Curtis Stone profile
The Age, Epicure, June 25, 2015
“Steak’s up guys,” says Curtis Stone, slicing into a hunk of beef, appraising it keenly, chewing on a morsel with faraway eyes, then passing slivers around for feedback. He’s not at Maude, his feted Beverly Hills restaurant. He’s not at home in the Hollywood Hills, feeding his actor wife Lindsay Price and sons Hudson and Emerson. He’s not even filming for a television show – All-Star Academy (like The Voice, but with cooking) and Kitchen Inferno (a game show, like a speedy MasterChef with more fire balls) are two US series he’s hosted recently.
Today, Curtis Stone, 39, is in Melbourne, where he grew up and trained as a chef, but where he hasn’t lived since he was 22. We’re at a food lab in the factory-clogged outer south-east taking a ‘deep dive’ into beef with head honchos and marketing magicians from Coles. A bevy of beef cuts is stacked around the kitchen, some straight from the Coles shelves, some from ‘our competitor’ (Stone won’t say Woolworths, but we can), some prepared especially for today to see if there’s a cut that can be diverted from the mincer or export and retailed locally. “Yesterday we were at the abattoir watching cows die,” says Stone (Coles slaughters 10,500 cattle a week). “I feel a responsibility to encourage people to get the absolute most out of this beef.” He sears, prods, roasts and grills, assessing cooking instructions, ranking each cut for tenderness, juiciness, flavour and ease of preparation. I’d pegged Stone as front-man and mouthpiece for Coles but this is backroom stuff – he’s bringing consultant chef and policy advisor smarts to the process and is displaying way more substance than the cardboard Curtis cut-outs I’ve seen in store.
Stone’s six-year association with the supermarket is how most Australians know him: he’s visible in ads, catalogues and web videos, as well as those cardboard avatars. His cookbooks (the sixth, Good Food, Good Life, is out now) and cookware range also do well. The focus is mainstream family cooking and tight budgets. Even though his recipes are eminently cookable, the middle Australia angle makes the chef an easy target for paddock-to-plate foodies and supermarket cynics. The commercial heft inherent in a supermarket duopoly – all that shareholder driven farmer-squeezing – can’t help but touch Stone, no matter how charismatic he is and, indeed, how much good he brings to the equation.
A few days earlier, I meet the chef at Purple Peanuts, a noisy Japanese cafe near Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station. He slurps noodle soup and is easy company: natural and sweary, smart and focused. When he takes a five-minute break to do a phone interview with FM radio, he slips effortlessly into G-rated blokey banter, ends the call, then picks up mid-sentence where he left off with me. There are two things I’m wondering. Why does he associate with Coles? And did he open Maude, his first restaurant, so people would take him seriously as a chef after years of television hunkiness? (Just quickly, he was talent-spotted while working for Marco Pierre White in London, co-hosted Surfing the Menu in Australia, hopped to LA to do the cute, bouncy Take Home Chef, in which he accosted delighted supermarket shoppers and helped them cook dinner. The stubbled Aussie schtick played well and regular slots with Oprah and Ellen followed, along with weird TV star stuff like Celebrity Apprentice and a hosting gig for the Miss USA pageant.)
“You hear a lot spoken about yourself, good and bad,” he says. “Some people act like you’re God’s gift to the universe and some people talk about you like you’re a f—ing horrible human being. I don’t think I have ever cared about it that much. If you did you’d be heartbroken, more from insecurity than where you really are in your world.” Coles, he says, is because he feels he can really make a difference. “Half of Australia shops at Coles every week,” he says. “I have the ability to help the company make better decisions. I feel like we’ve achieved a shitload.” He points to the elimination of hormone-boosted beef from Coles’ fridges, the fact that all Coles’ chickens are RSPCA-approved, and pork is now sow-stall-free. “They’re giant changes,” he says. “When you talk about sow-stall-free pork you go to the pork industry and they say, ‘You want us to knock down all of the sheds we’ve built to your specifications and rebuild them? No way, you’re crazy.’ It’s a long process.” Indeed, Coles head of meat Allister Watson, a participant in the beef tasting, doesn’t disagree when Stone suggests he gives Coles a lot of headaches. “He keeps us a lot more honest,” says Watson. “I remember a discussion we had [about hormone-free beef]. We were thinking it would be for Coles brand products and Curtis said it should be for all products we sell in Coles stores. We hadn’t really thought about it like that but he was dead right.”
