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Out Of The Frying Pan: Dave Spanner, RBG

David Blake talks luxury yachts, abalone and Sean Penn with RBG’s Aussie head chef.

Written by . Published on July 10th 2013.

Out Of The Frying Pan: Dave Spanner, RBG

THERE are few places around the globe in which Aussie Dave Spanner hasn’t cooked something up, possibly Botswana and the deepest darkest depths of the Mariana trench.

It’s fair to say that Dave’s been around a fair bit, and it's made him one of the finest chefs across the city. Just don't ask him to name another Manchester chef... Oh and if he ever invites you over for dinner then beware the dreaded Jerusalem artichoke. Particularly if you suffer from flatuphobia… read on.

I can't stand working with fucking idiots, people who are dirty, or lazy. I can’t stand laziness or unprofessionalism. At this level of restaurant it’s not too bad because you’re at the upper end of Mancunian dining.

Hi Dave, so where have you come from?

Obviously I’m from Australia. I trained there in five star hotels, went off to Paris for nine years, then San Francisco for six, then back to Oz for a couple of years, then over to Beijing for a year. Finally I was based in Barcelona for three years and now I’m over here. I’ve been around.

Wow. Pick up any languages?

A bit here and there. I speak fluent French, a little bit of Bahasa Indonesian, I can understand Spanish having worked with a bunch of Mexicans in California - but I’m a bit lazy with my Spanish.

Where has been your favourite to live?

San Francisco. It’s a great city because I’m a surfer and I could snowboard too. There’s a very hot food scene there, great chefs and very good produce. I was in Paris last weekend doing a bit of work. That’s a fantastic city too, but you know, Paris is Paris.

San FranciscoSan Francisco: Be sure to wear flowers in your hair

So how did you end up in Manchester?

Well I came back I ended up at Livebait here and in Leeds with Richard Muir and William Rollason. That all turned out sour in the end. 

So then The Restaurant Bar and Grill approached me and I’ve been here for a year now, It’s ok, but I’m dictated to about what food I can and can’t cook. I don’t really have a blank canvass to work from. I suppose I have to be quite careful about what I say about that.

Where has been the best place to work?

Paris was fantastic, I spent nine years there and it was such a learning curve, I was a young chef working in some top top restaurants. Melbourne’s a great food city too. What I look for in a job is creativity, satisfaction, the professionalism of the kitchen and the quality of the young people coming through. I have to say that unfortunately for you guys the level of the professionalism in this country compared with Australia, if I was to be brutally honest, you’re not even in the same league. I’d say the UK is about ten years behind Oz in terms of training young chefs.

Really? Why?

Well Oz had this four year apprenticeship system; it was four years on the job with eight months spent in the classroom, learning proper butchery, proper pastry before you could even call yourself a chef. You have the City of Guilds which is a pretty good course, but for me if the young people coming into the kitchen aren’t cooking as well as we were as young chefs, or at least aren’t trying to cook as well as us, then there’ll be a knock on effect in years to come.

Restaurant Bar and GrillRestaurant Bar and Grill

Where has been the worst place you’ve worked?

I took a quick job in Adelaide when my wife was pregnant, around 2005. It was a simple Monday to Friday job, but I went from working for Beringer Blass wine estates to working for a crappy independent pub group that just wanted me to make their food better. It was a fucking nightmare mate, it was horrible. The food and quality of produce was shocking, the whole set-up was shit. Imagine the worst pub you’ve had food in…

A Harvester?

Fucking ten times worse. The guy gave me a truck load of money and I just said to him, mate you can’t pay me enough money to work here. See you later.

So what’s your favourite dish on the current menu?

It’d have to be something from the tandoor. I’ve got a very good Indian guy in there, cooking on the tandoor in the traditional way. So the tandoor monkfish for me.

What’s your favourite cut of meat?

I like working with lesser cuts of meat that really show the ability of the chef. Any fucking idiot can cook a fillet steak. So give me a pig’s head, pig’s ears, trotters, tongue, the lot - anything that takes a certain skill level and a bit of time to cook.

Snout to look at hereSnout to look at here pal

What’s your favourite dessert?

Anything with good quality 77% cacaramas chocolate. I can tell you my most hated fucking dessert, the ile flottante. It means floating island in French. It’s horrible. It’s Italian meringue rolled into quinnells, poached in sugar syrup and served in crème anglaise. It’s just wrong, wrong, wrong. People love it but I’ve never got my head around it.

And vegetable?

A Jerusalem artichoke. They cause the most amazing flatulence. They’re not even from the artichoke family so fuck knows why they call them Jerusalem artichokes.

Ah William Blake’s favourite veg. Do you eat takeaways?

I’d usually stick with an Indian because I know it’s going to be reasonably good. But for me real takeaway food comes from a street cart in Asia, I don’t go in for these dodgy donners and all that crap.

Ile flottante, or as Dave would say, 'horrible'Ile flottante, or as Dave would say, 'horrible'

So whatever do you eat on a hangover?

