John McLeay
John McLeay

John McLeay

John McLeay fell into his career as a chef after two weeks of work experience at The Australian Hotel in Melbourne. His love affair with Asian food developed after a trip to Thailand when one drunken night he ate fried grasshoppers from a street stall and found out he actually quite liked the taste!

John is a self-taught chef, experimenting with Asian flavours until he finds the perfect balance between the four elements of taste: hot, sour, sweet and salty. He has been head chef for many years and opened Red Spice Road in 2007.

What personalizes a signature dish?

I guess it's not by any choice of mine but simply by customer demand.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

A combination of dishes I’ve eaten in other restaurants or seen in books and magazines.

Any funny or interesting stories surrounding one of your dishes?

Once, I decided to take my pork belly dish off for a fortnight and see the result. Being on the menu for the past three and a half years, surviving eighty menu changes, I was interested to see how customers would react. The result: three customer walk outs, six emails against the new pork belly replacement and many complaints. Needless to say it was back on the lunch menu on the following Saturday.

What can Australia expect from you in the future?

Hopefully another Red Spice Road and also I should have another book on the shelves.

What’s your earliest memory of food?

I pretty much grew up with my grandparents and I fondly remember following my grandfather around the backyard and also annoying my grandmother, who always seemed to be in the kitchen. We always ate around the kitchen table and there was always something braising on the stove.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

When I first started in the kitchen, I was given essential advice to work hard and learn as much as you can. Later in my career it’s been to work smarter, delegate and empower your staff. And business-wise don’t lose track of what you’re trying to achieve.

What advice would you give a novice cook?

You really need to eat out a lot and to immerse yourself in cookbooks and industry magazines. Try cooking with something new every week and ask questions and listen to advice that your senior chefs give you, remember we’ve been in the industry for a long time and have seen a lot of mistakes and made a lot ourselves.

Weapon of choice in the kitchen?

Equipment-wise I love our massive stick blender and also life without our Convotherm (oven) would be a very difficult one. Looking at this question another way, my kitchen weapons are a pretty happy attitude, being a natural smart arse and lightning quick retorts.

What would you do with a jar of tomato sauce?

Being an Aussie I pretty much put it on everything. It’s also really handy when making something for staff meal, sauce in everything tastes great.

This is an edited extract from Signature Dishes by Michelle Tchea, published by New Holland, $29.95.

Red Spice Road

Red Spice Road

Melburnian culinary institution Red Spice Road restaurant is as popular as ever for offering a tantalising South-East Asian dining experience in the heart of the city. Once inside, diners are transported from the elegant comforts of this multi-spaced McKillop Street establishment on a journey across Asia, assisted by animated artwork and sumptuous smells that waft to surround visitors in a warm and heady embrace. Led by acclaimed Executive Chef John McLeay, a menu of mouth-watering portions emphasises freshness, presentation and flavours inspired by communal dining spanning from Thailand to China. Begin a feast with Chiang Mai chicken and prawn relish with betel leaves, scallops with minced pork, eggplant and roe and beef cheeks with spices, black pepper, Shaoxing, ginger and mushrooms.

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