The gate to Emmilou in Surry Hills is closed. Inside, I am seated on the terrace with Chef and Owner Chris Cranswick-Smith. And I have him all to myself. He has kindly granted me his time for the first interview and chef profile to be featured on Gourmantic.
I have met Chris on previous occasions and when I learnt he had a passion centred on travel, France, food and languages – elements that make up the core of Gourmantic – I was intrigued to learn about the man behind the chef, the childhood influences that propelled him towards an international career in food that ultimately took him to France, Spain and the luxury yachts of the Mediterranean.
It’s a cool winter afternoon and under the warmth of the outdoor heaters, we ease into the interview. I discover a passionate and focussed man, eloquent and natural in his responses. He’s confident and charming, occasionally punctuating my probing questions with the odd look and chuckle.
Corinne: Tell me a little about yourself, your family and where you grew up.
Chris Cranswick-Smith: I grew up in the Northern Beaches, in Narrabeen. I’m proud of being a Northern Beaches boy. I was born in Liverpool in the UK but moved here when I was six months old. Got the passport, missed the accent. I was a beachy sort of kid.
I have two brothers. A lot of people pick that I’m the middle child, I don’t know why… [laughs] Poor mum! I was quite impressionable about the experiences I saw. Like watching my dad speak French overseas was the coolest thing in the world. I thought, “I wanted to do that” so I went out and did it.
C: How did you come to learn French?
CCS: I was lucky enough to be brought up understanding a certain amount of it. My parents used to read French books to me when I was younger, so I developed an ear for it. In year 6, I was at private school which I hated, I studied a year of French, half a year of German and Japanese because my dad was in business and I thought it was useful. I didn’t do much with it but my brother was studying 3 unit Japanese so I crash studied with him and did another year but wishing I had done French. We planned a family holiday to France at the end of Year 7 so I quit Japanese, studied a lot and mum helped me for the most part. At the end of year 8, I left to go to a public school and studied French by correspondence.
C: What other languages do you speak?
CCS: Spanish and a good basic level of Italian. I was based on a yacht in Italy for about 8 months on and off, the first 4 months of which was in a small town in the east of Italy called Ancona. In that time my Italian was very proficient, however upon returning to Spain I found hard to wrap my mouth around the quickly Spanish words after-a-speaking-a-the much-a-slower-Italiano for so long… so I decided not to pursue Italian much further as I required my Spanish for future work in kitchens.
C: You grew up with parents who spoke French and you travelled frequently to France and Europe. What influences did those experiences have on you as a child?
CCS: They helped to direct where I wanted to go, which was to definitely do a job that would allow me to travel, to definitely work in France and most likely cook at that point. And a big part of it was staying in hotels like Club Med on ski holidays and meeting foreigners. They encourage you to interact and mingle with people from around the world and I thought, “I want to do this”.
C: Was there a defining moment when you decided to be a chef?
CCS: I started cooking when I was 7. I was always nurtured into going into food. My mum was super enthusiastic about helping us to pursue any dreams we had, no matter what we wanted to do and dad always taught us that if we were going to do something that we should do it properly.
C: They sound like supportive parents.
CCS: Incredible. Between my mum’s support and dad’s general business acumen, it’s a huge reason I do what I do now.
C: What did you cook as child?
CCS: Pancakes. I was staying at a mate’s place on Mothers Day – I’m not sure what I was doing there – his dad got up and made pancakes, and being young and impressionable, I wanted to do that. Mum used to buy me kids’ cookbooks and I used to cook every weekend. I made Bûche de Noël every Christmas for 7 years, cakes and simple kiddie stuff.
C: Did you always think you’d go into cooking?
CCS: I was always well aware cooking would be an option with mum’s friends saying, “Chris would open a restaurant one day”. But it was when I went to public school, at 13-14 that my mind opened to doing a trade and not going to university. I did hospitality, ceramics, food tech and hands on subjects which helped to nurture the ambition a little bit.
Then in year 11, I took up physics and chemistry. I was torn between becoming a vet or hospitality. If I left school to do an apprenticeship, I’d move to France by the time I’m 20. If I became a vet, it would take longer. I wanted to travel and get on with it. I guess I’ve always been in a big rush all my life.
C: Where did you do your apprenticeship?
CCS: In Sydney. The first year at International Hotel School where they run through the theory a lot quicker. I smashed through that and got accredited 6 months in my apprenticeship. This meant I went into my second year working 5 days a week instead of the usual 4. I went to Jonah’s at Whale Beach for my second year then Aria for my third and fourth year.
C: Then you left Sydney?
CCS: Straight away. I went to Canada for a 2 months holiday then 6 weeks at home and bought a one-way ticket to France.