Three minute boiled eggs with soldiers. It has to be three minutes so that the yolks are still runny. Make sure to add fresh black cracked pepper and sea salt. Or get yourself a haggis, don’t muck around. Nasty stuff that haggis.

What’s your most useful bit of kit in the kitchen?

The Thermomix or the Pacojet. I’ve got a fantastic Inka oven actually and the tandoor’s great. But really I suppose it’s my chef knifes. I use Japanese MAC knives. Beautiful knives they are.

How very Kill Bill. Why did you become a chef?

I wanted a job which allowed me to go surfing. The good thing about being a chef is I’d come in at ten in the morning, meaning that I could get up at six and get a few hours surfing in. If I got a break in the afternoon I could pop out for another surf and come back to work for the evening shift. I also wanted a job that would allow me to travel around the world. But I suppose I was always interested in food, both of my parents are veterinary surgeons so we were always around farms and animals.

So your parents saved the lives of animals, and you cooked the dead ones?

That’s pretty much it. I was always around animals, butchers, abattoirs, going around farms with my old man. When I was a kid we had a massive property down on the south coast of Australia and grew all our own veggies. My mum and old man were both good cooks so it was kind of natural.

So what do you do for surfing around these parts?

I don’t really. The west coast of Scotland and west coast of Ireland have good waves, Cornwall and Devon isn’t too bad, but if I’m going to go surfing I head down to the south coast of France. I’ve been surfing since I was six, so I’ve kind of done it all now. I’ve spent around thirty years surfing some of the best waves in the world. Plus I’ve got a daughter now.

Machrihanish, Argyll and Bute had picked upMachrihanish in Argyll and Bute had picked up

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Passing on my knowledge to people that are interested to learn. Pushing businesses forward, helping them grow, introducing new techniques, new styles of food.

And least?

I can't stand working with fucking idiots, people who are dirty, or lazy. I can’t stand laziness or unprofessionalism. At this level of restaurant it’s not too bad because you’re at the upper end of Mancunian dining.

I do get sick of the long hours because I’ve got a kid now, but that’s part of the job. I always say to people that it doesn’t matter what you want to do, whether it’s a doctor, lawyer, chef, writer, if you want to get to the top of your field you have to put in that extra yard. I find the problem with the younger generation now is that they just want to clock up their eight hours and get home.

RBG's terraceRBG's terrace

Has it ever come to fisticuffs in the kitchen?

With me, never. Now that I’m older, although I’m still tough, I’m nothing like I was ten years ago in California. I had 28 chefs beneath me there, so I was fucking ruthless. But I had to be, it was a three star and it was my name on the line.

So which country has the most ruthless of kitchens?

Paris is pretty ruthless as you’d imagine, but the kitchens in San Francisco are the most testosterone fuelled. It’s a tough question because in any kitchen anywhere in the world you’re always going to have a certain amount of pressure. Put that many people in confined spaces with heat, and knives - well it’s a Molotov cocktail.

What has been the craziest moment of your career?

I worked for a luxury corporate yacht company called Seabourn and had 80 chefs beneath me from 52 different nationalities. That yacht carried 454 passengers and had 470 staff so you can imagine the level of service we were offering. These people had a shit load of money, I mean tremendous amounts of money. It was a minimum of two grand a day just to step on board. The pressure to deliver was pretty high.

Seabourn luxury yachtSeabourn luxury yacht... not bad

Ever wanted to pack it all in?

No not really. It’s like any job, some days you have good days and some days are bad. For me you need a positive attitude, if you’re negative then that negativity will filter on down to the kitchen and to your staff. So I come in and try to lead by example.

So what would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?

I’d probably go to University, try my hand at being a journo and write. It intrigues me. I’ve been approached a few times to step out of the kitchen and go into lecturing, but do I want to be a lecturer at 42? Not really.

I do some consultancy work, I was in Paris consulting last week actually so I quite like the idea of setting up a consultancy business. I just see so many people come into this industry with a shit load of cash and think that it’s going to be a money spinner. But they’ve got no fucking idea what they’re doing. They get lead down the wrong path by bad management. There’s a lot of vagabonds in this industry. I’d like a consultancy to show these people the right way to go about opening a restaurant.

Paris: RuthlessParis: Ruthless

How do you spend your days off?

I garden. I grow vegetables, fruits, herbs. I mostly totter around my garden and spend time with my daughter. I also try to read a lot, stay on top of what’s going on in the industry.

Do you have any favourite chefs in Manchester?

If I was to be honest, I don’t know a great deal of chefs here. I like John’s food at Teacup (John Farrer's now moved to Kukoos on Oxford Road) and I ate in Australasia last night, which was excellent. But I don’t really keep an eye out for what’s going on around the Manchester food scene. I tend to look further afield, about what’s going on in Paris, London, Melbourne or San Fran. I’ve only been in Manchester for around a year and a half, the food scene here is getting better but in general I still see a lot of sub-standard restaurants. These guys do it pretty well (RBG) and Living Ventures tend to do it very well - but there is still a lot of shit around.

You guys actually made a big mistake by letting a chef called Paul Kitching leave the city. Paul went up to Edinburgh to open 21212, he’s crazy, the stuff he does is not everyone’s cup of tea but he got his star up there and he’s doing very well. I don’t think he had the right support or following here in Manchester.

