article by Dominic Rolfe
From the moment he got behind a pizza oven in a family-run Italian restaurant in Perth’s City Beach, David Pynt wanted to open his own restaurant. But it was during five unforgiving months at a London pop-up in a railway arch during the 2012 summer that he knew he had to make the dream a reality. If only to get four straight hours of sleep.
“It was great but everything about that pop-up was tough,” says Pynt who had previously done stints at world-beaters Noma, Asador Etxebarri and St John, “We were open three days but I was still working seven. We set up and packed down every day. And because it was London the deliveries would come through at 2am. So I’d have to get out of bed, jump on my bike, let them in, put the stuff away and go back to bed for a couple of hours. After that, I understood how good it would be to have a permanent restaurant.”
Today, Pynt is still working six or seven days a week but he’s now cheffing at his own place – a fiery bolthole called Burnt Ends in Singapore’s Chinatown that opened in 2013. As well as the crowds, the plaudits are rolling in. The “Modern Australian Barbecue” restaurant that the 32 year old co-owns with Andre Chiang and Loh Lik Peng (The Old Clare) was recently ranked 14 on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant awards by Sanpellegrino and it was one of Zagat’s 2014 “10 hottest restaurants in the world”. He’s also made the pages of newspapers from the New York Times and The Straits Times to The Australian and is in demand for food events across the globe.
But while the attention and international gongs are good to have, Pynt is happiest when the guests leave smiling. “This is the kind of food that I like cooking, the kind of food I like to eat and I hope other people enjoy it,” says Pynt, “Of course the awards are great, but the biggest success I’m measured by is happy customers. You could put on what you think is the best or most creative dish in the world but if your customers aren’t happy, your business isn’t worth anything.”
(Incidentally, he was momentarily successful in getting better sleep but that’s evaporated with the recent arrival of his first child. “I’d never get forgiven for not getting up to her now,” he laughs, “My partner would say, “You used to get up for a quail delivery at 2am and now you won’t get up for your screaming daughter?”)
As well turning out food he likes to eat, Burnt Ends has also allowed Pynt the freedom to cook food the way he wants. Put simply: cooking with wood. It’s a technique born of his father’s love of a wood-fired barbecue and something that would have a profound effect on Pynt’s palate. “When you grow up eating food cooked on wood,” he says, “and then taste the same food cooked on gas in a commercial kitchen, you get the feeling something’s missing. I don’t know why, and you can’t get that flavour over charcoal either, but there’s a ‘magic’ that comes from cooking with wood. That’s why now my core set of equipment is the four ton, dual cavity, wood burning oven with elevation grills.”
Cooking is a business that Pynt admits he mostly fell into. After washing dishes at the Italian restaurant through high school, he filled in for a sick apprentice one evening and was hooked. He enjoyed the learning aspect – “Can you cut a veggie, can you work quickly, can you make a sauce?” – but it was when the pressure ramped up that he felt most at home.
“I loved that intense period of service,” he says, “and I still do. I’m a pretty high energy, intense individual. I was never good enough to be an athlete or footy player and the kitchen is the next closest thing you can get to being out there on game day.”
One of his biggest lessons came when he moved to Balthazar, a buzzing, top notch wine bar and bistro in Perth. He put in long hours and followed orders perfectly until the chef pulled him aside and upbraided him. “He said, ‘Mate, you’re not at high school, show some initiative, some interest. Go and buy some books, some knives, eat out at good restaurants. We’re not going to spoon-feed you’,” says Pynt, “That moment turned me around and is a big part of what I push onto my guys now. It’s about helping yourself generate the interest and passion for different parts of the industry.”
That passion then took him to Tetsuya’s, where he worked with Sepia’s Martin Benn, who he says is one of the best chefs he has ever worked for. “The way he runs a restaurant is insanely good,” says Pynt, “The standards he sets, how good he was with everyone in the kitchen and the control he had over the food that was coming out was incredible.”
In 2010, he headed to Noma for four months, then to Etxebarri and on to St John in London. In 2011, he started working with Nuno Mendes, then head chef of Viajante and now Chiltern St. Fire House before running that sleep-killing “Burnt Enz” pop-up in London, with Pynt working almost exclusively on the grill. During a six-month vacation in South America after the pop-up closed down, he got the call about opening a place in Singapore. Mendes had mentioned Pynt to Peng, when Peng talked about opening a barbecue restaurant in the city-state.
Despite the sum of Pynt’s Singapore knowledge coming from transiting through the airport as a child, he didn’t hesitate. “It’s all about positioning yourself to be in the right place at the right time,” says Pynt, “From the start, if an opportunity came up to work with a good chef, I always took it, paid or unpaid. I wanted to work, see new ideas, experience new creativity, meet new people. And, to a certain degree, you’re always networking. So when this came up, I jumped at it.”
And while the experience hasn’t come without a few scars – Pynt still bristles at the memory of one of Burnt Ends’ first lunch services where not a single customer showed up – he believes the sum of his experience to this point has played a big role in the restaurant’s success.
“You have to put in a huge amount of work,” he says, “and not necessarily time in the kitchen. It’s reading, eating, drinking, talking, just absorbing everything that the industry has to offer and developing your own view on it. Then you translate that into a restaurant business.
“The restaurant game isn’t like a gas oven where you just turn it on and away you go. It’s more like a wood oven, where you get in a bit earlier, prepare the fire, light the fire, manage it so it comes up to temperature then make sure it’s all in line and firing at full intensity during service. It’s a place where you’re constantly learning and evolving.”
Pynt on Noma: “It’s all about time and place, what produce is in that place at that time that is incredible. The biggest thing I took from there was the energy, the drive and the dedication that Rene commanded. You wouldn’t get that anywhere else in the world.”
On Extebarri: “Until I got there, I never thought you could cook on wood on a barbecue at a good restaurant. And the handling and quality of the produce that he selected was the best in the world.”
On St John: “St Johns is purely about cooking tasty food and cooking it really well. The skill level in the way that they cooked was insane. And the flavour and how tasty is was – it’s all about tasty, tasty, tasty!”