the platter to the lounge and in room dining menus.
I am currently working on a signature dessert together with my new Pastry Chef which will be featured on the next menu.
What is the process like for you with respect to coming up with a new dish -- from your mind to the plate -- how does it happen?
I think inspiration for a new dish comes from everywhere. Sometimes you come across an ingredient that you really want to work with so you start thinking about a dish around it.
Other times, you take occasions like Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day Christmas, New Year etc. as a theme and write a menu around that. At times you just can’t come up with anything so you end up going through the hundreds of cookbooks and magazines at home in order to get inspired.
I first write down ideas and then try to create them in the kitchen. I have to admit that I am terrible at writing recipes. When I hand out a recipe for a new dish I can see chefs just rolling their eyes because most of the time it’s just a list of ingredients with steps on how to make it. The sous chef then needs to weigh everything and write out a proper recipe for the dish.
Is there such thing as the perfect dish?
I am certain there are perfect dishes or at least perfect experiences. I have eaten a 10-course degustation menu at Daniel Boulud in New York where every single component was cooked to perfection on each course.
Sometimes you have a meal that makes you feel good and for that reason you will never forget the experience. I admire chefs who try to be perfect in everything they do and really want to create an unforgettable dish, it takes a lot of discipline and passion which doesn’t always get rewarded. There are too many people out there with their own opinions.
As chefs we have a saying: “you’re only as good as your last meal.”