John Javier

John Javier

John Javier

Having sharpened his skills his at Quay, Momofuku Seiobo and Noma, John Javier became known as one of the most exciting new voices in Chinese cooking while at the helm of Master in Sydney and Happy Paradise in Hong Kong. After a move to London in 2019, he now heads up Fitzrovia’s The Tent (At the End of the Universe) and its Middle Eastern menu.

John Javier’s decision to become a chef was both sudden and unsurprising at the same time. His memories of his childhood in Australia centre around good food, while his dad was a caterer by trade and a master of Filipino cooking at home. Donning chef’s whites might have seemed a natural step, but John instead pursued the route that was expected of him, heading to university to study. The desire to cook won out, though, and he later left for a change of direction. ‘As much as my dad tried to convince me not to be a chef, I just had to upset the family and leave university and start cooking,’ he laughs. ‘Coming from a first generation immigrant family into Australia, everyone had to get a university degree to move there, so I think in the past there was such an emphasis on getting this mystical degree. So for me to drop out of university and start cooking, everyone questioned my judgement, but I don’t regret it at all.’

It was a bold move, and one which was quickly followed by another. Keen to get his foot on the ladder, the Filipino-born chef contacted Peter Gilmore at Sydney’s Quay to ask for help. ‘I said ‘I’ve come here with zero experience but this is the best restaurant and if I’m going to learn, I want to learn from the best’,’ he says. It paid off. He spent the next six months staging at Quay, finding his feet and climbing a steep learning curve. ‘When I started, Peter Gilmore said to bring a turning knife and a chef’s knife,’ John recalls, laughing at the memory. ‘I went to the store, but I couldn’t remember what knife he'd said, so I bought a boning knife – as if they would let a first year apprentice do the butchery.’

Early teething problems aside, he was soon up to speed, settling into the pace of the kitchen quickly. ‘I found some sort of truth and honesty there,’ he says. ‘It was like, you’re either good or not good. And it became my home – you put in this shift with a bunch of different people from all different backgrounds who normally wouldn’t be friends, and you end up closer than anyone.’ As he reflects on his career so far, it’s easy to see where the elements which make him the chef he is originate; his time at Quay (including a second, full-time stint) and Peter’s use of Asian flavours shaped his palette, he says. His spell at fine dining spot Assiette formed the building blocks of his technique, while Momofuku Seiobo and Noma moulded his style. He picks out Christian Puglisi of Copenhagen restaurant Relæ, who he admired from afar, meanwhile, as the biggest influence on his ethos and keenness to ask why, rather than how.

It was while at Momofuku that he found inspiration for his next step. ‘There used to be this legendary restaurant in Sydney called Golden Century, and all the chefs would go there when they finished work,’ he smiles. ‘I really wanted to do something like it, and everyone called me up and was like ‘don’t do it, don’t do it, you don’t know how to cook Chinese food’.' Though John is the first to admit their concerns weren't totally unfounded (it's actually part of the reason he called the restaurant Master), he soon proved it was the right decision. Master became a showcase of modern Chinese cooking, putting John on the map and garnering praise from the likes of Noma’s René Redzepi, who called it one of his favourite restaurants down under. ‘It was amazing,’ John says. ‘All of a sudden, everyone was like ‘oh yeah, he’s actually good at Chinese cooking’.’

Modernity met tradition when John moved to Hong Kong to open the critically-acclaimed Happy Paradise with chef May Chow, celebrating authentic Cantonese cooking using contemporary methods. ‘I locked myself away in a test kitchen for three months and just practised, practised, practised. Then all these masters of Chinese cuisine were coming to the restaurant and they were amazed,’ he says. ‘They were like, ‘how do you know how to cook this?'. We even had a translator for the older recipes, because all the good recipes were in Chinese.’ The restaurant appeared on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown TV series, the food described by the chef as ‘truly, stunningly delicious'.

In 2019, John joined the London restaurant scene when he launched a Chifa (Peruvian/Chinese) menu for the Pachamama group, the move driven in part by a desire to make authentic Chinese cooking accessible for Brits, as the likes of David Chang have done for pan-Asian cuisine in the States. That remains his long-term ambition (he hopes to one day reopen his Master concept in London), but in 2022 his culinary path shifted when he opened The Tent (At the End of the Universe), on the ground floor of private members’ club 17 Little Portland Street in London (though the restaurant initially only opened to members, it is now open to the public). There, he serves a modern Middle Eastern menu, marking his first foray into the cuisine. Though it might seem an unusual shift, John is loath to pigeonhole his style. ‘Throughout my career, I've been adapting to these different cuisines,’ he nods. ‘And, you know, I just felt like it fit the place. It's hard for me to put something on a plate unless it means something, unless there's a story there.’

Wherever John's career takes him, that ethos of meaning and refusing to be limited by what's expected is unlikely to waiver. ‘It's sort of like how music artists struggle with defining their genre, because there's so much influence from everywhere, especially with the internet,’ he says, pausing before adding: ‘And with my career spanning so many different cuisines, you sort of think why not? Why not use dashi in Chinese cooking? It makes sense. As long as the essence of the dish is there, there's no reason why you shouldn't be looking to other cuisines to expand your current knowledge of the cuisine you specialise in. I started in fine dining, and I find myself falling further and further away from that. I hate anything that takes itself too seriously. It always boils down to flavour – if it doesn't taste good, I don't want to do it.’