By Jo Rittey


When Michael Baker went to El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, he walked into the development kitchen, and the walls were covered in whiteboards. He felt like he was at design school, and loved the way they’d take certain ingredients, research them, break them down, and create a dish. He thought, that was the place he wanted to be. Now he has his own place with business partner, Daniel Mason. The whiteboards are still there and he is making his own magic at Henry Sugar.


Hi Michael. With a name like Baker, did you have to become a chef?


I definitely hadn’t always planned on being a chef, that’s for sure. I studied something totally different then got into it about 10 years ago.


What made you switch to chef life?


I think it has a little bit of everything that I really like; a little bit of pressure, a lot of problem-solving, experimenting, creativity, there’s a lot of logic, science and chemistry behind what you’re doing, so it’s got a really nice balance. I enjoy the satisfaction of perfecting things. It’s a good feeling.


You have a particular cooking style. You make it look really easy; a cross between, rustic and sophisticated. Is that the style you’ve always done?


The first place I worked in had a very rustic sense to it. That was Jacob Brown at the Larder in Miramar in Wellington. He’s done very well for himself. Eight years on a lot of what he taught me has stuck with me.


Is that where you did your apprenticeship?


I’m not really trained. I knew I wanted to be as good as I could at cooking and see where that took me. I knew I wanted to go to Spain, but I knew I couldn’t get there without first getting a base at a high level. So I worked with Jacob for a year and a half. He really pushed me and saw something in me. He gave me a really hard time, which I’m grateful for. He drove me to understand the necessity for perfection and the care and love for the produce and for what you’re doing.


I had just enough to get me through starting in Spain. It was pretty challenging as well in terms of language when I first got there. Michelin star restaurants have a very different style of cooking but I think I’ve taken things from both Jacob and the Spanish restaurants. I try to use my own style, logic and sense to realise when it‘s important to use certain techniques. I’m not against any technology, or any style or anything gimmicky as long as there’s a reason and a concept for why something is there or why it’s done that way. I can’t handle things that are just there because someone has learned that technique and wants to use it for the sake of it. If it doesn’t make sense then I just don’t get it.


I love to read and understand the chemistry of things. I have a lot of chemical and mechanical engineers in my family and I talk a lot with my little brother who is a chemical engineer and can fast track my understanding so I can experiment. Not all chefs are like that. A lot of chefs create from experience. I don’t have the experience other chefs have had if they’ve been cooking since they were 15.


Did it take a long time to perfect the blown sugar cherry on the black forest dessert?


I learned it at El Celler. They make apples rather than cherries, so they say they put people on ‘apples’ and you’re basically on apples for a week. The first three days are a nightmare and you can’t do it very well and after about three days you start to get a feel for it. Now I can do one in 1 minute 20 seconds.


Desserts can be so artistic but some of the savoury food you’re serving has a lot of thought behind it too, like dehydrating the pumpkin or the way you make the bread, they are almost artistic because of the process behind them.


The bread has been a big journey. The flour here is so different to the flour in Europe. Nothing was behaving for me like it did in Europe. I probably spent two years here just trying to bake bread so many times and it was just never right and it’s only really in the last three months of really playing around with it that it has changed up and it seems to be working really well.


It’s a very high hydration dough. I’ve settled on 80 – 85% water and there are hydrated linseeds in there as well which adds to the hydration. It doesn’t have a lot of structure when it starts off, so if you poured it onto the bench after five minutes it would run off the side. But then when you fold it over four or five hours, it starts to develop a lot of structure and strength. I wanted bread that was really light. I love a sourdough but it’s not the bread I wanted for here. It’s just too heavy. I wanted people to really enjoy the bread and the texture and the contrast between the crackly crust and the lightness but still the strength of the crumb. That’s the prefect restaurant bread for me because it soaks up sauce, it’s a great vehicle and it doesn’t fill you up too much.


Where do you get your ideas?


Sometimes I read and get a little bit of an idea, sometimes I’ll eat something and a little light bulb will go off for a combination of flavours and I’ll take that to a totally different place. Sometimes I just sit around with Dan. More than anything it’s a thought process. I really like to look at what’s good and in season. Like the pumpkin dish, for example. The pumpkins that are around at the moment are banging so we got a few of those and played around with them. I’ve got a couple of huge whiteboards in the kitchen and I wrote down all the different elements we could use with the pumpkin, different processes we could apply and how we could concentrate the flavour. There’s so much water in a pumpkin so that’s how I came up with dehydrating them and that worked. I didn’t do anything else to them and there was a syrup that came out of the pumpkin once it was dehydrated, almost a candy-like stuff. The skin gets all crispy. That’s generally how I develop dishes.


Henry Sugar

298 Rathdowne Street, Carlton North


Republished from




Jo Rittey is a freelance writer who wants to live in a world where apostrophes are used correctly and smiles are genuine. When she’s not roaming the streets of the northside in search of great food, she likes getting lost in beautiful films and having wildly enthusiastic discussions with chefs.

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