Interview: Christopher Whitehead, Palings Kitchen & Bar

By Mariam Digges

Christopher Whitehead, former head chef of the now closed Mad Cow, is heading up Merivale’s newest dining venue, Palings Kitchen & Bar. He lets us in on what to expect at this new high-end Sydney food hall.

What can diners expect at the new Palings?

A relaxed, friendly welcome, with the option of sitting inside or outside, to be served – or serve themselves.

There are a few different things on offer here, from baked goods to a deli to Thai street food to home-cookery style food. Can you talk me through the concept as a whole?

Justin Hemmes’ idea was to have food you love to eat, with an on quality and freshness. We are lucky that we have Lorraine Godsmark producing the cakes and desserts for us. Lorraine is without doubt, one of the best pastry chefs in the country. Wii, who was chef at Sailor’s Thai at ivy, has come downstairs to produce tasty, affordable Thai street food. And Palings Kitchen itself produces a range of deli items – from charcuterie and sandwiches, to salads, grills from our new wood-fired grill. We like the idea of diners sharing dishes, so all the dishes are able to be shared… or not, if that’s what the diner would prefer.

Do you think that Sydney was missing a successful food hall concept?

I think the ability to have a range of different food offerings, without the crush of queuing for your food, and sitting in an extremely pleasant open air environment, makes for a very enjoyable experience.

What were the motivations behind paring back this site from what it formerly was, and making it a more relaxed vibe?

I see Palings as the future of main-bar dining. What was once seen as an expensive, somewhat alienating space, has been turned into a casual, relaxed space that is not a bar and not a restaurant. It is like sitting on a friend’s verandah, enjoying food you love to eat, and a glass or two of a great wines, beers and cocktails. Overall, diners today are looking to eat out more often, but do not want to spend as much as they may have in the past.

What other considerations, given the tough times some restaurateurs are experiencing, were taken when planning Palings?

Given the support and encouragement of Justin and Merivale as a whole, we were told to produce food at a very affordable price – but with a commitment to quality and freshness. I am in the lucky situation of having the support of a large company behind this project, and I am fully aware that other smaller operators are finding it extremely challenging in these times. I think if you offer quality, variety, freshness at a great price, you will do well.

Where is the produce at Palings sourced?

My idea was to keep the food local, sustainable, and organic, as much as possible. Our deli meats are made by Salumi Australia, an artisan smallgoods manufacturer from Bryon Bay, who only use Kurobuta Berkshire Pork and Bangalow Sweet Pork. Our bread is from Iggy’s Sourdough and Sonoma Baking Company in Alexandria. Our butter is hand-churned butter from Pepe Saya in Tempe. We try to source locally caught fish where possible from Martins Seafoods. We use the best producers of grass-fed meat in Australia (Cape Grim in Tasmania) and wagyu (David Blackmore in Victoria. We try to use fresh produce from the Sydney food bowl, sourced by the Parisi family. The nuts used in our pastries are all-Australian, from The Nut Shop.

How did this project differ for you from previous ones, and how did you find the transition from fine dining?

Palings is a much larger operation than Mad Cow. We had to expand and open up the kitchen, and employ more staff. Mad Cow was committed to serving the best steaks from the best producers in the country. The emphasis on quality has not changed – just the relaxed environment and taking a more simple approach to presenting the food. 

What can’t we leave Palings without trying?

For me, the David Blackmore Wagyu skirt steak is not only the best wagyu in Australia, it is the best beef in the world. It is an example of a steak that we were proud to cook at Mad Cow, but we have now re-invented the dish in terms of how it is served with a baked, stuffed red capsicum and a spicy pebre sauce (coriander, jalapeno chilli, shallots, garlic and oil).

What’s on offer at Palings during March into Merivale?

We are offering a fantastic flank steak from Ranger’s Valley from the northern tablelands of NSW, with our homemade barbeque sauce. We’re also offering two courses – a choice of our roast of the day, or pan-fried fish, or a salad and one of Lorraine’s amazing desserts.

How are you tailoring to this year’s theme: You Are What You Eat?

My food of choice this year was peaches – but they are unfortunately about of go out of season. A ripe white peach is my favourite food of all time. We are hosting an “Ask the Butcher” dinner with Anthony Puharich from Vics meat, one of our main meat suppliers. I have known Anthony for nearly 20 years, and it’s going to be great fun hosting a dinner with him. We are featuring a lot of meat (naturally), including charcuterie, roasts, lots of vegetables and desserts by Lorraine. Who wouldn’t love to eat that?

Palings is located on Level 1, ivy: 330 George Street, Sydney, 2000



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