Justin North is the award-winning executive chef of Hotel Centennial in Sydney’s Woollahra. His menu stars traditional comfort food that’s a cut above, with the deft hand and mind of Justin visible throughout. You could say it’s both relaxed and refined, as best illustrated by, for example, a Blackmore full-blood wagyu beef and ale pie, or the mushroom tagliatelle with winter onions, baby kale and thyme. Produce always highlights the seasons, and dishes offer an inventive take on what’s come before.
What’s entirely new, though, is Justin’s recently launched brunch – a menu that’s been a few years in the making. We posed a few questions to Justin about what goes into crafting a new dish, and how travel has been essential in invigorating his creative mind and constructing fresh ideas for the plate.
What are your first steps when creating a new menu?
Generally, we are led by the seasons. Firstly, the temperature will dictate the style of cuisine we offer. For example, summer months will be a lighter Mediterranean approach, whereas winter will be a much more robust flavour of regional and retro interpretations. Listening to our locals, customers, and market desires is critical to selecting the right dishes; following that, we then look at what ingredients are in season.
For younger chefs, who might not have found their style yet, what would you advise they do to realise this?
Patience is key, study your craft, learn technical skill, and absorb as much knowledge as you can – knowledge and experience is the best currency in this industry. Having the patience to work alongside a few different mentors for several years, to fully absorb and understand their philosophy, will then go on to shape your own.
In what ways does Sydney do brunch differently to the rest of the world? I had the impression brunch was very much popularised by Australians.
I don’t believe it was. I have seen much better examples overseas; we have always had a strong breakfast cafe culture, but it is only now Australians are starting to embrace restaurants as a brunch option, as the surrounds are much more comfortable, the quality much better as restaurants like Centennial [Hotel] have much stronger infrastructure and skillsets to provide a better and more leisurely experience. San Francisco, NYC and LA have better brunch cultures than Australia, however Centennial is leading this movement here in Australia.
For Hotel Centennial, where did you travel to in order to gain inspiration?
London and rural England, LA, Chicago, New York and San Fran. The last two had the best and most vibrant brunch scenes and provided the most inspiration, particularly the foreign cinema in SF.
How much of a “research trip” is research and how much is pure fun?
It is 100 per cent research as you are constantly being stimulated, learning and absorbing as much as you can 24/7. However, when you do what you love and enjoy it, it becomes fun along the way, particularly when inspired by great ideas..
Why is it so important for chefs to go and see what other chefs are doing around the world?
You need to be constantly learning and engaged in what is happening; the minute you stop, you start to become stale and your business will suffer.
Who is someone you admire in the industry?
Anyone who runs a successful restaurant (or several) business, I admire. It is a difficult game to get right, and those that are succeeding are experts at what they do – you cannot get by on charm and luck! [Chin Chin’s] Chris Lucas seems to have a very clever approach.
What’s a destination you keep returning to, whether for the food or the culture?
Tokyo is a constant source of inspiration. I have visited this city more than any other, although Kyoto and Osaka are also on the list. Not for a direct correlation to what we do in terms of cuisine, but for produce, quality, discipline and restraint. Downtown LA and San Fran are also on edge; there’s loads happening in these two cities. I cannot wait to return.
Pop in to Hotel Centennial in Sydney to discover how Justin is transforming brunch.
Photography by Belinda Rolland.