Kiwi-born Peter Gunn is kicking goals at IDES in Collingwood, curating creative cuisine in a comfortably classy setting. The young Gunn has earned his stripes at establishments such as Logan Brown (Wellington), Ezard, Royal Mail Hotel, and most recently with a stint as Sous Chef at the globally recognised Attica.
The shy and self-proclaimed ‘socially awkward’ Peter Gunn says he found comfort and familiarity early on in commercial kitchens—somewhere he says social graces are strangely rendered irrelevant. “You’re wanted for what you can do, rather than who you are,” says Gunn.
Working his way up through the normal chain of kitchen command, the first time that creativity came into the picture for Gunn was while working at the now closed Martin Bosley’s Yacht Club in Wellington. The restaurant served up a dessert ice cream dish, that always had three ice creams, three sauces and three garnishes.
“There was no method to that madness or rules to those dishes,” Gunn says, which really sparked his interest. Naturally he started experimenting with things like saffron ice cream, “Once I’d gained a bit of confidence with the guys,” he assures us.
Gunn flipped a coin over whether to go to Sydney or Melbourne after working in various hospitality venues in New Zealand. When the fateful flip landed him in the latter, he first applied for a position with Ben Shewry at Attica—an establishment he’d heard great things about from colleagues—but there were no current openings. Gunn worked at Ezard for a year before applying to Attica for a second time, only to again be turned away.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Gunn went on to the Royal Mail Hotel, where he realised country isolation was definitely not for him. Getting in touch with Attica again and with the same result, the young (and relentless) chef decided to go travelling.
On the way back to Melbourne from Japan, Gunn contacted Shewry from Attica one last time. Persistence or talent or both saw Peter Gunn become a Junior Sous Chef at Attica, before moving up to the position of Sous Chef.
After some time at Attica, Gunn started another side project: IDES. What was initially a monthly pop up focusing on experimental dinners, IDES became a restaurant on Smith Street, Collingwood in early 2016, three years later. The concept of the monthly pop-up was essentially new dishes being tested on willing diners. After opening the bricks and mortar restaurant, Gunn has since pared back the rate at which experimentation takes place—but not too much. Gunn vastly separates IDES from restaurants that have reliably constant menus. “Signature this, signature that,” Gunn says, is definitely not his style, preferring to be constantly creative.
Upon opening, IDES received some backlash from diners who said the experience was inconsistent due to the regularly changing menu–but, as per the monthly pop-ups, the dishes that were coming out were very fresh. The feedback resulted in more behind the scenes refining to prepare dishes for more accessible consumption.
Inspired by the Tuesday chef’s table process Attica used to do, IDES now runs sample tables to test out newly-developed dishes. Two tables are allocated every Wednesday and Thursday for four people each, which is essentially a condensed version of the original monthly pop-ups for those that have a more open and adventurous side. The dishes that are successful from these evenings make their way onto the more widely digestible degustation menu at IDES.
The team at IDES are versatile, and Gunn has good things to say about the value they bring to the kitchen. “I’m big on utilising peoples’ skillsets. Everybody thinks they are, but not everybody is good at everything. There are some people that are all-rounders, but then there are some people that excel in one area.”
He’s realistic as well about the way the team has and will continue to evolve over time. “Everyone is presented with an opportunity at some point that they need to take.”
IDES incorporates a unique and inclusive element to the service, where the kitchen team plays a further role in delivering your food to the table. Sure, it’s economical, but it’s also fascinating for those who want to know more about the technique used, or ingredients featured, to quiz the chef who made it face to face. It breaks down the barrier between diner and kitchen, increasing vulnerability, but encouraging inquisitive natures.
Names or locations of where products are from aren’t promoted in the restaurant, says Gunn, who was sick of hearing where something was from when dining out, rather than the reasons as to why that produce was better than others of its kind. “But I can go to sleep at night knowing it is the best, and I just want people to enjoy themselves,” Gunn says.
