John Rivera: “My dish represents who I am and where I’m from”
John Rivera, chef de partie from Restaurant Amaru in Armadale, Melbourne, Australia, was voted best young chef in the Pacific by unanimous decision from a professional chef jury, based on his Filipino dish “sinigang.”
Despite his young 23 years the chef de partie has already managed to rack up plenty of formative training in Australia. He counts four years of professional experience working in Australia’s fine dining scene, including stints at restaurants Lume and Attica in Melbourne, plus Dan Hunter’s Brae in Birregurra.
Through his winning dish, Rivera articulates his cultural heritage, which so impressed the judges in the first round of competitive cooking. He will further refine and perfect his presentation under professional mentor chef Scott Pickett, righ tup until he faces the Seven Sages at the Grand Finale.
We caught up with John ahead of the final competition countdown to find out more about his motivations and what this competition means to him. Here’s what he had to say:
1. Please describe your signature dish, and explain why you choose this dish over any other?
My signature dish is a re-interpretation of a Filipino hot and sour soup called “sinigang”. It’s a very humble yet popular dish, to Filipinos of all ages it’s comfort food.
Growing up as an immigrant overseas (New Zealand and Australia), our family used food as a way to connect to our Filipino roots and culture but being in a foreign land, we often had to adjust our sinigang to the ingredients that were available in the region.
This was my inspiration for choosing this dish. How can I find a dish and a story that represents who I am and at the same time represent the wider Pacific region. This is my singing made with the cultural influences of my upbringing and the cooking techniques I’ve learned along the way.
John Rivera signature dish ‘Sinigang’
2. What made you become a chef?
From an early age, I had an interest in cooking and food. Firstly, I love to eat! Food, for me, is more than just fuel or nourishment for the body but it also brings about the most joyous celebrations and memories with friends and family.
But what I think really made me want to become a chef was the fact that my parents both weren’t very good cooks, nor were they very adventurous with their food.
3. Who has influenced you in your career?
Shaun Quade of Restaurant Lûmé and Clinton McIver of Amaru have played massive roles in my career so far.
Working under Shaun for 2 years, he really taught not just how to cook and run a section, but he also fed and encouraged my creativity to find my own cooking style and mentored me in how to run a kitchen and business.
Clinton is an entrepreneur with a hustler’s mindset and an amazing culinary mind. I feed off this man’s energy - he’s one of the most hardworking chefs in the game! He’s really taught me how to balance food and instilled a great interest in wine and beverages to round out the restaurant experience.
4. Where do you see yourself in 5/10 years time?
In 10 years’ time, I would definitely like to own and run a fine dining restaurant of my own in Melbourne, Australia.
In that time, I would also like to promote Filipino culture and further modern Filipino cuisine, and in the process, create a network of like minded individuals to take our cuisine and ideas forward.
5. How are you/will you collaborate with your mentor in order to perfect your dish for the Grand Finale?
Scott Pickett has been an amazing mentor. He possesses a well of knowledge and wisdom that I’m constantly trying to pick at.
I’m very fortunate that we are both based here in Melbourne, because it means we can work very closely on refining and perfecting the dish to present to Milan. Every fortnight, we will be in his kitchen at ESP tinkering with the components of the dish, breaking it down and trialing different techniques until we find something that’s perfect.
6. What is the most exciting/challenging element of the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition for you?
The most exciting part for me is being able to form great relationships with young, like minded and talented individuals from around the globe.
Camaraderie makes the whole experience enjoyable. Yes, in the end of the day, it would be amazing to walk out with the title, but it’s equally as rewarding to share ideas and learn from each other and create great friendships along the way.
7. Why do you think you can win the S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018 title?
I think I can win the SPYC 2018 title because my signature dish is a exact representation of who I am and where I’m from.
My passion, intensity, culture, personality, upbringing and training is evident in every mouthful.
This dish will be the oddball of the competition, both in flavour and technique, and hopefully that’ll give me a competitive advantage.
8. If you weren’t a chef what would you be?
If I weren’t a chef, I would be a pilot. I love flying and airplanes, but the silly thing is, I’m deathly afraid of heights!
9. What’s your most memorable food experience?
My most memorable food experience was when my cousin and I set up a boodle fight for a family reunion in San Francisco last year.
A boodle fight is a Filipino eating trend right now where the table is lined with banana leaves and there is no cutlery, instead you practice “kamayan”, which means “use your hands”. The rice and the “ulam” or main dishes are all arranged in the centre of the table and the group gathers around the table to eat from the communal offering. This traces back to the military eating practices of the Philippines and has now become part of mainstream culture.
We have a massive family, so we laid out about 4 tables end to end. My cousin and I cooked nostalgic Filipino dishes, treats and delicacies and the whole family gathered around the table to share a meal together in the sunset of the California summer.
There was heaps of laughter and stories, and it was the only time all of my family could actually eat at the same time. I will never forget this day and I will treasure it because I’m unsure as to whether it can happen ever again.
10. What do you like to do in your free time?
I’m a very simple guy in my free time. I love to spend time with my girlfriend and our families, not even doing anything special necessarily, but just enjoying each other’s presence because ever since working crazy hospitality hours, I’m hardly home when they are.
I also frequent the church, as I’m quite religious.