C: Did you go to Paris?
CCS: No, I stayed in Biarritz, where the majority of my food is inspired from, a) because it was a cool surfie town, b) for general culinary influences. I’ve been to Paris many times and thought it was an intense city and would take a long time to get to know it. I wanted to go to a place where I enjoyed every aspect of being there. I’ve always been focussed on good work-life balance.
Working on luxury yachts in the Mediterranean
C: You’ve worked at Café de Paris in Biarritz, The Square in London’s Mayfair and La Broche in Madrid, and in between you’ve had stints on luxury yachts for the Prince of Bahrain and CEO of Citigroup. Tell me about that.
CCS: I discovered the industry when I went from Biarritz to Nice for a bit of a holiday and saw the massive yachts there and in Monaco and Antibes.
I made it my focus to spend time in the industry and it was an incredible experience. You work really hard in a very confined space and live with people you work with.
We went all over the Mediterranean, and it was my job to get off at all sorts of places, stock up the boat, go into little markets, which brought the aspects of cooking back to basics.
C: What were some of the challenges of working on luxury yachts?
CCS: Having to cook for a crew of 14, with guys of varying ages and demographics doing physical work in sun and girls working inside and getting little exercise and having to come up with food to cater for everyone. We did one stint for 3 months straight.
C: Did you have much creativity in what you could cook?
CCS: It was circumstantial depending on the owners. Some gave full control. Others gave a brief, and not always the right one which made it a challenge at times.
C: What made you come back to Sydney?
CCS: I was ready. I spent time away because I had so many things I had to get out of my system. I was always looking for the next big thing. In the end, I was planning my next move before I even made it.
I worked in San Sebastian and on yachts for the Prince of Bahrain which was based in the south of France. It was super intense because you’re around royalty. The boat was going back to Bahrain, and the timing worked out to work for a mate chef at the Grand National Hotel so I had something to come home to. I was at a point where I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to go home on such a high.
C: Then you started Emmilou in 2007
CCS: I came home in March 2007. By August, I had an itchy feeling that was all too familiar, but for the first time it wasn’t inspiring me to go overseas. I felt I needed more, and I started pursuing Emmilou. I finally felt settled and could focus my energies on it.
C: What’s the inspiration behind the name?
CCS: Emmilou is a mix of names I came across when I was in Europe, mainly in Biarritz and San Sebastian, and a few important people during my time there. There may have been a girlfriend called Emily, but that’s not the point. I came up with the name when I was living in France. I have memories of the Pyrenees and the surf, half an hour bus rides to Spain with a change of culture and languages. It’s a reminder of my time there and my experiences.
C: So it’s not a girl who broke your heart…
CCS: No. I’d always thought during my apprenticeship that girls’ names would be cool to use for restaurants. They’re fun and sexy, people can relate to them. I played around with a few names. Emmilou became a reminder of what I did there and ultimately an inspiration for where I wanted to go.
C: Emmilou is known as the kind of place you take someone you want to impress. It’s hip, vibrant, sexy. Was that always your vision or did it evolve into it?
CCS: Not always a vision. It’s a reflection of who I am.
C: Hip, vibrant, sexy?
CCS: Yep. Many chefs do the fine dining restaurants scene but it’s not the sort of place I want to go to on a regular basis, for example, when going on a date. I did a lot of dating over the last couple of years I’ve been here, though I do now have a serious girlfriend for the first time in a long time. [chuckles quietly] The first line in my business plan was “Emmilou will be the type of place that I want to go to”.
C:You also launched your catering business, Private Chef Solutions in June 2010.
CCS: I registered the business name while I was at Grand National. When I was working on the yachts, I felt I was working like a caterer. I researched it and found a huge gap in market at the time. Now, with renewed interest in food due to the Masterchef generation, a lot of premium restaurants have also seen the gap in market and are catering successfully.
C: Does it bring much business?
CCS: Business has come almost directly from Emmilou customers. People have engaged us repeatedly. They know and love the Emmilou product and want to bring it to their premises.
His iPhone rings with Gorillaz’ Feel Good Inc ringtone. He quickly silences it.
C: You’re active in various domains. You’re Executive Chef at Emmilou, you appear on television shows, such as Ready Steady Cook and The Circle on Ten. You’ve recently featured in TV commercials for Vegeta. How did the opportunity come about to step into television?
CCS: One of the producers of Ready Steady Cook had dinner here one night with a mutual friend. Introductions were made and I was invited to come along to the following season.
C: Do you enjoy it?
CCS: Yeah, I do. For the audition, the ingredients were unexciting. They didn’t really care what you cooked, they wanted to see a bit of personality so I thought let’s have fun with this. I walked out thinking if I didn’t get it, I’ve learnt something for next time. Then they called me up saying they loved what I did, and to come and do four shows next week.