He admits to spending a lot of time and fascination on finding perfect produce. “It’s really digging deeper to find out what activates them, what activates flavour,” he says. For example, Gunn questions; what makes a great chicken? Is it free range, or corn fed? What drives an ingredient’s popularity, and why? Is it ethics, taste, or a combination of both?
It’s clear Gunn relishes the education and information he unearths while endeavouring to find top quality produce. While the end goal might be to know he’s serving the best, the discovery in itself is rewarding. “I’m not trying to change the world, I’m just trying to enjoy what I do, whilst learning more about what I love,” says Gunn.
So what flavours can you expect when dining at IDES? Cooking what’s in season is a no-brainer, says Gunn, and tries to avoid mentioning it. “Seasonality–I never even incorporate the word. Because it’s so raw and fresh, it’s all seasonal,” he says, likening chefs or restaurants that use the word ‘seasonal’ to those that do complete menu changes (e.g. A spring menu). With the ever-evolving dishes at IDES and the inherent seasonality, Gunn tell us, “You forget to apply those tags to the menu.” A recent visit by GRAM saw us experience mango with truffle honey, elderflower syrup, sweet chardonnay vinegar, cocoa nibs, chopped toasted pistachio, and grated Gyetoste. A standout item was a tomato dish that Gunn tells us has “so much going on in what looks like a simple dish”. In this instance, the tomato is blanched, peeled, cut, stamped, scraped.
Then the scraped inside is used to make a marinade from the juice, with which the shells are soaked in—and that’s scratching the surface of the process. Even so, Gunn tells us, “We don’t look to any sort of molecular, science-based or technique-based cooking.”
Gunn tries to direct dishes to be whole, complete offerings, rather than an amalgamation of pre-prepared elements. “Over the years, dishes have just become a whole bunch of mise en place on a bowl,” he says. Think of desserts that you’ve eaten previously. Imagine a slice of cake, paired with a scoop (or quenelle if we’re going to be fancy) of ice cream. Maybe a light sponge, a crumble, a sauce, and a garnish or two. It’s all been taken from individual creations, stored away in the kitchen. Not that there’s anything wrong with that process—it’s organised and widely utilised but Gunn’s creativity is taking him in a different direction. “I’m trying to steer away from that kind of cooking,” Gunn tells us, aiming for the experience to be to eat “downward”, rather than sampling lots of different elements to a dish.
Having been touted as offering ‘technique-driven’ food, Gunn laughs and questions this; ‘What do you mean by technique?’ Yes, he’s acquired skills over time, but he tells us he’s not going to employ a fancy process of cooking something just for the sake of it, and at the end of the day, it’s more about the flavour and exploring new ways to enjoy great food.
Gunn uses moleskin notebooks–quite a few–to jot down ideas. “There’s no real reason for it, but it’s just to keep my mind sharp and to keep that creativity flowing,” he says. Looking back on it sparks ideas that would otherwise have been forgotten, he tells us. After all, “How do you know if you’ve forgotten an idea?”
Gunn avoids trends, and the nature of IDES doesn’t really lend itself to the concept. Sometimes he looks way back for inspiration with his cooking, an idea that he jokes about as being naff, but ultimately useful. He also enjoys garnering inspiration from other restaurants; not just from the food but also the service, the placing of cutlery and even the napkins. He jokes about a cookbook he once picked up for his brother—a chef as well—on Alinea (Chicago). A young Peter Gunn thought it was really cool, even though he didn’t understand a lot of the terms in it. Today, Alinea is one of his biggest inspirations, and in his top list of restaurants that he’s dined at (apparently he’s trying to convince his wife to go a second time).
It’s clear having a creative outlet is one of the driving factors of Gunn’s interest in the hospitality scene, but he tells us what keeps him intrigued is that “Every single day is different”. What some chefs might find hectic, or infuriating, Gunn appreciates as a necessity to avoid boredom. “I just really like the constant flux that a kitchen is always in, or that the hospitality industry is always in.” From ingredient delays to delivery mishaps, it keeps him on his toes. “The Unknown,” Gunn calls it. “It’s exciting, it’s frustrating, but that’s what I really enjoy about it.”