CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with TROY PAYNE
On a hot summer afternoon I walked into Clé Dubai at Al Fattan Currency House in DIFC not knowing what to expect. As I waited the first thing that struck me was the dark interior colour scheme and yet it was not gloomy and dull as one would expect – the natural light streaming in and lighting seemed to offset a shine, made it look swanky, if you will. And that glow seemed to surround Troy Payne, Clé’s Head Chef, a man who came across as someone who has tread his own course in life and continues to do so. Troy is kitchen-taught, who has hung-out in various kitchens around the world learning about food culture and who at 24 opened his first restaurant in Melbourne. He is a man who has a story to tell, and I am glad I got to share a bit of it with you.
Name: Troy Payne
Restaurant: Clé Dubai
From (Country): Melbourne, Australia
Culinary School: Kitchen taught
Knife Hand: Ambidextrous
Twitter Handle: @cledubai
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
Not really. I did not like to eat brussels sprout and beetroot. But I ate everything else. But that is what made me learn how to cook things I did not like to eat in a way in which I could. So now I eat brussels sprout but only pickled brussels sprout.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I came from a pretty inspirational family with my grandparents being my greatest influences. Growing up we were taught to be ourselves, and not anyone else. We were brought up to be good people. I never dreamed of being a fireman or a policeman. In later years I enjoyed architecture, so I got into University to do furniture design. But I was cooking before I got my admission; food has always been part of my family and I started cooking when I was 14. My sister is a Chef, my father became a Chef at the age of 60; his inspiration was ‘us’, so my family is my inspiration. At 14, I became a kitchen hand in a small kitchen in suburban Victoria and I remember riding my push-bike after school to get to work.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
I would say working in kitchens when I travel. For example, when I visit say, Thailand, I will walk into a restaurant or if there is a person cooking on the street I will end up cooking with them. I do this everywhere I go. I spent 2 days with this lovely Turkish woman in Anatalya, Turkey in a small restaurant – to me that was inspirational. A better example where I have had a memorable food experience would be on an organic permi-culture (a philosophy that promotes natural growth of produce) family farm in Narkoy in Turkey. We stayed there for three weeks and in that time I spent time in the kitchen with 4 women between the ages of 60-75 years, cooking with them. They taught me what they do and I taught them what I do – it was sharing food ideas. We were feeding 20-30 people, where we all ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together every day. To me that is one of my most memorable experiences.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
A bowl of yogurt. I just love yogurt.
Place you eat most often on days off?
My wife and I generally jump in a taxi and ask the driver where to go. So we sometimes end up in Satwa or Karama. The ones we go to often are Ravi in Satwa and Silver Eagle in Deira. I like Indian food. I feel there is a misconception that all Indian/Pakistani food is spicy all the time. There is one dish on the menu at Ravi which I don’t leave without eating which is the Paneer (Cottage Cheese) Bhurji. I think they make the cheese there. It comes with curry leaves and spices and chilli and grated cheese.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
Yogurt. You can make anything with yogurt. I can make you a dip, I can make you a soup, I can make you a sour dressing, I can cook meat in it and make it a tagine, I can cook it all the way through, you can also make a dessert with it. It’s a beautiful ingredient.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
At this point in time, I would like to be placed in Istanbul and hang out at the bridge over the Bosphorus river and eat fresh fried fish sandwiches and at the same time I would order a lamb intestine sandwich, both of which are popular Turkish street food.
Most exotic vacation destination taken and would like to take?
Most exotic trip I have taken was with my wife Sumalee for 4 months. We started in Croatia and made our way through to the Balkans and ended in Turkey using bus as our transport. In terms of where I would like to go, I would like to spend an endless day in Iceland.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
I could see myself going to Beirut and then Egypt or back to Turkey. It’s all about a culture, it’s all about a background and all these cities would give me the opportunity to see and learn more about the Middle Eastern food heritage.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
My grandparents – Dorothy, Raymond, Vlado and Marrie-Anne – all four of who are the reason why I cook and I never got the opportunity of having fed them.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
The sea bass tarator-style which is a baked fish with tahini sauce, fresh herbs and walnuts. It’s just beautiful.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
Family, friends, sharing, joy.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
One of the most excitingly weird things I have had is called Dancing Shrimps in Thailand. These are mini shrimps which are taken straight out of a bucket of water, drained and put into a bowl and then they get added to toasted ground rice which provides a nutty texture/flavour to it, they then add chilli, coriander, spring onions and put it in a small dish and mix it up with a bit of fish sauce and water and Thai dressing and herbs and serve it. You grab the shrimp out of the container and you just eat it. When you eat it you can feel them dancing round in your mouth.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
As an overall experience, the best meal I have ever eaten was at The Black Olive restaurant in Venice with my family. It was beautiful simple food. I got a plate of parmesan cheese of four different ages and you sat there and they poured aged balsamic vinegar over it. The whole meal was just an experience.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
I have a thing for Nutella. I never had it as a child, we didn’t even eat sweet growing up. My guilty pleasures are things that I did not get to eat as a kid. Growing up the only sweet that we really had was ice-cream.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
Yogurt because I am versatile and you can adapt me to anything.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
My parents told me – do what you want to do, not what someone tells you to do. Another one that my father told me when I was very young is – How do you spell ‘can’t’? The word ‘can’t’ does not exist in the family. So when you started spelling it out, my father would say – No, it’s spelt ‘T R Y’. I was also told that your life is like the white of your finger nail – it grows and within a short time you cut it off – it shows you how short life is so why not do what you want to do and how you want to do it.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
I would be the lead singer in a rock band.
Most underrated ingredient? Root vegetables. People forget that they exist. They are underrated because people forget that they are the base ingredients in most recipes. You make a stock, you use carrots and onions.
Best culinary tool? Spatula. I don’t use tongs. Tongs are banned in my kitchens because you dno’t show food any respect if you use tongs.
A chef that inspires you? Greg Malouf because he is still a big kid. He remembers the joy of food.
Favourite cuisine? Food. Period.
One dish you can’t live without? Rice, a pilaf. I just love rice. If I am bored, I just cook rice. I can put yogurt on it.
What’s one food trend that needs to end? Trends need to end. Why have a trend, why can’t people just enjoy what they want. Why should people be told what to eat.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. Bubble and Squeak. It’s an English dish made of leftover vegetables which are mashed together with mashed potato and then coat with bread crumbs and then pan-fried. So it’s like a vegetable pattie but it’s from the left overs.
Something in your fridge or freezer that would surprise people? I am bit obsessed with Japanese pickles.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? Braised cabbage, spinach and corn with a medium rare roasted eye fillet (steak).
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Relaxed, happy, family.
THIS OR THAT
Food on a skewer or food in a tiny spoon?
Hot curry or haute cuisine?
Buffet or sit-down dinner?
Mints or gum?
Soup or salad?
Greek yogurt or labneh?
Butter or olive oil?
Chicken breast or chicken thigh?
Baked or fried?
Waffles or pancakes?
Lobster or steak?
And lastly, cake or pie?
Well, that’s that! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!