From a Tokoroa fish and chip shop to a spicy chicken empire, via a few stints in the world’s best kitchens and a foray into jet-setting with supermodels, chef Morgan McGlone has a backstory quite like any you’ve heard before.
The third Uber has turned back in fear without us in it. I am cosmically full of hāngī, a bit boozy, and starting to feel that it’s maybe my fault that Morgan McGlone, the New Zealand-born king of hot chicken, is stranded in Wellington’s faded, remote (for Wellington, so not actually remote at all) Shelly Bay air force base instead of out partying with his fellow Wellington on a Plate chefs. Worse still, I have cornered him and his awesome wife Trisha Greentree, a globe-hopping chef in her own right, and apparently I am now conducting an interview. I apologise to Trisha for intruding on their social time. “Not at all, I’m into it. To be honest, no one has ever told the full story.” There’s a reason for that; the story is huge and winding and sometimes feels almost too interesting to be true. I don’t know where to start and don’t know where to end but I’ll tell you this — I am utterly charmed by Morgan McGlone.
McGlone was born in Tokoroa, getting his first taste of cooking helping in his parents’ fish and chip shop before they upped sticks and moved to the Sydney burbs.
“Dad was a great cook. He’d say cook, but chef, really. He was Irish and so we ate a lot of classic old-school Irish food, but Mum was Māori/Polynesian. Hāngī is something I’d experience when we’d come home, for weddings, birthdays… tangi. Well, actually, out of maybe 10 hāngī in my childhood, probably seven of those would have been funerals. So it was more of a healing thing and also just a great a way to feed a whole lot of people. Plus it’s great the next day. There’s nothing better than a hāngī bubble ’n’ squeak with a fried egg on top.”
We are talking about hāngī because that is what has brought us to Wellington On A Plate. Morgan has been flown over for the Hiakai Hāngī, spearheaded by the rising star of Māori and New Zealand cuisine, Monique Fiso. This is no ordinary hāngī — Fiso is on a quest to elevate and celebrate hāngī like never before. The evening features things like kina velouté, the most tender, juicy pork you’ll ever see pulled out of the ground, the best taro I have ever eaten (care of the remarkable Michael Meredith), but also stunning kapa haka. Standing around a steaming mound of dirt, this feels remarkably different to any other food event I’ve attended. Sure, it’s expensive, but it is both very classy and also entirely unpretentious.
McGlone is also here for yet another Belles Hot Chicken pop-up. The Belles pop-up is a couple of days away but Sean Golding assures us that there is literally a truck of chicken arriving at his restaurant Shepherd (which is co-hosting the event along with Garage Project and Wine Diamonds) and McGlone proclaims that this year, for once, they won’t run out of chicken. On the night of the event, hundreds of people stretch from Prefab Hall down the entire length of Jessie Street, champing at the bit for the sensory experience that is extremely spicy chicken balanced with acidic, refreshing natural wines.
I tell McGlone that I brought some takeaway Belles home from his recent Auckland pop-up (seriously, this guy is poppin’ up all over the map) and scoffed it down with a bottle of Tom Shobbrook ‘Sunday’, a natural wine from the Barossa. “That’s the craziest thing because the first time I thought of the whole Belles concept was sitting on my buddy’s porch in Nashville eating Hattie B’s and we were just like, ‘This is so fucking hot, we need to drink something’. We drank pet-nat, that was fine, then we opened a bottle of Tom Shobbrook ‘Giallo’ — ya know delicious, skin-contact sauvignon blanc, and it was just ‘boom’, ya know, ‘BANG’, that fits. That’s what I wanted to do.” And thus a chicken empire was born, with the first Belles store opening in Fitzroy, Melbourne, in 2014.
There are now three, soon to be four, branches in Melbourne and another three in Sydney. McGlone tells me he has people wanting to launch Belles in Europe (including interest from his friend René Redzepi of Noma), in America and beyond. The thing that worries him: “I’m not sure there is enough natural wine production in the world to support that many Belles… Jos [Ruffell, co-owner of Garage Project] took some New Zealand conventional winemakers to Belles in Melbourne and they were a bit upset I wasn’t stocking any of their wine. But just look at the coasters under your drink: ‘Belles — Hot Chicken, Natural Wine’. It’s integral to what we do.”
McGlone returned to New Zealand as a teenager. “My parents sent me home to sort me out when I was 14, and it’s amazing how eight years of your life growing up in a place like Australia… once we moved there we were Australian, if you know what I mean. When we’d come back here I never felt more lonely. Was I still Māori?” Spending his teenage years back in New Zealand led to dreams of becoming a professional rugby player: “I was all right, but just too lazy.”
Instead of rugby, it was a return to the family trade, food. He went back to Sydney and learnt the ropes at the old-school revolving restaurant Summit, and would quickly go on to work for Luke Mangan, seemingly gaining enough experience to open his own place (he helped Mangan open White in Auckland, after all) but deciding if he wanted to be truly great, he’d need to go deeper. In 1999 McGlone headed off to be a stagiaire in the Michelin-gilded kitchens of Paris, working under the iconic, slightly scary Pierre Gagnaire. Staging is unpaid, some might say cruel work. McGlone literally lived in the restaurant, getting his prep list at 7am and toiling away in the kitchen until midnight. He spent his first month cleaning and sorting herb garnishes to rest gently upon some of the most expensive food on the planet.
