Manu Feildel has called Australia home for the past 20 years. In that time, the popular chef has charmed Australian households with his French accent, obsession with sauce, and passion for food education.
When Manu Feildel was working in London commercial kitchens with a bunch of Aussie chefs, he was painted a picture of a faraway land with blue skies, endless sunshine, and friendly people.
“I couldn’t stand London’s cold, grey, rainy days anymore, let alone people whining about it. When the Aussies told me about this incredible place they came from, I thought, ‘that’s where I’m going’, and I ever looked back,” Manu tells BeanScene.
He arrived in Melbourne on a wintery day and feared the city too closely resembled London. He was disappointed. Spring soon followed and Manu decided to visit a friend in Sydney.
“I arrived at Central Station, walked down George Street all the way to the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge and thought: ‘Oh my gosh, this is the place that was painted to me,’” Manu says. “Australia has lived up to my expectations – and more.”
Manu made Sydney his forever home, but admits as he’s gotten older, he’s grown to appreciate Melbourne for its diversity, European vibe, and rich food, bar and coffee scene.
“I was shocked how much the Aussies loved their coffee when I first arrived here 20 years ago. I was working in a Melbourne kitchen and the whole team would have coffee on the hour. But for me, coffee was breakfast only,” Manu says. “In France, we drink it in a bowl. We butter our baguettes, put jam on it and dunk the bread into the coffee, which is a weird concept now that I think about it. But I loved it.”
Manu tried to keep up but says the high caffeine intake made him jittery, leading to a “short break” from his daily caffeine consumption. He eventually returned, setting himself a strict limit.
“Coffee for me is a morning drink. I don’t drink it all day long like Australians do, but I can’t leave the house without my one double shot latte. I need it to be strong to help wake me up, get ready for the day, then chop chop,” Manu says with a charming grin via Zoom.
“A good coffee will bring a big smile to your face. I love a little bit of bitterness and sweet caramelisation in the cup. But there’s nothing worse – excuse the French – then a sh** coffee. I know, because the French are really bad at making coffee. I used to make coffee for my mother each morning in a big filter jug and wait impatiently for the water to boil.”
Now, Manu uses L’or coffee capsules for convenience and consistency – he enjoys number 13 in the pod selection. He also alternates visits to Billy’s café and Little Me in his local suburb of Maroubra.
“Despite the restrictions of COVID-19, it’s still clear that people want their coffee. It hasn’t stopped. Some of the little cafés are so busy with queues out the door. If I had to look at my business model again, I’d probably think about owning my own coffee shop,” Manu says.
“Making coffee is an art. It’s why there’s professionals that do it. I also think part of that art is being able to make coffee fast because when you’ve got a lot of people queuing you still need to keep quality. I love watching baristas at work. You can tell by the way they move around the machine if they know what they’re doing. It’s like watching a good chef prepare a meal and chop their ingredients.”
When it comes to the kitchen, Manu knows what he’s doing, but his career path wasn’t always so defined. Manu left school aged 15. His mother suggested he work with his father at the family restaurant and use the experience to figure out his future. After all, working as a chef was a family tradition. Manu’s great grandfather was a pastry chef, his grandfather and father were chefs, and his cousin is a pastry chef.
“Working as an apprentice at my dad’s restaurant was an experience that changed my entire life. Walking into a commercial kitchen, being able to prep food, serve food and eat food was a fantastic job. I decided it was a job for me,” Manu says. “I was always a foodie, maybe even a little pig as a kid. I just loved food and would never push back a plate my mum made.”
Manu moved to London at age 18 for his first job as a qualified chef. He stayed for eight years working in some of the city’s best restaurants including The Café Royal and Livebait. He says it was a great learning experience, but he was lured to “the promised land”. He arrived in Australia in 1999 and steadily found his feet before working and owning his own restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne.
“I had to get used to a new way of life. I remember going to Coles. I put my ingredients on the belt and the [cashier] girl said, ‘hey, how you going?’ I was shocked. I thought, ‘are you talking to me?’ In France you usually only ask someone how they are when you’ve met them once or twice.”
Manu got used to the country’s easy-going nature. He hasn’t adopted a love for the local delicacy of laminations, but he does enjoy a home-made pie – not one from a petrol station or the footy, he says. The perfect pie, Manu attests, is all about the filling and, not surprisingly, “the right sauce”.
The constant lack of a good sauce, not enough of it, or the display of a very poor one, was the ‘source’ of constant frustration for Manu as co-host on reality cooking show My Kitchen Rules. Throughout the show’s 10-year run, Manu became famous for asking, “where’s the sauce?”
“In France, the sauce chef in a brigade of chefs is the person with the most respect and years of cooking experience. After all, a good sauce is the one thing that brings all the ingredients on the plate together,” Manu says.
Determined to share that same sentiment with home cooks, Manu and his business partner decided to create their own finishing sauce range. They did their research and saw that there was no refrigerated sauce on supermarket shelves.
“We were determined to find a sauce made from real ingredients and I couldn’t believe there wasn’t one already on the market. It took a long time to find a manufacturer with the right equipment and expertise to make the type of sauce we wanted,” Manu says. “In fact, we gave up halfway through because it didn’t seem possible. Two years later we tried again, and now it’s on the shelf.”
The Sauce by Manu range includes six recipes with French classics like Mushroom, Red Wine and Peppercorn sauce. Each are made in Australia from scratch with fresh ingredients, no preservatives, and are deliberately located in the chiller cabinet of supermarkets so shoppers can pick up their meat and sauce together.
“We thought of everything – the quality, quantity, price point and where to place it. It’s a new category and I know it’s hard to change people’s ways, but when we tried all the other sauces on the market, the difference was black and white. I want to put real ingredients in my body, and I hope others will too. We just need customers to try it, because when they do, we have a buyer straight away.”
Perfecting his sauce range is not the only thing keeping Manu busy during lockdown. The ever-busy dad of two is co-hosting new cooking show Plate of Origin, and has announced the creation of La Botanique, a 400-square-metre multi-functional production, catering and event space.
“I decided to step away from the restaurant scene. It’s been my passion for a long time, but that world has suffered for many years now, and when you start getting older and business gets harder with less money in it, you question why you’re still in it,” Manu says. “I still wanted to keep my foot in the industry, that’s why I created La Botanique, representing all of my passions under the one roof.”
While its development – from scratch – is what Manu describes as a “fun nightmare”, he’s hopeful the space will open soon for people to enjoy.
“I’ve been in Australia 20 years. I’ve been involved in Australian’s kitchens for the last 10 to 15 years, and during that time Australia’s food scene has drastically changed when it comes to going out and food education. It’s fantastic we’ve come that far but it’s a big country and we have so much more to achieve and more knowledge to share. Because of that, I think I have a job forever,” Manu says.
“Food makes me smile, and I love that it makes other people smile when they learn a new skill or have success with a recipe. For that reason, I’m not going to stop, and I’m not going anywhere. I promise.”
This article appears in the October 2020 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.