In the lead up to A Taste of Harmony week (16-22 March), we chat to Argentinian chef ambassador Alejandro Cancino. Co-owner and Executive Chef at Brisbane's Urbane and The Euro, Cancino traded in cheffing gigs at Michelin-starred restaurants abroad for the chance to live closer to the Sunshine Coast. Here, the off-duty vegan and empanada expert talks multicultural staff meals, cutting down on meat, and why his green smoothies are so darn good.
By
Siobhan Hegarty

5 Mar 2015 - 2:34 PM  UPDATED 19 Mar 2015 - 10:02 AM

You’ve worked in some of the world’s most influential kitchens – Mugaritz in Spain, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Britain and Tokyo’s Michelin-starred Bulgari Hotel, to name a few. What brought you to Brisbane? I’d always planned with my wife to come to Australia. We basically wanted to have a better life. It’s a really nice country, so it was always in the back of our heads. And I really liked the idea of being close to the Sunshine Coast.

You were named Australian Gourmet Traveller’s Best New Talent and Queensland Good Food Guide’s Chef of the Year in 2013. Did you expect to make such a splash in Australia? I was really surprised and happy at the same time. It was nice to have that recognition, but I obviously wasn’t expecting it.

As a teenager, you aced your cookery studies in Buenos Aires and won a scholarship to France. Did this pave the way for your fine dining future? When I started my career I wasn’t really looking for Michelin stars or anything like that. I just liked to eat good food. I think that should be the first step for a chef: if you like to eat, it’s easier for you to cook good food.

These days, you lean towards a plant-based diet. What’s your advice for people who are just starting out and want to cut down on meat? Don’t put that much pressure on yourself. Take it as a slow change. The more plant-based ingredients you eat, the better. If you reduce your meat consumption by 50 per cent, you have made a massive change – for your health, for the environment, and obviously for the animal.

Describe what a typical off-duty day’s meal plan looks like. In the morning, I would have avocado on toast with a green smoothie... a tasty one! I put in some grapes, celery, ginger, mint and spinach. For lunch, probably chickpea hamburger with a salad - it takes 10 minutes. And then for dinner, we’d probably have pumpkin gnocchi with salad. When I say salad, I make it full of grains and seeds.

What are your thoughts on the “vegan police”? Vegan people who criticise others don’t make any sense to me. I think we should all encourage people to eat more vegan or plant-based food, but without the pressure and criticism. At home, I’m vegan. I’m not extreme, but I think it’s the right thing to do. I think it’s the way of the future. 

"One day I'd like to open a vegan restaurant, but in the meantime I do cook fish and meat."

How does your environmental awareness feed into practices at your restaurants Urbane and The Euro? We try to create the smallest impact on the environment. We’ve got a compost machine which reduces our waste massively, and we try to support organic and local suppliers. It’s not only about the food you serve, but how things have been grown and how [the produce] gets to your plate.

Native ingredients are a reoccurring element in your cooking. Why do you think bush foods remain so foreign to the everyday Australian? Some of the ingredients are really good, but you have to work on them [to bring the flavours out]. We use wattle seeds, finger limes and lilly pillies. We tried to use bunya nuts but we couldn’t get a good result. More experimentation necessary? Exactly!

You’re an ambassador for A Taste of Harmony week (16-22 March). Will you be celebrating with your staff at Urbane? Last year, for the staff meals during that week, everyday someone cooked something from their own country. We have chefs from the UK, Korea, me from Argentina, France and Italy. What will you be bringing this year? I’ll probably make vegan empanadas.

The world spotlight is now focused on Latin American cuisine. Does that make you homesick? It’s nice to see people are more interested in South American food. I had the chance to travel to South America last year and I was impressed at how many products I’d never seen before – nuts, grains, a few vegetables and fruit, especially.

Any plans to move back? I never say never. I’m married to an Argentinian girl so she will probably decide. Even if we go back one day in the future, I think we will always be attached to Australia.

One last question – do your tousled locks look this great in the kitchen? Oh my hair is always a mess! The guys laugh every morning when they see it.

 

A Taste of Harmony week runs from March 16-22. To find out more about celebrating diversity in your workplace, visit the website. Check out our A Taste of Harmony recipe collection for lunch and morning tea treats from around the globe.