Anna Ugarte-Carral shouldn’t be here. She should be in a village deep in Spanish Basque country, shuffling coals on a hearth and coaxing flavours from local ingredients using only searing heat and her senses. Alongside her at Asador Etxebarri, one of the world’s best restaurants, Victor Arguinzoniz, its chef, would be honing her understanding of smoke and flame, and how to use them to transform the simple into the sublime.
Instead, she’s preparing for service in a 150-year-old pub in Woolloomooloo, Sydney, anticipating the steak frites orders about to overload her docket machine. Yet in this timeworn kitchen stands one of Australia’s best young talents, who in her first role as a head chef is building a menu that gives a glimpse of the future.
Ugarte-Carral is no pub chef. And The Old Fitzroy Hotel is no ordinary pub. There’s the downstairs theatre, for starters, but the real trick here is what comes out of the kitchen. Following a precedent set by Nicholas Hill, a graduate of Sepia in Sydney and London’s The Ledbury, Ugarte-Carral has been given carte blanche to take the food in her own direction.
If Hill was a coup for the Old Fitz, Ugarte-Carral is maybe more so. After getting her degree in art history and literature at 22, she turned an interest in food into a career, landing roles at Firedoor and Hubert in Sydney and Noma in Copenhagen before settling at Momofuku Seiobo. By the time she was 27, Ugarte-Carral had taken out the Josephine Pignolet Award — Australia’s most prestigious accolade for young chefs — putting her in the conversation with such luminaries as Dan Hong, Lauren Eldridge, Daniel Puskas and Mark Best, and setting her on a path through the world’s best restaurants (her Basque heritage, in part, drew her to apply for an internship at Asador Etxebarri). But that was before the pandemic put the brakes on.
So she cooks steak frites, but she’s not half-doing it: she offers bavette and dry-aged sirloin, plus the occasional specials board of rib eyes cut to size. The rest, she says, is all her. “It’s been interesting talking to my sous-chef because it’s been a lot of ‘This is what I want to cook; this is what I want to do’.” For her second-week menu, that extends to honey bugs tossed through fregola in a bisque kissed with aioli, or figs and raw tuna served on brioche spilling over with hollandaise. As things develop, they’ll spin the upstairs rooms into more of a restaurant-proper, set brasserie-style with white tablecloths, oyster plates and custom-blown glassware.
Bright, diminutive yet with inarguable presence — chef’s whites starched, septum ring gleaming – Ugarte-Carral is the kind of cook who can quote Thomas Keller then in the same breath speak of her desire to foster a collaborative kitchen culture more suited to today. “I want everyone to feel like they can talk to me,” she says. “I don’t want to be set in stone or be like, ‘It’s my way or the highway’.”
And while she may have been schooled in fine-diners, she’s determined to take her food in a direction that celebrates simplicity and flavour. That’s something she developed herself, but it hit home with Paul Carmichael, executive chef at Momofuku. “He really drilled that into me, making sure you taste everything over and over and over again,” she says. “Cooking is about your senses, it’s not about writing on a piece of paper.” Taste the frisée that comes with her terrine and the dressing is razor-sharp to check the richness; order her house salad and vinegar emulsified with mustard finds balance with a lick of cream.
Inherent in Ugarte-Carral’s approach is a desire to strip things back until they’re the simplest version of themselves. Partly that’s in the sourcing — she avidly supports a growing network of local makers and growers — but it’s also in letting good suppliers do their thing rather than trying to bring it all in-house. “I feel like you should work with people who are as dedicated to their craft as you are and together you can elevate those ingredients,” she says. “You can’t be the best at everything.”
Ugarte-Carral foresees a future in which considered sourcing and real cooking re-enter the mainstream. Where rarity is based not on expense but on the season. “People desire something that’s more approachable or just more recognisable as food,” she says, citing the organic principles of Palisa Anderson at Boon Luck Farm near Byron Bay and the roots-first approach James Henry and Shaun Kelly are taking at Le Doyenné outside Paris, as models. “That, to me, is what the next generation of really great restaurants is going to look like. That style of cooking, it’s not super-modern, it’s really timeless. I think that’s going to be the next chapter, because that full modern cuisine of the two-thousands is well and truly done, and the Noma fancy-locavore thing has now been done the world over. It’s time, I think, for something else.”
Ugarte-Carral may not find that here, but there are flashes: sweetbreads saved from whole animals, young celery picked at its peak, Parmigiano-Reggiano from one of the last closed-loop farmsteads in Parma. Around the edges she has been running pop-ups in a collective called Ten Hats, where her interest in art and performance culminate in dining experiences featuring music, dance and nude busts moulded from butter. In it, there’s a recognition that leases end and concepts tire, but once the plates are cleared, the purity of an idea can remain. “For Ten Hats, it’s really nice to just do these things that are a moment in time,” she says. “We can’t go back to it, but in our memories it’s always going to stay that perfect little thing.”
There’s no timeline on Ugarte-Carral’s stint at the Old Fitz, but at some point, no doubt, she’ll go to finishing school in Spain. What comes after, though, remains to be seen. “If you do things you like doing, it follows that more things you like will come into your path,” she says. “I am of the opinion that if you do things you like — that you enjoy — you’re on the right track.”
The Old Fitzroy Hotel, 129 Dowling Street, Woolloomooloo, Sydney.