There were warm ups or practices before shooting live recording. Sure I looked a bit nervous, but I went there and did it and it was a lot of fun. But I’m not on Ready Steady Cook this year due to too many other commitments.
C: You do consulting work as well?
CCS: Yes, I set up the menu for the Passage, a small bar in Darlinghurst.
C: And you’ve also done a bit of modelling.
CCS: [looks puzzled] I haven’t done modelling. [pause] I have an agent who got me to do some shots in suits and skinny ties. I never liked them. I felt uncomfortable doing that, it’s not who I am. So we had them done again in my chef and own clothes. If you feel uncomfortable in front of the camera it’s going to show.
[pause] Ah… yes. I did a photo shoot on a boat for ‘Top Rising Stars of Industry’ for Polo De’Marco online magazine. They chose 5 up and coming people in different industries with model Didier Cohen, Lauren Andon. It was flattering to be picked.
C: You’ve recently done a photo shoot for Cosmopolitan magazine (not out yet) as one of the young sexy chefs.
CCS: [grins] Me standing there in an apron.
C: Just an apron?
CCS: [laughs] I had underwear on. The art director was after a hot guy shoot. I said, “I’m a chef not a model, what do you want me to do?” In the end, I got to set it up the way I wanted, with a set of knives…
C: Can you tell me more?
CCS: There are six of us in it. With Masterchef being massive, I thought it was a cool idea to bring a bit of sexiness to some venues. I was flattered they asked me but they could have done a bit better if they wanted good looking chefs.
C: Do you think chefs are the new models and magazine centrefolds?
CCS: Haha. No.
C: Until recently, your twitter profile mentioned a rating for frequent nudity, and earlier this year, you launched a cheeky menu with a warning about nudity on the cover. What’s the idea behind the playfulness?
CCS: Part of it was to say we were bringing the menu back to basics. The other part was that we’re all really comfortable in who we are. [cheeky smiles] You can say “Chris admits that there may have been one or two incidences of nudity in and around Bourke Street in Surry Hills… Once where the cops turned up.”
C: Maybe you can tell me that story some other time over a drink or two…
C: How would you describe yourself? Now we’re getting to the fun parts…
CCS: Ahh… that sounds more scary!
Directed, happy, confident. I enjoy what I do. I just maintain that I’m just a guy who likes to cook and knows how to do it.
C: That’s very humble.
CCS: I think it’s very important to really enjoy what you do.
C: Your tattoo has the statement “vivir, estar, je suis” (to live, to be, I am). Is that how you see yourself, a mélange of Spanish and French?
CCS: I still maintain that I’m Aussie. It pisses me off in the food media that we’re branded as Spanish and French for having spent five and a half years there. I’ve also spent 24 years in Australia. I take a huge amount of influence from my time there and it’s a reminder of where I’ve been and why I am where I am now. They’re pieces of my life rather than directly who I am. I’m just a northern beaches guy, from Narrabeen in Sydney.
C: Where do you get your inspiration from?
CCS: Just having fun with food, not taking things seriously. I think chefs in Europe spend so many hours in kitchen, with little life-work balance. I think that’s the Australian influence talking there, and being a relaxed northern beaches boy.
I don’t think we have so much of a culture here in Australia, but we have a lifestyle. I think taking inspiration from your lifestyle is very important.
C: You seem to have a lot of energy about you. What drives you?
CCS: I guess it’s just having a direction and enjoying what I do.
C: What’s a normal day in the life of Chris and what do you do to relax?
CCS: I work from home a bit. I take my dog for a walk every morning. I’m always planning something, an upcoming dinner in the restaurant or another venture. I like to hang out with my girlfriend, go to dinners and be social.
C: Music is part of the Emmilou experience. Do you have many favourite artists?
CCS: Lots! Phoenix. Sade. Sound Providers. Alliance Ethnik, a French hip hop group from the 90s. A lot of French customers can’t believe it when they hear it here. It’s like being in a little bar in Paris and hearing Regulate by Warren G [checks his iPhone] Friendly Fires. Gorillaz. Jack Johnson. Frank Sinatra. BB King, old French stuff…
C: Do you do much cooking at home?
CCS: At the moment, yes.
C: What do you cook at home to impress someone?
CCS: Ha! [laughs] Lately I’ve been getting the most amazing steak from Victor Churchill and serving it simply with carrot purée, sautéed spinach in garlic and jus. I’ve recently decked out the dining room and I’m so comfortable sitting at home and cooking my own food and having dinner with friends.
C: Tell me about your ideal woman.
