Chef Q&A: Greg Lewis, Pintura | Living North

Chef Q&A: Greg Lewis, Pintura

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The New Zealander and lifelong Leeds Rhinos fan talks tapas, cooking at the Olympic Games, and how an ill-timed bit of kung fu set him on the path to the kitchen

You started out as a potwash in a bar in Christchurch, 
New Zealand – how did you find that?
It was alright – all the best chefs started out as potwashes. I think that’s probably what’s missing from the industry now. Kids go into college and then they’ve missed that whole step of starting at the bottom. There’s so many restaurants now who get a kid straight from college who’s not done any of the hard graft. I think it’s massively important to start out at the bottom, and it’s the best way of seeing how a kitchen works.

You were toying with the idea of becoming a landscape gardener at the time.
Yeah: it was either be a chef or a gardener at school, and I was, um, ejected from the horticulture class for being a little shit, really. The last straw was when the teacher left the room, and she left her keys on the desk and I got up in front of the class and was swinging them around like nunchucks, making kung fu noises. It was one of those moments: the kids all stopped laughing, and she was stood behind me. I thought she’d left the room. And that was it, time to leave – I’d done her head in. So, I went to home economics.

You worked at the athletes’ village at the Sydney Olympics too.
I was at the beach volleyball centre and the equestrian centre, cooking for the athletes and the media. My Head Chef where I was working was going over and we went with him. The money was great, and it was a chance to go to Sydney and be part of the Olympics, which was really cool.

Was it as glamorous as it sounds?
At the equestrian centre, we were working in a shipping container without air conditioning in the middle of the New South Wales country – it was probably 45 degrees. That was as tough a place as I’ve worked.

Why did you decide to move over to the UK?
I met my now-wife when she was travelling around New Zealand. I was always a big rugby league fan, so I wanted to come to Leeds – I was a Rhinos fan when I was a kid, and my grandma was English, so the stars aligned, really. I got here in March 2005.

How big was the culture shock when you moved, both in and out of the kitchen?
My first job was at a place called Pool Court, which was a one-star Michelin place – it’s since gone, it was the first and last Michelin in Leeds other than Man Behind the Curtain now. That was extremely hard. I went from a reasonably well-regarded young Head Chef into just a demi-slash-chef de partie job, and sort of a whipping boy. Anything that went wrong seemed to find its way back to me somehow, so that was extremely hard. It was as hard as anything you see on the telly in terms of shouty chefs, abusive, horrible places. It was certainly character-building. In terms of the lifestyle, I came from a pretty big city back home so that wasn’t a huge shift for me – Christchurch in particular is very English. 

When did you shift to Spanish food?
My boss came back from a holiday to San Sebastian and southern France and he fell in love with the food there. At the time we had a place called The Hummingbird, which sadly we had to shut, so he asked if I fancied staying on and working in a Basque restaurant. Being a chef, the Basque region’s a foodie mecca, so it was an appealing idea. He sent me down to a place called Donostia in London, which is a really fantastic place. I spent six weeks down there learning the ropes and recipes and eating my way around half the Spanish restaurants in London, of which there are a lot – Barrafina, Camino, Iberica, all those sort of places – and tried to pick up as much as I could.

What is the ethos of tapas and pintxos, as you see it?
For me, tapas is purely about the ingredients: if you’re in a Michelin restaurant in the UK, there’ll be all kinds of herbs, garnishes, foams, gels and things on the plate. There’s just crap everywhere: dusts and powders and it just drives me insane. Whereas you go to a Michelin restaurant in Spain and it’s just an amazing piece of fish cooked perfectly with a beautiful sauce, or a great piece of meat with two or three things on the plate. They just really celebrate the ingredient and show it as much respect as they can.

As someone who grew up outside Yorkshire, what do you like about its food?
I’d never had a Yorkshire pudding, so that was the first one. The concept of it was bizarre to me, but anything you can eat gravy out of, I like. Yorkshire in particular is very similar to the Basque country: it’s northern, it’s somewhat rural, and the ingredients in Yorkshire are renowned around the UK, much like the Basque country. The access to great produce here is amazing, the meat, the fish from the coast, the trout – the quality of ingredients in Yorkshire, weather permitting, is fantastic. World class.

 

Pintura
The Trinity, Leeds LS1 6AP
0113 430 0915 www.pinturakitchen.co.uk

 

 

NIBBLES

Food heroes? Rick Stein’s probably my favourite. I enjoy watching Gordon Ramsay on telly – I get my vocabulary from him.

Essential cookbook? MoVida – it’s a Spanish restaurant in Melbourne with some fantastic recipes.

Favourite bit of kitchen tech? Just a good knife, really – Japanese steel. We don’t throw an awful lot of technique at stuff. 

One thing that always puts you off a restaurant? Surly waiting staff.

Best piece of advice you’ve been given in the kitchen? Unless you can’t physically move, don’t phone in sick. And just turning up before your shift – if you can, find a few extra minutes in your day to get yourself a bit more set.

Guilty pleasures? Canned tuna of varying quality. I’m not fussy. I’m obsessed with it. I just eat it from the can, on its own. I love it. A lot of people say it’s gross, including my wife, but my cat’s in agreement.

Favourite can’t-be-bothered meal? Said tuna. I’m also particularly fond of canned potatoes and Green Giant sweetcorn, so bring the potatoes to the boil, chuck the sweetcorn in, then a knob of butter at the end and a can of tuna. That’d be my last meal.

Last supper? Either that, or my mum’s beef stroganoff. It’s pretty decent.

Published in: September 2017

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