The five years that Josh Lopez spent in his capacity as the executive chef of Queensland’s critically-acclaimed Gallery of Modern Art – or GOMA – Restaurant taught him to embrace two cornerstone concepts.

Firstly, that there exists an implicit connection between the worlds of food and art removed from the idea of what you strictly see on the plate and, secondly, how to lead a multi-disciplined team to develop and deliver, across four distinct dining styles, an approach to dining that was uniquely ‘Queensland’ in its scope. When you consider the sheer size of the latter task, you’d agree that it’s certainly no mean feat.

“I was immersed in art everyday I went to work, something [that was] truly inspiring,” Lopez tells GRAZIA. “I began to approach my menus as a cohesive offering, not just dishes under the term ‘Spring’. Working this way helps develop a signature and reference point where dishes begin to look like an extension of your creativity.” While it’s only natural that the artistic exposure should force Lopez to consider composition and colours when plating dishes, the scope of the institution meant that not every level of dining required artful use of negative space and intricately splayed sauces. “Accessibility was also a key mantra at the Gallery,” adds Lopez. “Having dining styles from a café to a two-hatted restaurant was a wonderful challenge to train and mentor staff to achieve successes from a salad sandwich in the café to a multi-faceted emu and beetroot dish in the restaurant.”

Though the 33-year-old chef, who was born in El Salvador and moved to Australia at the age of two, cut his teeth in part under the watch of Gordon Ramsay at the chef’s London restaurant Maze, he counts his time spent staging (a kind of culinary internship) at Noma in Copenhagen in 2011 as being one the most transformative experiences of his career. His time spent at the world famous restaurant, which had just won world’s best restaurant for the second time in succession, had an indelible impact on the young chef, reshaping in particular how he saw his craft in relation to the land from which it’s inseparable. “To see and work as part of this kitchen brigade, completely in its prime with an uncompromising approach to ingredient sourcing from both land, sea and foraged, was incredible,” he says. “On my return, I could look at the Australian landscape of ingredients in a new light, more delicious and connected to its source than before. This developed a love of travelling around, meeting producers and suppliers who share the same passion for creating something delicious and special.”

Storytelling, Lopez says, has become the chief means by his he expresses himself through food. Though the propensity for cooks (especially those who appear on MasterChef, which Lopez featured on this year) to draw tenuous connections between the memory of their late cat and whatever pantry item is on hand by now feels trite, Lopez remains adamant – and entirely believable – that sharing his inspirations and the correlation between them and ingredients that make up a dish can work to enhance the dining experience. “As an Australian chef, I feel compelled to share the story and unique flavours of native ingredients,” he says in regard to the thinking behind a degustation menu the chef recently prepared on occasion of the launch of Perrier-Jouët’s Blanc de Blancs NV that highlighted with startling clarity the integrity of ingredients indigenous to Australia. “Not only are they under-utilised and delicious, they just so happen to pair very well with Champagne,” he says. “In spring time, seasonal ingredients such as finger lime and lemon myrtle compliment the chardonnay grape, whilst native berries like lilly pilly, quandong and muntries, compliment the pinot noir grape, these being the two grape varieties used in Champagne making.”

One dish in particular that Lopez prepared – a segment of crayfish accompanied by a series of bright accompaniments – was inspired by a visit to the beautiful beaches of North Stradbroke Island, an idyllic haven off the coast of Queensland. The central philosophy of the dish, Lopez says, was concerned with “how to harmoniously highlight the stunning and delicious painted crayfish with complimenting tropical flavours. Finger lime and avocado add acidity and creaminess, whilst the finishing of beach herbs, to me, captures the essence of the Australian tropical coastline.” The crayfish – or lobster – itself is served at contrasting temperatures, both poached and as a tartare made with the trimmings. Lopez also uses the leftover shells to make a fragrant oil and to enhance the sauce. It’s an extension of his belief that respect for each ingredient is vital, either through knowledge of its provenance or utilising it in its entirety – a way of thinking holistically that has worked its way into Lopez’s subconscious.

Earlier this month, Lopez commenced his new role as the Executive Chef at Emporium Hotels, a move he considers to be the most important of his career. The chef says that it is his aim create food befitting of the style and innovation of the hotel group, who will also open a new hotel at South Bank mid-2018. Lopez, once again, faces the challenge of unifying disparate venues with a singular vision, albeit with shared values of “bespoke service and ingrained luxury.” It sounds as though he’s going to need a much bigger canvas.

