The Weekend Australian Magazine Hottest Chef of 2016 isn’t slowing down: Clayton Wells has launched Blackwattle, his first venture in Asia together with Unlisted Collection, a 60-seat space serving contemporary Australian cuisine. This marks Wells’s third collaboration with the F&B group’s founder and director Loh Lik Peng, following Viajante in London’s Town Hall Hotel in 2010 and Automata in Sydney in 2015.
We caught up with the Blackwattle’s executive chef for a chat in his new home in town.
Besides the Unlisted connection, why was Singapore selected to set up Blackwattle?
We’ve been traveling here a lot over the years, and we’ve always found it an exciting city to come to eat and drink and hang out with friends. There’s a family connection here as well: My girlfriend’s brother lives here. And since Viajante, Lik Peng and I kept in touch, and then the opportunity [to launch Blackwattle] arose and I came over here and had a look [at the Amoy Street location] and it felt really good, it’s such a great area to be in — there’s Burnt Ends, Meat Smith, Cheek by Jowl, Le Quinze Vins in the neighbourhood — it’s perfect, and there’s a lot going on during the day as well, it’s quite diverse in terms of bars and restaurants.
You’ll still be running Automata in Sydney, so how often will you be in Blackwattle?
I’m planning to be here a week out of every month, depending on my schedule, but definitely as much as possible.
Tell us more about why you named this restaurant after the black wattle tree.
When the plant is flowering in Australia, it gives off a strong, distinct smell, and it’s my favourite smell in spring — you know it’s spring and you know where you are, it provides a sense of place. And Blackwattle Bay is about 1km away from where Automata is in Chippendale, Sydney, so that’s the dual reason we chose this name, and it fit in perfectly with opening something here and having that connection to home.
So did the plant influence the restaurant’s menu in any way?
Not really — we created this style based on what we do in Australia — contemporary Australian cooking, which is quite diverse. I think the main thing we wanna do here is we want to understand the ingredients available locally and that will shape the way we proceed here — going to the markets in the mornings and being inspired and excited by the different ingredients is important for us. We do that in Australia when new things come around and we jump on them, and here there are a lot of ingredients we’ve not used in our food before.
What’s keeping you inspired in Singapore?
We try to eat out as much as possible — definitely the late-night crab spots and Szechuan places — there’s always something new. As someone from Australia, going to local markets and hawker centres and finding new things inspires my cooking and inspires me to wanna come here more as well.
How is Blackwattle’s menu different from Automata’s?
The style of food is similar, but the ingredients are dictating what we do. We’ve added a la carte into our menu format here, which is something we don’t do in Australia, where we offer only a set menu of five courses. Here we have the five-course menu plus a la carte, and the latter gives us the chance to use other ingredients we might not be able to get a lot of when we want to use them, so it gives us more freedom to create new items.
Any difficulty in sourcing for ingredients?
There are a few ingredients we’re using from Australia at the moment, such as Fremantle octopus. There are particular items that I think are superior; I haven’t seen any local octopus as yet. But I’ll use such ingredients only if I think it’s going to give us a good representation of our food. And there are a few interesting items you might not find here or in the region that we want to showcase, such as Cloudy Bay clams from New Zealand. I won’t be using only produce from Australia, but we’re still learning what’s available in the vicinity. Understanding supply chain is probably something we’ll be learning over the next few months.
The decor in Blackwattle appears to bear a strong steampunk influence…
Matt Machine (Matt Darwon) is my architect, he’s a custom motorcycle builder who does a lot of steelwork. And a couple of interesting items we got from the Rag and Bone Man (Paul Firbank) in East London. If you do to a couple of Unlisted restaurants you’ll notice his pieces around. I’ve got a giant chandelier in the upstairs dining room in Automata that Paul made from an aircraft engine, it’s a centerpiece in our restaurant and we almost designed the space around that, so we have lots of steel and timber, but it’s definitely been softened by the furnishings and other elements in the room, so it doesn’t seem like you’re sitting in a workshop. When we were designing Blackwattle we had to understand the building and natural light, as it’s a shophouse that’s long and narrow. I wanted to maximise the downstairs space without having people feeling they’re sitting on top of one another, so that’s why we have the banquettes. I wanted Blackwattle’s interiors to be a bit soft, fun, moody, rock ‘n’ roll.
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