When chef Mike McEnearney famously stepped away from the world of fine dining after carving a niche for himself at Sydney’s Rockpool and Damien Hirst’s ‘nutraceutical’ London restaurant Pharmacy, he forged a new direction which turned modern dining on its head.
By combining his own spin on communal dining with the use of wholesome and responsibly sourced food at reasonable prices, Mike’s latest venture ‘Kitchen by Mike’ has roared onto Sydney’s food scene. Today Kitchen by Mike serves around 1,000 diners daily, with crowds happily queuing for a taste of Mike’s ever-changing and iconic canteen of culinary treats along with a range of homemade bottled drinks and organic wine.
Mike’s turnaround followed his decision to leave Sydney for England in search of a fresh start after more than two decades cooking in some of the world’s top restaurants. This seachange saw him take up a more humble and earthy existence, working with his family on a farm and selling homemade bread from the back of his car.
“It was an incredible time for me. The farm where my family spent so much of our time was completely self-sufficient and being so close to the food we were eating really changed the way I related to food,” said Mike.
It was shortly after Mike had a watershed moment during a visit to a Wales kitchen garden featuring four garden beds, each representing a function of the body.
“I was looking at these herbs I recognised in a culinary sense, yet this garden was promoting their medicinal use first and foremost. It inspired me to think about eating differently – I wanted to find a way to show food shouldn’t be seen as empty fuel but rather a source of nutrition,” Mike said.
Returning to Sydney with a mind in overdrive, Mike devised the idea of stripping back traditional restaurant dining through creating a large, unpretentious canteen with no reservations, elegant cutlery, printed menus or waiters. Instead, diners would be offered a selection of dishes which would change daily based on the freshest seasonal produce available.
Mike shortly uncovered the perfect location to set up shop – a converted soup factory in Sydney’s Rosebery he now shares with business partner, Australian design company Koskela, and other creative entrepreneurs including stylist Megan Morton.
Kitchen by Mike launched in February 2012, with a long queue of people lining up on the first day to sample Mike’s new take on dining. Word caught on quickly, with his house-baked bread and crisp-skinned pork in particular developing a cult following.
To Mike’s delight, his regulars remained steadfastly loyal since day dot.
“It was a real wow moment for me when I saw we were busier after our first birthday than when we first opened. I realised at that moment we were doing something right and it was extremely humbling,” said Mike.
Mike said his unique business model had helped ensure the business flourished.
“Keeping my operating costs quite low gives me the opportunity to invest in incredible produce and keep our prices reasonable,” said Mike.
Mike named his wife as one of his greatest influences when it came to his interest in food as medicine.
“So much of my interest and inspiration comes from Joss. She’s fascinated by the ways food can boost the wellbeing of our family and this has rubbed off on me. She has had a huge influence on the way I think and cook.”
Mike said he strived to serve food that was nutritionally sound but balanced in its approach.
“There are too many extreme diets being bandied about at the moment. I truly believe by taking an approach that is too restrictive you lose some of the joy of eating.”
“You won’t find me shying away from offering our guests pizza, but I make sure it is made with a sourdough the body can digest. There is always a balance to be found,” Mike said.
Described by acclaimed Australian chef John Torode as ‘just about the hottest thing in Sydney right now’ and one of his favourite ten restaurants worldwide, Kitchen by Mike continues to reinvent itself under Mike’s leadership.
Already working on his second cookbook after his first book Kitchen by Mikewas released by Lantern Books to wide acclaim, Mike has also created a range of jams and chutneys sold through the restaurant which will also soon be available in food stores across the country and served on select Qantas flights.
Mike said a source of great pride was the launch of the Kitchen by Mike’s Physic Garden, built on site and featuring a range of healing and medicinal plants.
“It is our way to promote wellbeing through educating others about the health benefits of plants. We encourage our guests to wander through, experience the herbs and learn about their medicinal benefits. If people can learn something new – like how nutrient dense parsley is for example – then I’ve kicked a goal,” said Mike.
Kitchen by Mike has also started hosting Physic Garden workshops to shed light on topics like setting up your own kitchen or balcony garden, preparing teas with medicinal benefits and preparing delicious dressing and sauces for your meal to invigorate your body.
“At the end of the day I want people who visit us to realise what they eat will have an impact on how they feel. This simple realization can have a big impact on people’s lives.”
“I deliberately stay away from reading too many newspapers and cookbooks and focusing too much on what other restaurants are doing. It helps me keep my mind clear and stops me questioning myself. I don’t want to be always asking myself things like ‘Why aren’t I using molecular gastronomy?’ It helps me stay true to what I set out to do.”
Serving customers himself everyday
“I make the time to serve our guests lunch everyday. The thing I really like about that is I can see instantly the way people respond to each dish. If something doesn’t work, I can respond to that really quickly by staying at the coalface.”
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