From small beginnings working as a kitchen hand to becoming an accomplished chef working at restaurants including L’atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris and Taipei, STAY by Yannick Alleno, Sydney’s Marque and Melbourne’s Vue de Monde, Nobu Lee has found his home at Clooney restaurant.
“When I graduated from high school I decided to be true to myself and decide my own life, but I had no money to go to culinary school, so I started as a kitchen hard,” said Lee.
Lee recalls the first time he dined at L’atelier de Joel Robuchon in Tokyo. “I will never forget it, every single dish and every single bite is still vivid. The flavours were clean and honest, and the technique was very precise.”
Inspired by the dishes he tasted, Lee continued in his cooking endeavours and found himself working for Robuchon in Paris and Taipei. He noted Robuchon as having a strong influence on his career as a chef.
“Two chefs changed my life: Joel Robuchon taught me his philosophy, all the techniques, knowledge and respect for the ingredients. Mark Best pushed me out of my comfort zone and taught me to think outside of the box, to be endlessly searching for possibilities for new flavours, new combinations and to stay focused on very few ingredients.”
Recently, Lee travelled to Singapore in July and spent five days cooking at Jaan with chef Kirk Westaway where the two discussed the menu Lee plans to create at Clooney. “Singapore has only one season, summer all year round, but Jann could get fresh ingredients from both the north and south hemispheres which was incredible.”
In late October Lee will be travelling to Paris for food research, focusing mainly on modern techniques and the new wave of French cuisine. He is looking forward to learning how young chefs have trained in Michelin starred kitchens around the world and have gone home to open their own restaurants, and to see French cuisine in a new, different dimension.
In his kitchen at Clooney, Lee’s favourite cooking technique is focused on not overly cooking fresh produce. “If the quality is premium, then why not serve it raw or barely cooked?” He also is hoping to implement Maori cooking techniques in his own dishes.
“I really want to cook some vegetables in soil, seasoned with different oil and herbs. Just like how Maori have done for hundreds of years, but in a modern presentation.”
The menu at Clooney follows the rhythm of New Zealand seasons and the team are continually testing and developing new dishes according to seasonal, local ingredients and are always visiting farms and suppliers. With a kitchen of chefs from eight different countries, Lee said that communication is key when creating new dishes and working together.
“We pay a great deal of respect to each other’s background and culture, sharing a bit of our life experiences and of course each staff’s meal is very colourful. Most importantly, we all share the same passion and have the same goal – to provide the highest standard of service and cuisine to our guests.”
To ensure the quality of the food going out to customers, the team do a tasting session every day at 5pm. “I will personally taste every single element we had prepared for the night’s service to ensure it is up to our standard. If anything is not up to our standard then we will discard it and do it again to make sure our guests are getting the best experience with us.”
An excellent leader in the kitchen, Lee recalls a trainee chef he had come to work with him when he was working as head chef in a hotel, “When he first started he couldn’t even use a bread knife nor make a club sandwich. I thought he wouldn’t even make it through his first week. He was very hard working and surprised me over and over, and now he is chef de partie at the three Michelin star restaurant La Petit Nice.”
Humble and dedicated to his passion for cooking, Lee said in future he hopes to contribute himself, in every possible way, to the New Zealand food industry. The dishes he creates at Clooney are each carefully thought out and considered, “My inspirations come not just from ingredients but sometimes a colour, noise or shadow. Recently, I was inspired by a tree with no leaves in Victoria Park.”