What are your earliest memories of food? "My [maternal] grandmother was a thrifty cook. She made jams, cakes, and she would make use of all the leftovers. She had strong hands and never used machines. Her thumbs wouldn't straighten from working with dough so much. We'd come home from school and there'd be a whole apple pie for us. She'd have a tin of meringues by the oven to keep them dry and I would steal them. I always enjoyed food as a kid."
How did you get into cooking as a career? "In my last year of high school I worked in a kitchen in a resort in Western Australia. One night we ran out of bearnaise sauce and the chef said I had to make it. He showed me how and it was at that moment that I tasted it and went, 'Wow! It's so delicious!' It was a light-bulb moment and I thought it would be a good lifestyle because I could work and surf - I didn't really know the full implications. After that I did some apprenticeships, working 80 to 90 hours a week for very little money, but I loved it. I didn't study hard in school - I had more fun than I should have but, luckily, I found something or it found me. I've been cooking since I was 18, so for 22 years."
What took you to London? "I was born in England and my family immigrated to Australia when I was five years old. London is the destination for Australian chefs. We all go there and do our two years, but for me it turned out to be 13. I worked at the Michelin-starred River Café for 4½ years and that's where I met my good friend Jamie Oliver. I was 25 at the time, he was 21 and looked like he was just out of school. He was really funny and cheeky, just like he is on TV, down to earth, and it was great fun working together. He got famous with [BBC cooking programme] The Naked Chef and I helped him with his cookbooks. Then his agent asked me to be on their books and I thought, 'Why not?' and started doing a bit of TV work. Jamie and I opened a restaurant together called Monte's, which we ran for 2½ years. Then he opened Fifteen and I went to the Atlantic Bar & Grill, run by Oliver Peyton. My TV career started with the BBC and then took off with Surfing the Menu. I like being on TV because, in the restaurant, we were doing modern Italian and being on TV allowed me to explore food I like to eat and cook at home, more Asian-inspired. It was nice not being in a hot kitchen, screaming at people."
Have you ever had any mishaps while filming? "One time in New Zealand we were cooking and every time we stopped, we would be attacked by sandflies. As long as you kept moving you were OK, but when you're filming you need to be still. I ended up getting a really bad allergic reaction. The doctor gave me antihistamines and steroid cream to get the swelling down, but [it made me] fall asleep. It was hard to be happy and vibrant. That lasted for a week. Then we went to a wasabi farm in Christchurch and they had stinging nettles and, next to them, were dock leaves, which take the nettles' sting away. So I took some, pounded them with a mortar and pestle and rubbed them all over my swollen hands and the swelling disappeared."
You've been quoted as saying cooking is 50 per cent confidence, 40 per cent passion and 10 per cent technique. Can you explain? "Confidence is major. If you feel positive, cooking works. Or maybe it doesn't work but you see through it. From a professional point of view, you need to have passion to succeed, and with confidence comes more passion. Some of the best food is simple so you don't need to be that technical. Some food these days is overmanipulated. When you have good produce, simple cooking techniques give you a better result. That's why Japanese food is so brilliant; it's about subtleties, purity. Good Cantonese is simple, too."
Tell us about Billykart Kitchen, the Brisbane restaurant you co-own with your wife, Dee. "I used to have the South Bank Surf Club but got out because my partners and I weren't on the same page. I saw this as an opportunity for my wife and me to work together. She had worked in hospitality, having opened David Thompson's Nahm restaurant, in London. We wanted to do our own style of food and service, and have a job that gave us some work/life balance because we have three kids. There was a corner store in Annerley owned by an old Chinese lady. I asked her if she'd sell and she kept saying no. Then a month later her mother got sick in China and she sold the lease to me, including all the stock, like chocolate, ice cream, coke, cereal, that was so out of date we had to throw them out, except for the 5,000 cigarettes I sold back to her supplier. The building is a 1940s corner store for the neighbourhood, where army servicemen resettled after the war. We turned it into a café that seats 80. We serve breakfast and lunch, along with milk and pastries. We called it Billykart because children used to ride their billykarts from the top of the hill and their ride would end up near where the shop is now. We expanded last November to South Brisbane, with Billykart West End. Everything we make for the restaurant - jams, sauces, pasta sauce, pastries - is sold at the store, along with salami, bread and wine."
What's it like working with your wife? "She's the boss and I do what I'm told. She's the organised one. We're both committed to the same cause and know the other person's got our back."
Would you like your children to get into the business? "They're 13, 10 and eight. Ultimately, the goal is to get them working in the restaurant to lower our labour costs [laughs]. Children should learn to work at an early age. My daughter has done a few shifts and my sons wipe down tables but, when they are older, one wants to work the bar and one in the kitchen. My daughter is a bit of a princess - she doesn't like to clear plates; she's more of a hostess."
What do you like to do when you're not cooking? "I love fishing and surfing, and recently took up kite surfing. You first learn how to fly a kite and you can get pulled into the air several metres up. Then you introduce a surfboard and it's pretty hair-raising. It's hard because restaurants are getting in the way of my leisure activities."