McGlone’s journey then took him to New York as a private chef for a fashion photographer. Somehow this led him to become model agent, travelling the globe working with Giselle and Naomi and other first-name-only people. And this is where it gets nuts: through fashion, McGlone ended up deciding that São Paulo would be the place to go and live and get back into cooking. Of course to do this he had to learn Portuguese, which he did, and then through mutual supermodel friends he connected with Alex Atala, one of the new-school boundary-pushing masters of avant-garde fine dining. A true maverick in the kitchen.
McGlone tells me about the Atala chapter as we finally get in our Uber and head to Golding’s Free Dive for the after-party. The recording I am making on my phone gets pretty blurry at this point, as does my recollection of events. But let me say this, it is one thing to be a good, hard-working chef; it is another to seemingly stumble into the paths of the world greats time and again. Though it’s not really stumbling at that point, it’s having an instinct for cool shit.
Of course it doesn’t always work out great. McGlone was lured back from Brazil by an offer from his brother to open a place in Sydney together. The result was Flinders Inn, a highly regarded spot that while gaining all the plaudits, never quite made enough money. Eventually it shut down. I assume everything is cool with his brother. “Hmm, well it’s not the greatest… but you should never be afraid to shut a place down and move on in this industry. Things are either working or they’re not.”
Eventually McGlone decided it was time to stage again, this time heading to the States, to the kitchens of Sean Brock, who was fast becoming the most talked about chef on the planet. Brock doesn’t just cook food, he is a historian of forgotten ingredients, indigenous plants, threatened traditions. He was obviously taken with McGlone’s skills and attitude as he took him from a stagiare straight into the role of chef de cuisine for his new venture Husk Nashville. Suddenly McGlone was running a restaurant where David Chang would come to check out the new menu, where chefs from The French Laundry would come to stage. McGlone tells me they actually learnt a lot from The French Laundry chefs, with their meticulous prep (they cut, not tear, the masking tape for labelling containers in the walk-in — for some reason this cracks me up).
It was at Husk where McGlone really found his place in the culinary world. An already vastly experienced chef, friends with the likes of Alex Atala and Jamie Oliver (that’s another long and interesting story — they go way back), he was now running one of the most important kitchens in America, and also exposed daily to the cuisine that would define the next chapter of his life; southern food. One of my favourite dishes at the hāngī was McGlone’s kūmara salad — bright, fresh and sweet with maple, it sang of the south, but also of New Zealand. If you want to learn how make it, watch this episode of The Untitled Action Bronson Show. The best bit: during the outro of the show, as they dance and drink Susucaru, Bronson gives McGlone a little kiss and says “that fucking sandwich bro” — a reference to the Belles chicken sandwich.
Until very recently, Nashville hot chicken was never really seen outside of Nashville. It was invented at a place called Prince’s, where the legend goes that in the 1930s, the wife of owner Thornton Prince decided to punish him for his philandering by secretly spiking some of the fried chicken with a tonne of cayenne pepper. The punishment backfired (an appropriate word for hot chicken) and it was in fact so delicious that he opened Prince’s Hot Chicken, still run to this day by their descendants. Brock is a real champion of Prince’s and it’s telling that McGlone didn’t return to Australia wanting to cook Husk-style fine dining. The hot chicken, collard greens, pickles and mac ’n’ cheese that Belles churns out comes from a place of real love and respect for its origins, and that is why it has gone down so well.
At the hāngī after-party, Sean Golding is pulling the good stuff out from his personal supply. We are drinking an eight-year-old sour beer from Hallertau that is just incredible. Then it’s time for some unicorn beer — Cantillon, the sourest, dankest, deepest Belgian lambic beer. McGlone loves the stuff, and it fits, really — super hot chicken, properly seasoned food, acidic, exciting wine and beer. Palate busters.
I shouldn’t go out drinking with chefs, we have a WOAP event in the morning. I’m interviewing McGlone and Monique Fiso for an audience of chefs. I’m nervous because it’s chefs and chefs are kinda scary. And I’m nervous because I’m talking to two chefs of mixed Māori and Pacific Island heritage who are absolutely nailing a new approach to Māori cuisine. It’s something I know nothing about and I just don’t want to seem ignorant. Gladly they are both not at all hungover and I can just let them do most of the talking. The energy of innovative thinkers is contagious. McGlone is off to Copenhagen straight after WOAP to once again cook his chicken sandwiches for the world’s best chefs; Fiso is about to open her new restaurant in Wellington and is eagerly awaiting pūkeko season — just, you know, to find out if it’s delicious or not.
I ask McGlone if he’s had enough of the pop-ups, whether he wouldn’t rather spend some time at home in Melbourne? “Oh totally, in 2019 I’m not doing any pop-ups, I need to give myself a break from all that. Unless René asks me, of course — I mean it’s René… yeah, or Monique. I’d do anything with Monique. In fact, we’re already planning next year’s hāngī. We want to focus on female chefs. Me and Mike [Meredith] can do the sides, and maybe René, get René over to do some side dishes.”
So there you have it — the only things that will get this world-beating Irish-Māori-Australian-Kiwi chef back on the road are the world’s number one chef, or a hāngī with his mates in New Zealand.