Who are your favourite chefs worldwide?

I drew a lot of inspiration from Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in California. There’s also a chef in California called Michael Meehan who cooks really really beautiful food, as does Thomas Weibull, he’s a very talented chef.

Thomas KellerThomas Keller

Aren’t these all in California though?

Well there’s a guy up in the Scottish Borders called Stuart Clink, we worked together in Edinburgh, I think his restaurant is called Peebles; he was awarded the Michelin Bib Gourmand which he very much deserved. There’s also Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles, Martin Wishart back in Edinburgh, they cook wonderful food. Edinburgh’s got loads actually.

Is it true that chefs don’t like to cook at home?

Not really, I mean if you spend 75 hours a week cooking at work then of course the last thing you want to do when you get home is cook. If we’ve got friends over I’ll try cook something special up, but if I’m just cooking for my wife and I then it tends to be pretty simple and easy food. An organic free-range roasted chicken with cooked vegetables - you really can’t beat it can you?

What if you had to eat one thing for the rest of your life?

Sashimi tuna. It’s Bluefin tuna from South Australia. Or abalone, that’s a mollusc. There you go, that’ll get your readers asking what the fuck is that. Just like the Jerusalem artichoke.

The dreaded Jerusalem artichokeThe dreaded Jerusalem artichoke

And to wash it all down?

You can’t really go wrong with a Sancerre Pouilly-Fumé. I used to drink a lot of red but as I’ve got older my palette’s now more involved with white. I had an amazing d’Arenberg from the McLaren Vale winery last night with dinner.

What’s the most complex dish you’ve ever had to cook up?

I did a torchon of pigs head stuffed with veal tongue. Basically I took the whole of the head apart and cured it in a brown sugar and malt vinegar solution for 24 hours. Then I got some organic veal tongues from Western Australia, poached the veal tongues, torchoned the outside of the pigs head and the veal tongue inside and then poached it again. It was quite a full-on dish. That was in the Barossa Valley for the Foster’s International CEO Ted Kunkle’s retirement dinner. It was a seven course dinner.

Ever cooked for anyone particularly famous?

Sean Penn in San Francisco, he lives there. Lovely fella but there’s no bullshit with him. I cooked for Elle Macpherson years ago now. I’ve also cooked for quite a few footballers around these parts, but to be honest, who gives a shit.

Hugo Chavez (something) The Falklands (something) Fidel CastroRight, where shall I stick my big nose into next? Ah yes, The Falklands...

What is your proudest achievement to date?

My daughter. But professionally, the three stars in California, one hat in Melbourne, four rosettes up in Scotland. The star system is graded differently in California, so three stars is equivalent to about one and a half Michelin here. But that was for a restaurant that was thumping, a massive operation, on a Friday we’d do 700-800 people. Three stars was as far as I could take that place.

Then again I don’t chase stars; I never got into it for that. If I get one then great, but I won’t get one here (RBG), I have no free rein on the menu and it’s not the type of place that Michelin would consider. A lot of chefs including myself look to the San Pellegrino awards over Michelin, look at what’s going on in the top 100 restaurants in the world.

So Michelin’s not the be all and end all?

Well I suppose it is. Michelin still sets the standard, it’s what most chefs are working towards. The stars are the pinnacle; they can look back and say hey I’ve made it. But that’s if you set yourself out with those goals. I never have.

My outlook was that if I wanted to be a good chef and well paid, then I needed to try and be better than everybody else who I was working with. That’s why I went to Paris as a young man, why I went to California, Barcelona, and Beijing, the reason I worked on the luxury yachts. To pick up new knowledge, gain new skills, always trying to get better.

What are your aspirations for the future?

Open my own place probably, maybe here, maybe not. We’ve got passports across Britain, Australia, Spain and America. For schooling reasons I’ll probably stay in the UK for the next couple of years until my daughter is ready to move on, then it’s Spain, America or Australia.

Personally I’d go back to Australia in a second. It’s a great place but it’s just so fucking far from everywhere. I’ve got a sister in London, best friends in the UK, friends in Paris, some in Singapore, friends all over the world. Manchester’s a great city, a bit small for my liking but the food is getting better, definitely. I’d consider staying in the UK if you had any kind of fucking summer.

Follow David Blake on twitter.

14 John Daiton StreetManchester, M2 6JR. 0161 839 5511.

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6 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

food for thoughtJuly 10th 2013.

Ile flottante are poached in milk not in syrup.

1 Response: Reply To This...
StephJuly 10th 2013.

They can be poached in either, thought they tend to be easier to do in water rather than milk.

Simon TurnerJuly 13th 2013.

Seems unhappy in his job.

AnonymousJuly 14th 2013.

I don't think I've ever read an interview where a chef is so down on his own restaurant.. im sensing he will be departing soon...

Rob WalmsleyJuly 16th 2013.

Haha best interview ever! I do believe Mr Spanner isn't with RBG now, wonder why?

AnonymousSeptember 10th 2013.

what a prick!

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