When Dublin-born chef Colin Fassnidge landed in Sydney in 1999, the city wasn’t ready for his adventurous nose-to-tail cooking philosophy.
“I just did food that I liked, but not everyone else necessarily did,” says the outspoken Irishman as we sit downin his two-hatted Paddington restaurant, the Four In Hand. Here, it’s common to see bold Irish ingredients such as pig’s ears and marrow feature on the menu, juxtaposed beside lighter, more contemporary dishes like fennel custard and tuna sashimi.
“But obviously, we have our market now, and they do like it. So I mean, it’s horses for courses you know; we just stuck to what we did… it took a while, but we got there.”
One of the city’s first fine dining gastro pubs, the Four in Hand is one of two hatted restaurants run by Fassnidge and his business partner, Joe Saleh – the other, a trendy inner city diner named 4Fourteen. A labour of love inspired by a small pizza joint in San Francisco, where chefs passed dishes directly over the counter to patrons, 4Fourteen is the restaurant that Fassnidge always wanted to open.
“This was ten years ago and Sydney was still all fine dining, dust and foam – you know, all that molecular crap. And I didn’t have the money to do 4Fourteen yet,” acknowledges Fassnidge.
It was this signature hardnosed ethos that caught the attention of producers of reality cooking series, My Kitchen Rules.
“I was a bit conflicted. They offered me the job [of guest judge], and I wasn’t sure I was going to take it,” he recalls. “They were a bit bemused by that, but I was already quite busy, and we’d just opened 4Fourteen.”
After some reflection on the tough year in the local restaurant industry, Fassnidge changed his tune.
“You’ve got to keep doing stuff to keep your name out there. And I’m still paying off 4Fourteen. So I mean, you can sit on your laurels and your little high mountain, but you’ve still got to pay the bills.”
Fassnidge’s one proviso before appearing on the show was that he would at some stage be seen in his chef’s whites, which is how the top-secret TV offshoot, Comeback Kitchen – filmed in his own restaurant – eventuated
“I wanted to be true to what I do,” he says, pointing to his uniform, which is stained with a motley palette of pulps and oils. “I’m cooking in here today, you know what I mean? I want to be seen for that.”
A perfectionist by nature, the 39-year-old father of two attributes his unflinching work ethic to the chefs he learned under – namely, renowned French chef Raymond Blanc, and famous British hothead Gordon Ramsay. But it was his friend, New-Zealand born Justin North (of the now closed Sydney Becasse restaurant), who was responsible for Fassnidge’s relocation Down Under.
“Justin and I were friends in Oxford. He asked me over for a holiday, and I just never left.”
Living in the beachside suburb of Malabar in Sydney’s southeast, the chef admits that the sea is not only good for his head, but also for stocking up his pantry.
“If we want seaweed, we go to the beach – not because it’s trendy, but because the guy will charge me $60 for a box, and I know where to get it in Malabar for free. Same goes for Warrigal greens – we pick them in Clovelly on the way to work. And we’ve also got beehives on the roof at the Four in Hand.”
While Fassnidge knows that this is hardly enough to sustain the whole restaurant, he says it comes down to “doing these little projects just to keep us happy.”