Filipino food looks set to take over the world thanks to a young Melbourne chef. John Rivera will compete in the S. Pellegrino Young Chef 2018 grand finale in Milan next year after his successful win in the Pacific region leg of the competition, held at Crown Melbourne.
The 23-year-old chef de partie at Armadale restaurant Amaru presented his “contemporary Asian-influenced cuisine” to a panel of his culinary heroes – Andrew McConnell, Christine Manfield, Scott Pickett, Paul Carmichael and Jacques Reymond – beating nine other local chefs with his “Sinigang” dish.
Judged on its ingredients, skill, genius, beauty and message, the colourful dish comprises a gently steamed piece of hapuka (a cod-like fish) seasoned with a burnt tamarind miso with coconut and taro puree, a broth made from a tomato reduction infused with prawns, native mountain pepper and kelp, Calamansi leaf oil and local foraged greens.
John says his upbringing is a huge influence on his cooking. Paying homage to his family’s and his own history of migration, it uses native Australian and New Zealand ingredients that are merged into a dish that represents each of the three countries he has called home.
He got his start in the hospitality industry as a waiter at Rockpool in Melbourne before progressing to cooking at fine dining restaurants such as Lûmé and at Amaru since July (staging at Ben Shewry’s world-renowned Attica in between).
“I’m very interested in Filipino flavours, but I don’t want to pigeonhole myself into just doing only Filipino food,” John says.
When the young chef was dreaming up his winning dish during his time at Shaun Quade’s Lûmé, he wanted to create something in his own cooking style.
“The hardest part about being a young chef is creating your own cooking style while working at certain restaurants – and breaking the habit of cooking in a Lûmé or Amaru style,” he says.
The idea was to re-interpret sinigang – a hot and sour soup he and many other Filipinos around his age grew up eating. He refers to the dish as simply “Sinigang”, a deliberate act to show that Filipino food can be “elevated to a more elegant and refined level”.
John has been dreaming of winning the competition since he began cooking four years ago, and says the Pacific win is already propelling him closer towards his goal of becoming a sous chef or head chef by the age of 28 and owning his own restaurant by 30. If this latest win is any indication, he’s well on his way.
He says the Milan final – his first trip to Europe – will be nerve-wracking given the extra level of scrutiny on his cooking skills. “I have to work even harder to prove that I’m a deserving candidate,” he says.
John won’t be alone in his arduous task, though. He will have his idol Scott Pickett in tow helping him finesse the dish.
“At the end of the day, making it to this stage is already a victory for me. I want to go to Milan and impress the judges, but winning isn’t everything,” John says. “If I put up a stellar dish, I’ll be happy.”