New Zealand-born Sam Ward turned his curiosity of tortillas and their motherland into a full-time gig. We chat to El Público's head chef about the restaurant's most talked about dish, his penchant for toast, and a 150-year-old recipe for mole.
April Smallwood

20 Feb 2014 - 3:46 PM  UPDATED 2 Jul 2014 - 3:54 PM

Going by your surname, I’m guessing you’re not Mexican. How’d you come to love the cuisine so much?

I fell into it, really. I was always interested in Mexican food because I knew nothing about it. Old El Paso tacos and burritos were the thing growing up. I remember whingeing to my boss that all these Mexican restaurants were opening up and yet they weren't properly representing the cuisine, and he said, “Well, we’re opening one up – do you want a job?” So I jumped on a plane to Mexico for three weeks and just learnt so much about the food. That was two and a half years ago.


How difficult is it to replicate authentic Mexican in Oz?

You can get 10 per cent of the ingredients you need over here. Well, you can get most of the stuff you need, but it’s dried or in tins. And I don’t believe in any of that, ’cause we make everything fresh, so you just have to figure out how to get it to work for you. It’s been a challenge, but a really good one because you learn more about the food by trying to replicate it.


Such as?

For example, salsa verde is a simple sauce – you’ll find it on every table in Mexico – and it’s got these things called tomatillos in it. We grow them ourselves, but we get a really small harvest, so we’ve had to adapt. Basically, using a green tomato gives you a similar flavour.


Do you tone down the heat of dishes for chilli-shy patrons?

Absolutely. Plus, there’s a preconception here that Mexican food is really spicy; it’s actually not. It’s the stuff on the side, in the bottle, that’s gonna blow your head off. It’s very similar to having Malaysian food, where you get the sambals and the chilli sauces on the side. Out of the nine dried chillies that we can get [over here], one of them is spicy – the habanero. We make a hot sauce out of it and it really scares people.


What’s the most common feedback you hear from customers?

This is going to sound weird, but the most common thing is, “I love your balls”. We have a dish on the menu called beef mogo mogo – they're green-banana-battered balls. It’s like a beef brisket that’s mixed with an almond and sultana chilli paste, then rolled into balls, battered in banana, and fried. We serve them with chipotle sauce and people just go crazy for them. They literally sit at their tables saying, “I love your balls”.


Is Australia’s Mexican offering a far cry from the real deal?

It’s well and truly far from the real deal. The way I explain it to people is, think about Italian food in Australia in the ’80s. It was all chicken parmi and spag bol. Now, people know the difference between pappardelle and spaghetti and fagioli. Mexican food in Australia is really, really young; it hasn’t had a chance to grow. So if you give it 10 years, people will know more and they’ll be more willing to try the real Mexican food.


What do you usually cook for yourself after a long shift?

Toast. I’m a big advocate of tomato on toast, or avocado and vegemite.


Would you season that?

Yeah, with salt and pepper and hot sauce!


How sharp are your mole-making skills?

At the moment, we’ve got two different moles on our menu. We have one called a chichillo, which is a recipe I got from one of my friends, and the recipe is about 150 years old. The thing with Mexican food is that the stuff we do here [at El Público], people call it modern and trendy, but the recipes have been around longer than you think. It’s really old, but no-one has seen it before.


What did growing up in New Zealand teach you about food?

Be grateful for what you have. The main thing is that it’s literally in the middle of nowhere; it’s tiny compared to rest of the world. So you use what you have around you – if you’ve got really good lamb that’s raised down the road, and really good potatoes nearby, go with those.


Your restaurant, El Público, is in Perth. How do you rate the city's gastronomy?

Food here at the moment is amazing. You know, Perth always had that stigma that it’s just all cashed-up kids and bogans. But the food in Perth is just getting better and better. A lot of restaurants are opening up, and there’s a lot of really good ones as well. What that’s doing is forcing the guys that are doing really good food to do even better stuff.

I think, on a global scale, you’ve got restaurants here that rival some of those in Melbourne and even New York to an extent.


Go on, tell us your top pick.

I have a very small selection of restaurants that I go to, where the chefs are friends of mine. There’s a place called Lalla Rookh, which is reinvented northern Italian food and it’s absolutely delicious. The quality of ingredients is just… I know you can go anywhere in the world and order a bowl of pasta, but I’m always gonna compare it to Joel [Valvasori]’s pasta at Lalla Rookh. It’s just a sensation.


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