Chef Alistair McMurray cut his teeth working in the dish pit at Merricks General Store nearly two decades ago. Since then, he’s worked in some of the world’s best restaurants, from London to Canada to Eleven Madison Park, New York City. He sat down with us to chat about food, travel, and his upcoming collaboration with Sam Keck and the team at Commonfolk Mornington.

Hey Al! Tell us about your story to date. Where did you get your start and how did you get to where you are today?

I was 15 when I started washing dishes at Merricks General Store. It was such an infectious environment and I was working with people from all walks of life. There was a lot of adrenaline, a lot of laughter. I think everyone should spend time in the dish pit. That way, when you move up the ranks, you still have respect for the role. You understand how hard they work. It might be considered the lowest position, but it’s also the key to success in any restaurant. That’s where I met Sam. We were both working there and sucked in by hospitality. We loved it from the get-go.

I’d always known I wanted to be a chef, and was working in kitchens on weekends and travelling into the city during the week to study commercial cookery. Sam and I would cross paths again as general manager and sous chef at Eugen Mori’s Wildcroft in Red Hill. Eugen sadly passed away recently, but he was this larger-than-life hospitality figure – a real schmoozer. The restaurant had a Mediterranean influence and the menu was often informed by what Eugen had caught off the pier that day. Farmers would be dropping off boxes of beautiful heirloom vegetables and fresh goats curd, and the winery was producing these revolutionary natural wines. It was such a fun time.

After my time at Wildcroft, I jumped on a plane to London and landed a gig at Daniel Boulud’s Bar Boulud. It was an eye-opening experience, and one that gave me a solid foundation in terms of technique and a real understanding of the hierarchy in a kitchen brigade.

When I returned home, I started working at Ten Minutes by Tractor under chef Stuart Bell. Every day, we were picking ingredients from the garden and creating these mind-blowingly beautiful, cohesive dishes. The focus was always the produce – beautiful purple carrots or candy cane beetroot pulled straight from the ground. During that time, they were awarded their second hat, and were really making a name for themselves. I learnt so much there. It’s still one of my favourite places to visit whilst on the Peninsula.

From there it was off to Vancouver, Canada. I was working at a restaurant called Hawksworth, which was named Canada’s best restaurant two years in a row whilst I was there. There was a huge Asian influence in Canada at the time, and I was introduced to all of these new flavours, like dashi and umeboshi, and really got into their West Coast oysters. The city is like a mini-Manhattan on the beach, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. There’s a huge Australian population in Whistler, so even though I didn’t know anyone, I never felt lonely. I spent about 18 months there before returning home to Melbourne.

Next, I worked with Jo Barrett and Shaun Quade at Bar Nacional in Docklands, inspired by the pintxos bars of San Sebastián. We had such a great time working together and using this giant wood-fired Josper oven. After a year there, we went on to open Lume in South Melbourne. There were five of us in the kitchen using a bunch of mind-bending techniques and liquid nitrogen. It was different to anything I’d done before, and we were awarded a hat in our first year.

It had always been a dream to go to New York. I’d made some solid connections whilst travelling and managed to get a stage at a few different restaurants, which is essentially a trial to see if you’re the right fit for the job. They’ll give you one ingredient – it might be a celeriac or a piece of fish – and you have an hour to prepare it. It’s not just about the finished product, they want to see your processes and how you work under pressure. I had six trials lined up over eight days and ended up landing a position at Eleven Madison Park.

The kitchen at Eleven Madison Park was an intimidating place to step into; it operated like an army regiment. There were 40 chefs in giant white hats and chef coats producing these incredibly technical, polished dishes. Everything was beautiful. It felt hard to believe, and I was asking myself whether I was good enough to be there. But like washing dishes back home, you just start at the bottom and work your way up. It’s gruelling, but there’s a great sense of comradery. In 2017, it was named the best restaurant in the world. After that, I spent three more years there as sous chef, and the restaurant maintained its three Michelin stars the entire time.

When the pandemic hit, the hospitality industry was first on the chopping block. I think it provided a necessary reset though, it really transformed the working environment. Suddenly restaurant owners had to convince their people to come back to work after restrictions lifted, which meant paying a liveable wage and offering better hours and conditions. It was such a shame that so many venues had to close, but it was a great opportunity for the next generation to come in.

During that time, I had started cheffing privately for some pretty affluent people. It gave me back some work-life balance, and allowed me and my partner Marina to travel to the Hamptons, Westchester, Miami, Costa Rica, California… Catering for dinner parties and the day-to-day lives of the rich and famous. When my son was born in 2023, it meant I was able to spend time with him and be there for the ride.

The dream is to eventually open a wood-fired wine bar in the West Village, followed by a second venue back home. In the meantime, working for myself has given me a sense of balance. I can travel and come home and put on special events like the one we’re planning with Sam and Nathan at Commonfolk. Nothing changes when you’re back here. No matter where you’ve been, you’re still the kid who went to school in Mornington and played footy for Hastings.

Tell us about A Fairytale In New York. What should we expect?

It’s really exciting to be doing something in this big open format, in this space that Sam dreamt about opening when we first worked together all those years ago. I’m excited to be able to bring my experience into the mix and work with the kitchen team here to create something really special.

My style isn’t necessarily fine dining, but it’s very intentional. Everything on the plate serves a purpose and is inspired by seasonality. There are micro-seasons between seasons and produce that might be at its best for one week of the year. So, we’ll be talking to the local farmers, butchers, and seafood purveyors and asking them what they’re excited about. It’s nice to have broad brushstrokes of the menu, but we’ll refine the offering based on the best produce available that week.

Considering where we are, I'm excited to incorporate coffee into the menu. I’ve been working on a baked beetroot dish that uses spent coffee grinds. Kind of like salt baking, it really elevates the earthiness of the beets. It’s about being playful and spontaneous, I’m often tweaking things at the very last minute.

The drinks list will be Sam’s domain. The wine scene is obviously booming here, and we’ll be going back to our roots in Red Hill and offering some of Avani’s natural wines to accompany the meal, along with some more traditional options from local producers.

You’re only home for a short time. Where will you be eating whilst you’re here?  

I’m definitely going back to Montalto, it’s just got the most incredible setting. That kitchen garden with the vineyard backdrop. They’ve got this amazing wood-fired grill that they work on, and their pizza dough in the piazza is just so good. It’s super relaxed and family friendly, so it’s a great spot to take the kids, too.

I also want to check out Le Bouchon in Balnarring Village, I’ve heard great things. The team at The Somers General are always doing something exciting, and it’s just around the corner from my Mum and Dad’s house, so I often eat there. It feels like home.

It’s going to be a whirlwind trip, but you’ll probably find me drinking a fair bit of coffee here at Commonfolk, too.