Francisco Smoje was born and raised in an artistic and bohemian family in Buenos Aires Argentina. He became a chef at 17 and at 21, travelled to Australia, working his way around some of Sydney’s best restaurants, including Rockpool and Darley St Thai.
He has since had a varied and eclectic cooking career that’s included cooking on luxury yachts, making bread in backstreet bakeries, and film catering, cooking for the likes of Dennis Hopper and Nicole Kidman.
Five years ago, Francisco moved to the Byron Shire with partner Emma Byrne and began Francisco’s Table, a series of community dinners that pop up at various locations such as Coorabell and Federal Hall. Diners sit at communal tables and are served a five-course feast prepared from local seasonal produce. Throughout the evening, Francisco emerges from the kitchen to reveal the menu and share the story of the meal – how and where the chicken was raised, for example, and the inspiration behind the dish.
Francisco’s Table took a hiatus during the latter half of last year, as Francisco worked in Sydney with his film catering business on the set of the latest Alien instalment in Sydney. But with filming complete, Francisco is is back in Byron with another series of his popular Tables. Kate O’Neill recently caught up with Francisco at his home in Myocum.
What was the first thing you ever cooked?
It was a massive burger. I was maybe four years old, I was in my father’s studio and there was a lot of rain so we couldn’t escape. For something to do, he said ‘what do you want to cook?’’ and I said ‘a massive burger’. So we grabbed a pizza tray and made this burger that was like 22cm.
So is that when you decided to become a chef?
No I think I made that mistake a lot later in life! I started as a chef when I was 17, but I was always involved in my house kitchen. My father (a notable Argentinian artist) was a beautiful cook – it’s not unusual for artists to like cooking because of the smells and colours involved. He had a really eccentric pantry, spices and ingredients that hardly any of my friends had in their house – cumin, coriander, dried galangal, curry powders.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a chef?
Probably film making because it’s a great passion of mine and the reason why I work in the film industry. My catering work wasn’t just something I stumbled into. I went to see the Australian Film Commission to see how I could get involved with film with my cooking and I was given a list of all the caterers. A few years later I was working seriously and for the last 15 years I’ve been lucky enough to travel all over the country and to work with some of the best film caterers in Australia.
Which celebrities have you most enjoyed working with or meeting?
I’m not really celebrity focused, but I’ve been lucky to cook for a lot of people I admire. It was a great honour for me to be involved with Alien last year. Ridley Scott is someone I really admire and Blade Runner is up there on my top 50 movies of all times. Dennis Hopper was probably another of my favourites.
How would you describe a typical menu for Francisco’s Table?
It’s a five-course lunch or dinner. We have whatever produce you see at the local markets, and there’s very little manipulation with the produce we get. A typical Francisco’s Table will include olives, either with home made pickles or marinated in spices, we’ll have home made bread, whether it’s sourdough, caraway, potato,, rosemary focaccia or whatever else we’ve made that day. Plenty of vegetables, both raw and cooked, some seafood, meat and a dessert.
It’s always a bit of a mystery though, isn’t it, no one really knows what they’ll be eating until they get there do they?
We’ll gives some clues, but no, and that’s one of the things I love most, it’s like going to a friend’s house. You never call your friend and ask ‘hey what are you cooking for me?’ you just go and relax and enjoy what they have prepared. I think it’s just beautiful to surrender yourself to that. I love that hardly anyone asks us what we’re cooking and if they do it’s more to do with the wine choice or a specific dietary requirement.
You go to a lot of trouble to make things from scratch for your dinners, the bread, the cheese, the butter, you’ve even made the breadboards. Why are you so interested in doing things this way?
The way we do things is not common. You have the whole week to prepare for one single event. If you were a caterer you might have multiple events, on multiple days, but for us, I have the privilege to drive to the farms, pick the produce from the ground, have direct contact with the growers in the markets and make things like butter. While we have the time, it’s fun. And coming from a fine dining background, where you get in, put your head down and you don’t stop for 15 hours, it’s good to me be able to explore all these different avenues.
What do you cook at home?
What we cook at Francisco’s Table is pretty much what we have at home. Tonight for example we are going to have local chickens, roasted, we’ll have some zucchini, roasted in a salad, maybe with lemon herbs and olive oil, then we’ll go to my friends house and he has a massive garden so maybe a big green salad. We do our own bread every week at home, all the jams in the fridge are our own jams, we do our own cheeses, and once in a while we do our own butter.
How important is music to you in the kitchen?
Music is a fundamental part of my work. It always plays in the kitchen. I like everything – jazz, punk, dub, rock, classical. I get really high off just cooking and listening to music that I enjoy. It’s highly inspiring. I’m in the kitchen mostly by myself – sometimes I stop and grab my guitar and play it over the song. It’s just something that makes the day more enjoyable.
What has been you most memorable meal?
There are so many. I’ve been so spoiled. When I was a kid, meals at my father’s house and my uncle’s house with whole lambs hanging and vegetables done in the fire with the charcoals. Later, probably eating a simple artichoke ravioli in Italy with Emma, with a good bottle of wine, pecorino, olive oil and butter…my mouth just waters thinking about it now.
You and Emma have a two-year-old son, Oscar, does he appreciate your cooking?
He eats anything I put in his mouth, oysters, whatever. He trusts me. Actually I’ve had some of my most memorable food moments with Oscar. I remember one summer – it was the first time we had buffalo mozzarella in the house – I was making dinner for him he was sitting in his highchair and I make a him this little morsel of buffalo mozzarella with fresh local tomatoes and a tiny bit of olive oil. I saw the look on his face and I just started crying. For me it’s just such a ancient combination for me and my culture – mozzarella and tomato and olive oil and here’s my son just trying it for the first time ever… I love it.
For information about upcoming Francisco’s Table events, visit the Facebook Page at facebook.com/FranciscosTable/
Words: Kate O’Neill