The Pot Calls Chef Emma McCaskill Back

Former Magill Estate head chef Emma McCaskill is calling a “neighbourhood restaurant” home after many years working in some of the world’s most acclaimed kitchens.

The little suburban restaurant in question isn’t any old place, though. It is The Pot, the eatery that kick-started Simon Kardachi’s restaurant empire some 18 years ago. A King William Road fixture since then, it has evolved over that journey with style and name changes (it was originally known as The Melting Pot) while plenty of acclaimed chefs have walked through its doors, including Adam Liston (who recently returned to Adelaide after a decade away). Of recent times, however, the small eatery has been overshadowed by Kardachi’s star new restaurants Osteria Oggi and Shōbōsho as well as the ever-reliable Waymouth Street favourite Press Food and Wine.

McCaskill left Magill Estate last December and looked at 50 to 60 sites to go it alone after working with her partner Scott Huggins for four years as the co-head chefs of Magill Estate. The couple took the fine-dining restaurant to great heights — including the top 10 of Gourmet Traveller’s Restaurant Guide Top 100 — while overseeing the menu for the launch of the more casual Magill Estate Kitchen in 2015.

“I think this [The Pot’s menu] is in-between the Magill Estate Kitchen and the [Magill Estate] Restaurant,” McCaskill says of the food she serves at The Pot. “It’s like the [Magill Estate] Restaurant dishes but pared back.”

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Under McCaskill, The Pot is evolving once again with a name change (The Pot by Emma McCaskill), a refurbishment by Studio Gram, a new kitchen and, of course, a new menu.

“The menu’s mine and we’re coming together on everything else,” she says of the partnership with Kardachi. “This was his first restaurant. He’s had this for 18 years. This is his baby.”

On paper, the coming together of Kardachi and McCaskill is a no-brainer. One of this city’s most successful restaurateurs is now joined by a chef with an incredibly impressive CV, as McCaskill has worked under internationally acclaimed chefs such as Sat Bains, Yoshihiro Narisawa and Tetsuya Wakuda.

“It’s a rare opportunity to find someone with Emma’s skill in Adelaide looking for an opportunity,” Kardachi says of McCaskill. “She’s obviously worked in some of the best restaurants in the world and she’s crafted her own style and technique over 15 years of hard work. I’m really fortunate to have someone like herself present herself at somewhere like The Pot.”

“I came in and I told him my vision,” McCaskill says of meeting Kardachi. “He was on the same page. We’re working together a lot.”

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The official relaunch of The Pot is Monday, July 17 and the humble McCaskill tried to keep her presence low-key until then. But word got out that one of this city’s most exciting chefs was back in the kitchen.

“People found out,” McCaskill laughs. “I couldn’t hide — I wanted to. I wanted to make the launch the big thing rather than [the announcement] of me starting here. This place has been open for 18 years. It’s got a lot of stories behind it. I wanted to make the launch something special because it’s like a new era for The Pot. It’s a big change.”

McCaskill had to be completely in charge of the food philosophy and menu to jump on board. This wasn’t going to be a place where she was going to put her spin on The Pot.

“I have to do something that comes from me otherwise it doesn’t feel right cooking the food because it’s not really me,” she says.

She has gathered a fresh team of chefs from Adelaide’s best restaurants to join her in the kitchen: Cameron Clarke (Salopian Inn), Hannah Jeffrey (Peel Street) and Finton Rowe (who worked with McCaskill at Magill Estate). And being shoulder to shoulder in the heat of the small open kitchen makes the 30-year-old feel like she is cooking again as it is incredibly “hands-on”.

McCaskill has changed the menu numerous times since she’s arrived, which at the moment includes small plate specialities such as fried pork bun with chilli sauce and Port Lincoln sardines on toast while larger items include fenugreek chicken with salt baked celeriac and then there is the $3 home-made Monte Carlo biscuit, which is already a favourite.

“I’m trying to keep it really simple but there is still a lot of technical involvement,” McCaskill says. “It seems simple but there is a lot of work that has gone into it. I’m keeping the ingredients simple and not overcomplicating the food. It’s a neighbourhood restaurant as well. I wanted to come here because I didn’t want to do something formal, I wanted to keep it simple but with good processes and technical skills.”

With the small kitchen and hyper-seasonal ethos, her time spent cheffing interstate and overseas has primed her for this role. These restaurants include Tetsuya’s (the iconic Sydney restaurant), St John (where McCaskill was a stagiaire at Fergus Henderson’s game-changing nose-to-tail London destination) and Sat Bains’ eponymous restaurant in Nottingham.

“I worked as his [Sat Bains] development chef for a year in the development kitchen, so I would just come up with dishes with him,” she says of the chef who has two Michelin Stars to his name.

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After experimenting and foraging at Sat Bains, McCaskill moved to Melbourne before relocating to Japan, where she was the first non-Japanese chef to work at one of Asia’s most acclaimed restaurants, Narisawa, which is currently number 18 on the World’s 50 Best list. McCaskill still doesn’t know why she was the first non-Japanese chef to grace its kitchen.

“I was pretty naïve: ‘Oh, yeah I’ll be fine. I can’t speak Japanese. I don’t need to learn it,’” she laughs. “I was so scared when I got there. It was confronting being out of my comfort zone. I was fine after the first few weeks but I felt very alone. There was one sommelier who could speak English and [Yoshihiro] Narisawa kind of spoke English.

“It was just so different. We had a staff meal on the first day and I went to sit next to the one person who could speak English and he was like, ‘No, no. You can’t sit at this table. You have to sit with the females.’ So I just sat there awkwardly because I couldn’t talk to anyone. It got better because I tried [to study the language] and I should have learnt Japanese, really, but I just watched everything. I tried to get by just doing it without being asked or spoken to. Eventually, I picked up some Japanese and they picked up some English. It was really different. Kitchens are very serious and quiet, calm, clean, organised and super-seasonal.”

For Kardachi, taking on McCaskill is different to his usual modus operandi where he has a concept floating around and then works on that with a chef he knows and trusts.

“Emma is slightly unusual because normally they [the head chef] will have worked for me before they get an opportunity to get a sharehold or a working partnership. From the day I met her I liked, you might say, the cut of her jib and her energy. She’s got very strong philosophies and ideas. And I can see great future potential, so I’m prepared to evolve and make some changes here.”

With McCaskill on board, Kardachi wants to create a destination restaurant with a national reputation. For the chef, however, for now The Pot is “just a local place to come and have really good food and wine in a casual atmosphere”.

The Pot by Emma McCaskill
160 King William Road, Hyde Park
Tuesday to Friday, 12pm to late, Saturday and Sunday, 9am to late
8373 2044
thepotfoodandwine.com.au

Photography: Sia Duff

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