Paul Carmichael doesn’t want to talk about Momofuku –– the ambitious, groundbreaking restaurant that celebrated American chef David Chang launched in 2011 in an awkward, boxy corner of The Star casino, and which Carmichael ran from 2015 until 2021.
With Momofuku Seiobo’s closure, the building lost its flagship restaurant, and has since poured money into ensuring the rest of the food and drink businesses are successes. These days, at least to some extent, that’s Carmichael’s job, in an advisory role until he figures out where to go next.
If you’re wondering why one of the world’s most talented chefs is effectively working a consulting job, it’s because he’s trying to make sure the next step is not only the right one in terms of the project, but also sustainable.
“I’m old, man. That’s the one thing you realise when you get older, things are always changing.” He pauses. “You have large things in your life, and you move on constantly. It’s just life.”
He might only be in his 40s, but in chef terms, that’s pushing it. “My body is very, very different than when I was 20. I can’t work the same. I can’t do the same things… I still have that same sort of zeal and energy, but this is finite,” he says, and besides, professional kitchens aren’t for veterans, no matter how good they are. “Restaurants and cooking are for kids. It’s like saying Michael Jordan could play forever – he can’t. You gotta change, at least I have to change. I can’t do what I’ve done continually – I’ll die on the saddle.”
If, two decades ago, someone asked you to predict the kinds of restaurants that would become Australia’s most important over the ensuing years, you might have landed on one such as Attica, a place redefining the public’s understanding of Australian cooking, or Brae, a field-to-table destination farmhouse restaurant in sleepy Birregurra. A Caribbean restaurant in a casino was certainly unexpected.
But through forging a dedicated team that could help him realise his intensely personal vision, one that brought his roots in Barbados and the wider region into a uniquely Australian context and continued Chang’s work of upending the seemingly immutable rules of fine-dining, Carmichael put Seiobo right at the pointy end of that list. But, like I said, he doesn’t want to talk about it.
Carmichael speaks about growing up in Barbados, cooking from the age of three, then regularly making dinner for his family from around seven or eight, taking the ingredients his parents Pearson and Orlyn gave him and learning with each step. That process of intuition, of making mistakes, then stuck with him over the next 30 years, from when he first wrote down a list of goals as an 18-year-old (become a good chef: check. A world-renowned chef: check. Run an amazing restaurant: check) through to running world-class kitchens like Wylie Dufresne’s WD~50 and David Chang’s Má Pêche in New York.
But as much as the Caribbean was instrumental in his thinking, it took him moving to Sydney, and the Momofuku Seiobo kitchen, to bring it out. The result was flipping an already boundary-pushing but still recognisably fine-dining restaurant into one that could serve a plate of kalalou diri – a dish of okra and rice that every Haitian family would recognise from their dinner table – and make it feel totally natural.
This is an excerpt from issue 2 of Swill. Grab a copy of Swill today to read the whole thing!