What are your earliest memories of food? “I’m from a middle-class family, a large family of seven boys, and my mum was a good cook, making comfort food: trifles, stews and soups. School didn’t agree with me and I had to fall into some­thing. Cooking with mum was a good way to get into it.”

Why didn’t school agree with you? “I couldn’t sit still, I was disruptive. But it was the best thing that happened to me; I don’t think I’d be here now if I hadn’t been kicked out of school. I did a four-year apprentice­ship at a restaurant in Melbourne called Two Faces. Then I went to Europe and worked with the Roux brothers at Waterside Inn, a three-star Michelin restaurant.”

An audience with Michel Roux

Why did you want to work for Michel Roux?“I was 20 in 1990, when I finished my apprentice­ship, and Roux had been in Australia with the brothers’ latest book, The Roux Brothers on Patisserie. I loved the book so much – I loved desserts and I wanted to be a pastry chef so I could eat them. So I wrote to him and he replied saying there was a two-year wait list. I was very cocky in those days and I rang the restaurant, got through to the kitchen and Mr Roux picked up the phone. He said sorry there’s a two-year wait list. I quickly said what if I come over and work for you for no pay, and if I’m any good you give me a job. He said come anytime you want. I went over about a week later and, after a month, he offered me a job. I stayed for almost three years. I am very lucky to keep in touch. He cooked for my 40th birthday in his little house in the south of France.”

How did you meet Richard Branson? “I opened Salt in Sydney [in 1999] and in 2002 some English guys were eating in the restaurant and they wanted to see me. They had a fantastic meal and said their boss was coming next month and could they get my contact details. They said their boss was Richard Branson and I said, ‘Yeah, right!’ About a month later he rang and said, ‘Luke, it’s Richard Branson,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, sure’, thinking it was one of my staff playing a trick but it really was him and he wanted a table for lunch. He enjoyed that and at about 8pm he calls and wants to come for dinner that night. I cooked for him and then he asked me out for drinks after. He asked me if I’d go to his island in the Caribbean and cook for a few weeks and would I consider doing his food for Virgin Atlantic. So I went to Necker Island and took four staff. In the end, I hardly cooked – he wanted me to enjoy the island and we talked food and business.”

So, what’s he like? “Richard clearly listened to his staff when they came in and enjoyed the food. He had a lunch and dinner, and we got on very well. I’m pretty relaxed and casual. We’re quite similar in that way and we like to deliver a good product. On Necker Island I learned how to water ski, wakeboard, and I beat him in tennis. It was quite surreal.”

How do you ensure the quality of your food on planes? “We look after business class on Virgin Australia. I like a challenge and we try to put restau­rant-quality food in the air. A lot of the dishes we do are served in our restaurants. We have a big warehouse in central Sydney where we have a test kitchen with airline ovens. This kitchen tests all our food for all 19 restaurants we have around the world, including the airline food. Nothing leaves that kitchen until it’s perfected.”

I don’t follow trends, like foams, powders. I have a foundation of good, honest French cooking and use great Australian produce, and we evolve in that style

You also serve food on the Eastern & Oriental Express and on P&O cruise ships. “To me, having a restaurant on a cruise ship, on a train, on a plane, we should be able to deliver the same food in every outlet. On a cruise ship we have our own kitchen, our chefs. It’s no different from on land, though we might have even fresher produce on cruise ships. On the train it’s similar to plane food. The galley is quite small, so it’s reheating and adding garnishes and sauces. I don’t follow trends, like foams, powders. I have a foundation of good, honest French cooking and use great Australian produce, and we evolve in that style.”

What do you do when you’re not working? “I love movies. My favourite of all time is It’s a Wonderful Life [1946] with Jimmy Stewart. When I’m watching a movie on a plane I can switch off – there’s no phone, no distractions.”

Italian-American chef’s cookbook of sophisticated recipes from his Del Posto restaurant in New York

What are your favourite restaurants? “I was in New York in September and went to Mario Batali’s Del Posto. I’d been there 10 years ago, but this particular night he got 10 friends together and we were in the private room. The setting, the music, the food and wine and the company were perfect. It made me realise why I got into the business. You don’t often get it as perfect as that. In Sydney, I like Sean’s Panaroma, in North Bondi, amazing, simple and well-executed food. For Asian, I like China Doll for their great sashimi and dumplings. I like food Peter Doyle does at est., and Restaurant Hubert is really good. Again, simplicity and the detail are so important.”