CCS: Somebody who is focussed, driven by her own passions. That’s one of the biggest turn-ons for me. Caring, fun, and a bit crazy.
C: You mentioned earlier that you now have a serious girlfriend…
CCS: Yes this is true, I’m really happy. Her name is Lyndsey Rodrigues and she is an incredible, motivated, intelligent human being. She’s a very talented TV presenter who has hosted shows both here and in New York. We’re off to Vietnam and Cambodia the near future (first for both of us) and we can’t wait!
C: When you started in your career, the concept of celebrity chefs was relatively unknown. How do you deal with being one?
CCS: [laughs] I’m not a celebrity chef.
C: You’ve been on TV, done commercials, and the media labels you as one.
CCS: I don’t think that any chef who appears on TV should be labelled a celebrity chef. It’s for chefs that mainly do TV work.
C: You don’t see yourself as one?
CCS: I’m very careful in reflecting myself in the shows I do. Ready Steady Cook was probably the hardest because it was typecast with cheffy chefs. I asked if I can I dumb it down a bit, they said no. I didn’t feel I got to reflect myself. On The Circle, I can turn up and do what I do. It just happens that there are cameras on you rather than you feel you’re being asked to be someone you’re not.
C: Has it changed you in any way?
CCS: No. I like that it’s an extra medium to draw people into the business. It’s another way of getting to show who I am rather than just advertising the restaurant through the website and other online means.
C: How do you deal with the celebrity status and with the public, men and women having a crush on you?
CCS: [laughs out loud] I don’t know. They don’t always tell me about it!
C: You don’t always tell someone you have a crush on them! It can be a quiet or distant adoration…
CCS: I’m very good at diffusing any situation that is uncomfortable via means of being me, chatting away and steering conversation in a different direction. I’ve always been a people person.
He twirls the silver ring on his thumb, then puts it on another finger.
C: With celebrity chefs being the craze for some time now, do you think it has reached saturation point?
CCS: No. I think it’s great for the industry. What I would like to see instead of the same faces at every food festival is a more general interest across the industry, handpicking different chefs across a wide range who have a presence and can talk on stage. It’s far more useful than just the same individuals but these have PR companies behind them and it’s just business at the end of the day.
C: With your experience working and living in Europe and travelling the world, what do you think is lacking in the Sydney dining scene?
CCS: The problem is the general licensing rules which ultimately determine our dining and drinking culture. They impose general restrictions that we’re all bound by.
C: With the media glamorising the profession, what advice would you give someone considering a career as a chef?
CCS: Spend as much time as you can around the industry. Have as much knowledge at hand in order to make the decision. And have some goals as to what you want to achieve by being a chef. For me, it was travelling, the lifestyle and possible freedom that the job could bring.
Darkness has set and Emmilou takes on a seductive glow. Soft lighting is bathing the red walls, the gentle flicker of candles on the tables adds a romantic touch and a chillout tune is filling the evening air.
C: What projects are you currently working on?
CCS: We’ve just finished planning all the events for Crave Sydney Good Food Month (SIFF). We also try to do something different every month, and have fun with it. We did a few music theme nights last year, like the Frank Sinatra night where we researched food going back to his time. We try to come up with a fun idea, research it and put together a cool event.
C: Anything on the horizon for Emmilou 2?
CCS: I would like to but I’m not in a rush. With unrealistic rents at the moment, I have an obligation not to lock into it. The time will come but I’m not in a hurry just to get an Emmilou 2.
C: Any other plans in the near future?
CCS: I’m just about to put pen to paper on a big new site in Surry Hills **. The concept at this stage is a cantina and Tequila bar. It’s about 3 times the size of Emmilou and will incorporate a lounge bar perfect for groups, parties, cocktail courses and all sorts of celebrations, whilst the cantina side of it will be a vibrant communal dining sort of set up. The rent is really reasonable so the price point will be very accessible. This is a year and a half in the works so it’s a very exciting time.
** Edit 22/09/2011 – Chris Cranswick-Smith in conjunction with some partners is opening a very Northern Beaches version of Emmilou as a café/wine bar. Wild Bunch Food & Wine will open for breakfast, lunch and dinner 7 days from mid December.
C: If you were to sum up Chris Cranswick-Smith, food and travel, what would you say?
CCS: I’m hungry :)
With thanks to Chris Cranswick-Smith for the candid interview and for being incredibly generous with his time.
Emmilou Tapas Bar
413 Bourke Street
Surry Hills Sydney NSW 2010
Photo credits: Chris Cranswick-Smith; *Photos of modelling shoot by Glenn Marsden Photography http://www.glennmarsdenphotography.com – All photographs used with permission.
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