Below, Lopez shares with GRAZIA a recipe for his dish of painted crayfish – one perfect for the coming summer months.

“The cooking of the crayfish is important to get right as serving dry and overcooked seafood is a disaster,” says Lopez. “You could [also] substitute the crayfish for other shellfish such as Moreton Bay Bug or Balmain Bugs. Harvey Bay scallop, both seared and poached, would equally work as well. There is also classical French technique in the making of the lemon myrtle sauce; it is a beurre blanc based sauce with loads of flavour that can also be served with all types of seafood or steamed seasonal vegetables. It does require following of the recipe carefully, but with practice, kitchen confidence is developed and the skills become second nature. To match this dish, I would serve the Perrier-Jouët Blanc de Blancs NV [which is] made exclusively with chardonnay grapes. It is a bright, expressive wine with lovely citrus and floral notes, while its minerality and delicious salty character matches very well with seafood.”

Painted Crayfish

2x 300g Painted Crayfish (Tropical Rock Lobster) Tails
30ml Canola oil
2x Large Ziploc bags

Crayfish tartare
2x golden shallots – peeled, finely diced
140g crayfish – cooked, reserved trimming
40g cucumber – peeled, melon balled, very small size
30g kewpie (Japanese) mayonnaise
10g finger lime pearls
Chardonnay vinegar
Sea salt

1x continental cucumber – peeled, melon balled, large size
1 tsp sea salt
30ml chardonnay vinegar

2x Avocados – large, seasonal
Sea salt

Crayfish oil (can be bought)
Reserved crayfish shells – chopped into smaller pieces
1x brown onion – small peeled, diced
1x carrot – peeled, diced
1x stick celery, diced
1 tsp thyme leaves
1x clove garlic
1 tbsp tomato paste
80ml dry white wine
20ml brandy
1L canola oil

Lemon myrtle sauce
100ml chardonnay vinegar
50ml dry white wine
1x golden shallot – peeled, finely diced
140g unsalted butter – diced into small cubes
60g crayfish oil
5x drops organic lemon myrtle essential oil
40ml fresh lemon juice or champagne
Table salt

Assorted beach herbs like warrigal greens or fennel fronds
Crayfish oil

Carefully remove the crayfish meat from the shells leaving the meat perfectly intact. (This can be done by a quality fishmonger). Reserve the shells. Place tail meat from each individually in a Ziploc bag and along with some oil. Bring a medium sized pot of water to the boil, remove from heat and place lobster into the water. Cook in water for 15 mins until delicately cooked through. Remove from bag and trim each tail into two 80g pieces to have four even serves. Set aside. Reheat the crayfish on a nonstick paper lined tray in the oven prior to serving (180 degrees for approximate 2 mins). To make the tartare chop the remaining lobster into a small dice and in a mixing bowl combine with the diced shallots, small cucumber balls, kewpie mayo and finger lime. Season with salt and chardonnay vinegar to taste.

Avocado puree
Peel and blitz avocado in a high speed blender until smooth, season with salt to taste and set aside in a piping bag or squeeze bottle.

Make large cucumber spheres using a melon baller, season with salt and stir until a little water is drawn out. Add the chardonnay vinegar to pickle the cucumber. Set aside.

Crayfish oil
To make the crayfish oil, sear the shells until coloured in a medium saucepan with a little oil on a medium heat. Carefully remove shells and add a little more oil and sear the vegetables until caramelised. Add the tomato paste and cook until dry. Deglaze with white wine and brandy and reduce until thick. Return the shells to the pan and add the canola oil. Bring to a simmer and allow to cool before straining and discarding the shells and vegetables. Set aside.

Lemon myrtle sauce
In a small saucepan place the wine, vinegar and shallots and bring to the boil. Allow to reduce by three quarters. Adjust heat to a low temperature whisk in the butter, small amounts at a time, when combined slowly add the crayfish oil and lemon myrtle oil whisking until emulsified. Season with lemon juice or champagne and salt to taste. Keep warm.

To Plate
On a crisp white plate spoon 40g of the crayfish tartare mix in the top left corner of the plate and gently spread evenly into a round puck. Pipe some avocado puree in small dots randomly on the plate. Place a segment of crayfish opposite the tartare. Sauce the plate with the lemon myrtle beurre blanc and garnish the plate with the large cucumber spheres and beach herbs.

Tile and cover image: Supplied courtesy of Perrier-Jouët