How to: approach unusual ingredients with Peter Gunn

Owner and Chef at IDES Peter Gunn is known for testing the boundaries of what food can be. Here, he shares how he and his staff at IDES approach new ingredients.

The funny thing is, I don’t find what we do at Ides overly experimental. What I set out to do is just be constantly motivated and stimulated, and have that [attitude] amongst my core team. And one way to [prevent] the mundane mentality amongst staff is to introduce something new, constantly.

In the Ides kitchen, this is how we treat these new and exciting ingredients: we look for something, we find something, we mess around with it, we create something with it, then we get bored of it and try and find something else.

In the beginning at Ides, I just started changing a dish every other day, or two dishes… then that started getting to a point where it actually got a bit challenging. So we put a bit of structure into that, changing one dish on the menu every two weeks, giving us a good amount of time to find an ingredient, take note of that ingredient, and then start working that ingredient into a dish. Today, that’s the structure we use to target something new, or something that we’re unfamiliar with.

Taste it for yourself

If it’s a piece of fruit, or if it’s a meat product, we always just start by eating it raw. Even if it’s a truffle mustard from somewhere, we’ll start by trying it [ourselves], first and foremost. Then, it’s always really a conversation between myself and [Chef Zach Furst], and whoever else is around and gives a f**k. A lot of the time, it can start off by somebody saying oh, this is really fatty and could work well with something acidic.

Exercise your creativity – then make a record of it

Part of my job now [at Ides] is to just mess around with whatever we’ve got going on, make a sauce or something. So if I come up with something that has legs, then we store the recipe on the iPad. In all honesty, there’s no real creative session that goes into it… [But] we’ve got a rule in the Ides kitchen: If we make anything more than twice, we jot down the recipe, or take a photo of it, so it’s just there.

It’s really just lots of playing/messing around. I mean, my goal is not, “Oh, I’ve got to come up with something really different.” I think you can put all sorts of pressure on yourself.

But with creativity, you’ve gotta work on it consistently, constantly. It’s just like going to the gym [if] you want to get big muscles. I don’t think you can be creative just by sitting down with a pen and a notepad all day every day. It’s trial and error.

At Ides, we stretch a few creative muscles. And when people get to know that’s what you do… it does work to our advantage because it helps us see lots of small batch items. That’s also hard because ideally, these days, we want to come up with something, establish it into a rock solid dish, and then let it run its course on the menu for at least two months.

That’s what sparked our “sample table”, where we do a four course menu on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. That helps us off load some of these smaller products and gives us a larger range, and actually incorporates and forces the staff to contribute ideas to the creative side of the restaurant, which is really fun, and works.

The most unusual ingredient Gunn has ever used

The most unusual thing I’ve used before was at Attica, and it was the flesh from a native Boab tree. We got the flesh off it, the bark, which we ground up into a powder, and we made a sort of wattleseed sauce and then thickened it with this Boab tree flesh. It was really strange and it sounds strange, but it was really tasty. It almost acted like cornflour; it was just like a creamy sauce.

The best dishes come from multiple f**k ups

For me, lots of things stem out of multiple f**k ups and things that go wrong. We’ve served [many] unique dishes that have sparked off of something that’s been a bit of an error. Because that’s when you know you’re onto something new. The sauce is made by something you wouldn’t normally do because you’ve never done it before.

Don’t get me wrong, some experiments don’t work. We’ve served some s**t dishes before, too. And that becomes part of the process as well. Like, “Well this definitely has legs, but we need to tweak it.”

You know I’m happy to mess up ten times to create something, as opposed to doing something perfectly. Whether it’s curing meat to even just pickling a little vegetable. Just enjoy the process, big or small. The day I stop enjoying what I do, I don’t know if I could do it anymore.

Keep it simple and take your time

I think the danger of the younger cooks, they’re like, “Oh, we’ve only got a certain amount of time to do this,” and they’ll just do it and be really happy with what they came up with. But they haven’t given it the time to taste it through.

The other side of that is you can overwork things to the point of ridiculousness. A piece of grilled fish with a wedge of lemon might be better than some grilled lemon with a fish sauce.

At Ides nowadays, we basically have two weeks to turn [a new ingredient] into a dish. We try and change one dish every two weeks. And that just gives us a bit more time to come up with something great.

These days, I’m a lot more comfortable within myself; I’m a lot more comfortable with my abilities, and my restaurant and surroundings. I can work on something for three or four days, even a week, and get close to putting it on the menu, and then go, “Oh scratch that, let’s start again”. I’m a lot more comfortable with that these days. Before, I used to be like, “Oh no, I’m going to show signs of weakness if I don’t [send] this out.” Today, things on the Ides menu are on there because I believe they’re good.

Trust your palate to achieve balance

The old sweet, sour, salty [balance rule] is true. If you’ve got something fatty, you want something not so fatty. You don’t want fat on fat on fat on fat.

At Ides, I reckon the best, most random combination that we’ve put together most recently has been mandarins, which are in season now, pressed together in a honey vinegar that had mandarin oil through it. Then we made an XO sauce, and we scooped some fresh honeycomb on it. So compressed mandarins, XO sauce and honeycomb.

We served it as a savoury course, as a starter. The mandarins are super juicy, super tart. The XO sauce was really prawn-y, and honeycomb you can use in both sweet and savoury applications.

So we just did it. I can’t even remember how. It was like, “Mandarins are good. We’ve got all this XO sauce, and let’s just use the last of that honeycomb we’ve got.”

How to approach cooking with an unfamiliar ingredient:

Just do it. Literally, just do it.

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