Aaron Turner is one of Australia’s best chefs, and probably the continent’s most inventive.
He first gained fame Down Under for his Victoria restaurant Loam, which opened in 2008. He not only didn’t have menus, he didn’t even have recipes, instead he improvised every dinner serving whatever ingredients he had gotten that day. A few years later, the restaurant and its brilliant chef won every possible award. He enigmatically closed it on the very synchronous and somewhat apocalyptic date of 12/12/2012. At the same time, his marriage also dissolved.
After that Turner went to the U.S. and, taking a friend up on his offer of a couch, wound up in Nashville. He generally moped around, ate and drank a lot, possibly felt sorry for himself (he doesn’t say that specifically but generally hinted at that) and discovered Nashville hot chicken.
That last item was life-changing, not just from the incredible spice kick and its resulting endorphin rush, but because it woke him from his state of ennui. The dish reminded him what he was on this Earth for and inspired him to get back to Australia and undertake meaningful work again. Back home he opened two restaurants serving the dish, which are aptly called The Hot Chicken Project. Last year, he also published a coffee table book of the same name all about the history of the fiery sandwich and the people who created it.
“All of this, everything we do at The Hot Chicken Project, comes from a place of absolute admiration for what those originators of hot chicken have done, and what their families continue to do, a million miles away in the neighborhoods of Nashville,” he wrote in his book. “I wanted to create a place that was more than just a snap on Instagram. A place with substance, a place that could become part of the community, a place that is about the people. And the food, of course, somewhere that would make those flag bearers of something so uniquely Nashville proud, something that would honor the legacy that is now set so firmly in Tennessee folklore.”
In 2016, Turner opened the revelatory IGNI restaurant in Geelong, near Melbourne, at the end of a lane and on the water. (The name comes from “ignite,” which refers to the open fire he cooks over that is made from wood he gathers.) The establishment has since garnered another quill of awards and become an international foodie destination. When COVID allows in-house dining, he runs a masterful six-course set menu. They do not tell you what that will be, and, one suspects, they have no idea themselves until they get to the restaurant.
Because he says it “makes it look like I’m trading on their reputations,” he doesn’t like to talk about how he got his first real experience in the kitchens of two of the restaurants voted best in the world, El Celler de Can Roca and Noma.
I once asked him what he learned from working at those two iconic spots, and he told me “I learned how I wanted to run a restaurant and that was the way Can Roca does it. They’re very nurturing, kind and want to help you learn. Noma was the opposite, very push, push, yelling, more the British model. There’s pressure and there’s ways to behave under pressure, and that informed the way I learned to be. I’m very calm.”
He says, because of Britain’s ingrained influence, Australia’s national dish is fish and chips. “Or a meat pie.”
Turner has traveled the world, a clearly restless and curious soul, and these are his five favorite meals.
It was 2009 and the email read: Meet me at the train station at 6 in the morning. I’m in the blue car, you have boots and jacket. It’s cold in the forest. And that was it. Odd I thought. It’s not every day you agree to meet a complete stranger in the carpark of the train station in Budapest hanging on the promise of a truffle hunt but, hey, I was young.
The truffles I’d eaten in restaurants the world over were so far underwhelming and lacking any of the promise they are said to deliver. But I was a cook, so to hell with it, I needed to know the mystery of these black expensive fungus. I arrived at the train station at 5:45 AM, armed with boots and a cheap jacket I’d bought the day before, on a wet and frozen winter Hungarian morning.
Waiting for me was a clapped out blue Puli with two hounds caged in the back. Barking with, I hoped, excitement! “My name is Ivan, get in, we go hunting,” he said.
You don’t come back from this. Not ever. Truffles sniffed and dug moments before being shaved into mountains over a steaming cauldron of blood red goulash spiked with chunks of beef, potatoes, peppers and fistfuls of Hungarian paprika, smoldering over a fire into a thick stew that had been left to slowly cook while we drank shots of homemade pálinka, sorting through the victories of a successful hunt.
A well-fed wild pheasant cooked simply in a hot oven with good butter, its partners in crime on the plate quickly sautéed winter greens picked and foraged from the paddock that lay overgrown and lush beside the lodge in a village. A weekend hunt was on. A heavy fog had settled over the village as the sound of the hunters’ horns blared from the returning hunt. The cooks busily prepared the day’s trophies for the pub’s guests—a pint of hand-pulled stout, cellar temperature, of course, and a properly roasted plump pheasant. How could you ever forget!
You wouldn’t believe it if I told you but this dish will transform you, baptize you back to life, a cure all for life’s misgivings. Hungover from a blistering night of whiskey shots and chasers of Budweiser and country music at Robert’s Western World, driving blurry eyed through the outskirts of the city in search of a strip mall for a hot chicken joint called Prince’s. I pulled up, got out of the car and ordered at the window cut into the wall of the kitchen, next to the security guard with a gun holstered on his hip.
Dark meat, hot fries, blue cheese. The meal that changed my life and sent me on a pursuit to figure it all out, how did they do it? Chicken fried to perfection, the crunch, the spices, the heat, the magic of a simple dish of Nashville hot chicken.
Walking through the streets on a hot wet day in Singapore, looking for what was described to me as a stall in the market— “it’s yellow and blue, you’ll see it. The curry puffs there are like nothing you’ve ever had before, they are life changing.” A promise I liked the sound of.
I found it, finally, after too many wrong turns and lost time taking shelter form the heat and a series of bad directions given by a passing bike rider. I stumbled into a food center and there it was—the yellow and blue signs as promised, the holy grail of curry puffs.
I ordered the two they had left, one filled with steaming chunks of potato and sweet onion spiked with a rich aromatic curry powder, the other spiced chicken bound in a gravy of fenugreek and cumin. I asked about the spiral pastry flaked to perfection. He told me it was a mix of fats, lard butter and oil and fried—the spiral of the pastry comes from rolling it up like a rug. Sitting on a plastic stool in the heat of the afternoon, a cold beer and a paper plate with two perfectly cooked curry puffs. Perfection.
It is not glamorous—not by any stretch. There was no choice, a curry was thrusted at me when we hit altitude. Last to board, due to holding the flight up means you are given what you’re given—I’d spent the last 48 hours detained in Mumbai, held hostage by a well-meaning, lanky-mustached security guard slouched on a blue plastic chair watching cricket on a black-and-white TV. His machine gun leaned on the wall behind him well out of reach if any real trouble was to arise. My visa had run out, I’d overstayed my welcome and I was kicked out of the country post haste.
It’s not how I wanted to end my trip through India, but sitting aboard a British Airways flight to London after being held deep in the bowels of Mumbai airport in limbo for the better part of two days, the smell of a familiar dish was all I needed to calm the nerves. Rich meat coated in a sauce spiced with vinegar and garlic, with fragrant rice cooked the best it can be for an in-flight meal. It didn’t matter, I hadn’t eaten in 48 hours!
My Five Favorite Meals features the most cherished dining experiences of bartenders, chefs, distillers and celebrities.
Interview has been condensed and edited.