Stone pushes seasonal eating in his recipes but he bangs into commercial realities with, for example, fruit in season. “I can say ‘don’t bring in Californian oranges in the middle of summer’ but people keep buying them. There’s a fine line between being super preachy and giving the customer what they’re looking for. My big point is education and giving customers an informed position.” The consumers he’s talking about aren’t likely to chat to their pig farmer on Twitter or know whether strawberries are in season. “Some people can afford to go to a farmers market and buy everything organic and some people don’t have that option,” says Stone. “You can have a really beautiful philosophy and talk to a tiny segment of the population, or you can look at the corporations who have a loud voice and get in there.”
Where Stone’s Australian activities are all about the mass market, his restaurant in Beverly Hills is very niche. Maude has just 25 seats and the menu changes each month, based on one seasonal ingredient showcased in a nine-course degustation. May is almond, June is avocado, July is chilli. He could have opened an easy restaurant, a branding vehicle to swoop through, flash the smile and press the flesh. Instead, he’s opened a highwire act. “It’s what I wanted to do,” says Stone, who hadn’t cooked regularly in a restaurant for a decade but had previously earned serious chops during six years working in London for the irascible Marco Pierre White. Stone was second chef at White’s Mirabelle when the restaurant won its first Michelin star and, at 25, became head chef of Soho institution Quo Vadis. They were wild days; one day Stone came upon White in the kitchen smoking a cigar, carving a roast and wearing only underpants.
Maude is strictly trousers-on but the intensity of kitchen life is back. “I missed being in a small kitchen with a great group of guys being able to cook beautiful food, elevated food, close to that edge,” says Stone. “I’m busy enough. I make enough money. It was just that I wanted to challenge myself. Great restaurants are exciting because they’re risky. I put my balls on the line in as many ways as I could.” It’s worked – the restaurant has been well-reviewed and is booked solid. One senses Stone also made the restaurant so tricky because it would anchor him in the same city as his wife and sons and give him a good reason to say no to the sillier stuff he gets offered. Since the restaurant opened in January 2014, he’s pledged to be in Los Angeles 70 per cent of the time. He’s still busy but it’s for his passion project. “Every day I’m in LA, I’m in the restaurant,” he says. “I’ve been working my arse off. My wife never knew me as a restaurant chef. I’m having to explain to her why I’m still there at 1am, cleaning my own stove because I don’t want to lose the discipline of my kitchen. To explain that to an actor…She’s like, ‘What the f— are you talking about? Discipline in your kitchen? Have a cleaner do it.’ No. It actually has to be me there cleaning the stove.” Is it worth it? “Yes, especially when people come up and say they had an incredible meal. I was nervous about the commitment and it is a struggle, but it’s a beautiful struggle.”
Back at the food lab, Stone slings some steak on the barbecue and the promising scent of charcoal mingles with diesel fumes wafting from the carriageway. He’s cooking, it’s going to be tasty, he’s happy. “Everything I do is about getting people excited about food and creating happiness around the table. That’s my whole motivation,” he says. “If you open the door and smell something cooking, you have an appreciation for the person cooking it. Then, when it’s dinnertime, you have conversations and you cooperate on setting the table or doing the dishes. They’re simple family values that I think get lost in opening a pizza box. I know it sounds a little ‘peace, love and mung beans’ but helping create that connection applies to virtually everything I’ve ever done.”