Taste any dish by Ryan Squires and you’ll find that his food embodies his free, highly artistic and unpredictable spirit. “My best dishes are always happy accidents,” he says. “The ones that just happen.”
Case in point is one of the 19 dishes in a recent surprise-filled degustation at Squire’s three-hatted restaurant in Brisbane named Esquire, that was created by Squires and his head chef Brenden Gradidge — formerly a chef at top Sydney restaurant, Bentley. Number 5 on the menu was an aigre-doux that had my mind suddenly, sharply, zeroing in on my hard palate. And my eyes popping. Not only is the traditional French sauce (a reduction of sugar and vinegar that results in a zingy sweet and sour taste) an intense and sticky combination, but the 20-cent-sized piece of it on a large ceramic plate is surrounded by a non-interfering simple soup of buttermilk. It’s the juxtaposition of full-on food throttle with something that barely has a taste that makes the dish show-stopping.
“If I try too hard, if I go searching, it doesn’t work for me,” says Squires. “I found some dried Indian lemon, for instance, and brought it back to the kitchen. It had the most wonderful floral smell, so I thought I’d make aigre-doux. It tasted fantastic, but then I thought, what on Earth can I serve that with? It was just so good by itself. It deserved to be alone. 'Can we just serve it just on a spoon?' I thought. 'Can we even do that?' Then I spotted a container of buttermilk and thought – 'That’s it.' I may only do that two, three or maybe six times a year… but I rarely sit at a desk and try to come up with things. That’s just not me.”
The point is, not many people have the natural talent or knowledge that Squires has, to identify happy accidents that can be transformed into dishes that have people’s palates palpitating. That’s why Squires is one of only a few great chefs in Brisbane, and arguably the best.
Like most artists, Squires walks to the beat of his own drum. He left Australia as a young chef to gain some cred and guidance from the world’s best – including masterchef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry and Per Se fame, and he also had some El Bulli rub off on him during his years at the former number one restaurant in the world. But Squires doesn’t believe in having idols in the unrelentingly tough restaurant business. “Keller was an inspiration in a detail sense,” he says. “He taught me practicality and how to run a smooth operation. He’s all about the orchestration of a great restaurant. But I don’t believe in idolising or copying others. You have to stand on your own two feet in this industry if you're going to make it. There are plenty of chefs out there taking kudos for other people’s hard work and that’s not on. I did however learn many great things along the way from chefs I’ve worked with. From Noma and Rene Redzepi for instance, I learnt that less is more. You just keep on moving, you keep on learning, and you just never know what’s coming next.