Alastair McLeod is an Irishman with an Australian appreciation for quality coffee. He talks to BeanScene about European kitchens, his indigenous roots, and why six coffees a day is an acceptable quota.
Alastair McLeod still boasts a strong Irish accent after calling Brisbane home for the past 22 years, but in that time he’s adopted a love for all things quintessentially Australian: Vegemite toast, mangos, and coffee.
“I can still see my mummy and daddy in Belfast drinking instant coffee. My dad worked in cafes in Ireland and in restaurants throughout school, but Belfast wasn’t a discerning coffee culture growing up. It was in its formative years. They were serving instant coffee in the cafes,” Alastair says.
“Coming to Australia I could immediately see a difference and the sophistication of its coffee culture. There’s definitely no-one else more discerning about coffee than the Aussies. The fact that a publication called BeanScene can exist is a reflection of that.”
Alastair learned to make coffee long before he decided to start drink it. Back in Northern Ireland in the 80s, people consumed numerous cups of tea, with the kettle on more than it was off. It wasn’t until Alastair moved to Scotland when he was 19 that a passionate Roman-Italian by the name of Leonello Francescangeli introduced him to the foreign concept of coffee.
“He had a big, bulky coffee machine, and his manager Angela was married to an Italian fellow who showed me how to use it. I learned how to grind to order, how to use the right amount of pressure, and adjust the grind depending on atmospheric conditions. I even used a little thermometer in the milk,” Alastair says. “I mimicked a lot of what Leonello drank. He would have a milky coffee in the morning, espresso as the day went on, then we would often have an espresso with a wee slurp of sambuca before the evening service.”
When working in France, Alastair says the coffee menu was much like ordering wine: black and white. Simple. There was no choice. Bowls of milky coffee were served to the chefs during staff meals whereas in Torino, Italy, Alastair says the coffee experience was strong and stringent.
“I was mindful the coffee was different from place to place, café to café, but I drunk espresso exclusively in Italy so I understood the purity of it. I could identify if it was raw, chocolatey, or bitter, and how it was roasted,” he says.
In commercial kitchens, Alastair says there was little value or care in making coffee and a real lack of training. It was only when he arrived in Australia in 1997 and started work at Baguette under head chef Francis Domenech, a proud Catalan and father figure who made Alastair strong double shot flat whites each day, that he realised restaurant quality coffee could hold its value.
“I still remember the stats in my head: 70 per cent of people at the restaurant would order an entrée, 100 per cent had a main, 50 per cent had dessert, and 65 per cent had a coffee. Any restaurant owner would be happy to see that on your ledger,” he says. “Great coffee is about equal parts coffee quality and the talent of the person making it.”
Alastair likes to think he can pour a good espresso. He knows his way around around a Nuova Simonelli coffee machine, and at home, uses an Nespresso machine, enjoying anywhere from three to six coffees a day.
“I often think, do I need it to get through the day or do I just drink it because it’s delicious? I think it’s just because of its addictive nature and I want to enjoy them each so terribly,” Alastair says.
“That’s why it’s our responsibly to get the best out of it, just like I would try to get the best out of cooking a tomato or zucchini. There’s nothing worse than the feeling of disappointment of drinking or eating something that’s [sub-par].”
After going back home to Belfast, Alastair says the city is now synonymous with having a contemporary, vibrant coffee and dining scene.
“There’s a sense that Belfast’s best days are still ahead of it, and considering its history you would hope so,” he says.
Alastair spent his 20s in Michelin-listed restaurants in Belfast and Torino and respected venues in France and Glasgow, but says he was always destined to call Australia home.
“I’m actually Australian,” Alastair says. “My grandfather was indigenous. He was born on Erub Island on the eastern island group of Torres Strait. I was up there filming a few years ago. It wasn’t because of TV opportunities that the doors opened to go spear fishing for lobster, to see the pearl farmers on Friday Island, or cook a kup murri (cooking food underground) on Badu Island 150 miles from Papua New Guinea. It was because of my genealogy. It was because I was the son of a Guivarra, a strong name in Torres Strait Islands.”
Alastair’s mother was sent down to boarding school at Lourdes School in Brisbane, which just happens to be where Alastair’s two eldest girls also attended.
“Because there was family here it was the logical place to come and I’ve lived nowhere else. I visit Sydney and Melbourne but Brisbane is developing fast. I think when I arrived it had a bit of an identity crisis but now you can look at a menu here or style of service and know you’re in the subtropics. It’s a good place to be.”
Alastair only has to look outside his kitchen window to see his thriving collection of Australian produce: native Australian finger lime, lychees, mangoes, pomegranates, and macadamia.
“I can hear myself saying those words out loud and it sounds pretty exotic to me. Even an apple is exotic,” Alastair says. “Despite its physical isolation, Australia is definitely a leader in coffee and the aspects of sustainability and provenance of origin, the source of ingredients. The whole conversation of food is maturing terrifically.”
This article appears in FULL in the February 2019 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.