St Ali’s Andy Hearnden talks upscale café cuisine

Chef Andy Hearnden, St Ali

“Food’s always been a big part of my life”, says chef, Andy Hearnden. As the executive chef for Melbourne café trailblazer, St Ali, Hearnden turns out an eclectic all-day menu while also overseeing the brand’s expansion into Asia with a Jakarta pop-up and a (soon to be launched) Bali venue.

I’m sitting with Kiwi-born Hearnden in Singapore where he was doing a short stint as guest chef for the popular Rabbit Carrot Gun – a dining venue well-known for its contemporary and inventive takes on café dining.

“My mother was an amazing baker and my family own the largest poultry farm in New Zealand, so (in a way) I guess you could say food is in the blood.”

Hearnden says his career really got going when he decided to move to London and scored a gig under Michelin-starred chef, Tom Aikins at his Chelsea-based brasserie, Tom’s Kitchen. Hearnden says that his experience of working with Aikins was his career crucible: “I learnt French techniques, the terms … I got my arse kicked.”

He learned fast because after a few arse kickings and at the relatively tender age of 23, Hearnden took up his first head chef position at The Great Eastern Dining Room in Shoreditch.

Hearnden says his time in London helped him establish his relaxed yet refined cooking style and sowed the seeds of what he now plates up at St Ali where his food focuses on sustainable produce and bold flavoured dishes designed to be shared.

“I don’t like to interfere with the produce too much, but it needs to be technically correct. The words local and sustainable are thrown about so much these days but the reality is most of us live in large, spread out cities – we don’t have peas growing three minutes from our doors. I’m obsessed with ways to solve that.”

Hearnden’s obsession takes him on regular trips to farms outside Melbourne and throughout Indonesia for St Ali’s Indonesian operations to hunt down the best produce and form close relations with suppliers.

“I recently took part in the first truffle hunt of the season (near Melbourne) – that was fun.”

St Ali’s recent expansion into Asia sees the café group; owned by (Salvatore Malatesta), bring modern Australian café culture to the steamy tropics. The group’s St Ali in Seminyak, Bali, opens in early 2017.

As part of his work with Rabbit Carrot Gun in Singapore, Hearnden’s task has been to update the venue’s thoroughly inventive take on traditional British fare.

“British food has come so far and the guys here are producing best in show dishes. There’s so much you can work with in Asia and the tropics, both in terms of fresh produce and flavours, so we’ve cut down the menu choices but upped the variety. We’ve looked at what makes contemporary British dining so good and doubled down on it, it’s very much like modern Australian in some ways.”

We sit down to try some new creations. An acai smoothie bowl is wonderfully fresh while Hearden’s take on the use of the humble beetroot wins the day. A stacked salad of parboiled, shredded beetroot with fresh dill, pumpkin seeds, sprouts and a zesty dressing – it’s everything you’d hope a vegetarian burger to be but never quite delivers. It’s bold, filling, expertly layered and full of flavour. Who needs the buns – does it still count as vegetarian given how tasty it is? Maybe not.

Daniel James

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