Long before restauranteur Andrew McConnell opened his first restaurant in Melbourne in 2001, he was working as a personal chef for some heavyweight rock stars – travelling Europe and the USA with Prince, Whitney Houston, Tom Jones and Bryan Ferry. It was a chance meeting with a music journalist in a London restaurant in 1993 that McConnell's working life would change forever. Writer Debbie Sharp had relocated to London in the '80s and to make some extra money on the side, she was a personal assistant to pop star Adam Ant. Sharp decided to start a food catering business, Food & Desire, and McConnell was her first Aussie recruit. "I arrived in London to enter the next phase of my career and to earn my stripes," recalls McConnell. "It was the middle of winter, and hardly where I wanted to be. The reality of working abroad was hellish, until I met Debbie through a waiter at the restaurant I worked who introduced us."
Within 24 hours of that first meeting, McConnell was on a plane to Barcelona to start cooking for Prince. "Debbie saw a gap in the market for healthier food options for musicians on the move. There was a need for a more balanced aspect to life on the road," he says. "Before I knew it I was on a plane and spent three months with Prince's entourage as his personal chef."
McConnell has kept menus and AAA laminates as memories – hinting he wish he had saved a lot more from that era. "I was pretty star struck and froze up when I met Prince, I can still remember it," he recalls. "He was with his partner Mayte Garcia at the time. We met a couple of times a week – there was a tight inner sanctum we could dip our toe in and out. It was an amazing experience to be around him at the height of his career." says McConnell.
Next came the opportunity to work with Whitney Houston in 1993, the year The Bodyguard was released. McConnell recalls his first Thanksgiving in an Amsterdam hotel with Houston and her family – all sitting around a table with gospel music playing, hands held as they gave thanks. "This tour was enormous," says McConnell. "We had chefs from the States to help perfect the palette they were used to and we had drivers and runners at our disposal, budget was of no limit. At the time Bobby Brown was dropping in and out and we'd see him regularly on the tour. We also flew in turkey and all the ingredients required from the States. Whitney took care of the entire crew from sound engineers to truck drivers and the band. There was no expense spared."
McConnell then moved to Chicago and continued to work for Sharp, cooking for one his heroes Bryan Ferry and Tom Jones. It was at the height of the '90s era when grunge went mainstream, rock bands flirted with electronica and Bjork had just released her debut self-titled album. "I was backstage with Bjork and Goldie. I was like wow, this is amazing. And then PJ Harvey. I constantly had to pinch myself because it was quite amazing to be in that situation."
Before I knew it I was on a plane and spent three months with Prince's entourage as his personal chef.
It was a long way from McConnell's childhood home in Box Hill, where he grew up the second eldest of six children. He loved art and painting – he just completed a 10-week refresher course last year – and didn't care much for sport while attending the footy-mad Marcellin College. It was his mother Margaret who saw her son had an interest in food and got him his apprenticeship at the Melbourne institution Marchetti's Latin. "Mum had three older kids and a 10-year break and then had three younger ones," says McConnell. "Having that dynamic in the house made me realise early I wasn't the only person in the world and that it wasn't all about me. I think it set me up well. Dad [Peter] was working a lot and while he was present, mum really ran the show at home."
When McConnell returned to Australia after his stint in the USA, he didn't stay for long, scoring a job in Hong Kong for three years working for Michelle Garnaut as head chef and then in Shanghai for a further two. "Getting a job working with Michelle as my first Head Chef job in my twenties in a country outside of where I trained was a huge boost for me. I couldn't stuff it up." The time in Asia allowed him to work hard and save money before returning to Melbourne. "I gained more experience. Working in Asia was structured, disciplined. I was managing six to eight chefs in Hong Kong and 25 in Shanghai. Having freedom and trust from Michelle was a great opportunity for me."
McConnell opened his first restaurant in Fitzroy – Diningroom 211 – with his ex-partner Pascale Gomes-McNabb, it was followed by Carlton's Mrs Jones and later took St Kilda's Circa to three hats. Then came Cumulus Inc on Flinders Lane in 2008 and Cutler & Co in Fitzroy a year later, with both restaurants celebrating all-too-rare 10th birthdays. He's had other ventures come and go in between including Golden Fields in St Kilda but runs the popular Supernormal in the CBD which feeds up to 700 customers a day. Just a few weeks ago, he signed the lease on a new site at 33 Russell Street, metres from Supernormal and other Melbourne dining heavyweights such as Chin Chin and Coda. "The minute I walked in I loved it," says McConnell. "It was a (Bang and Olufsen) store, but the fit out has allowed all the original features to remain intact. So it looks like I'm opening another restaurant. It won't be until the end of the year and I'm not entirely sure what I'll do yet ... but I won't be opening another Supernormal or Marion there."
He won't rule out a Sydney venue but doesn't want to spoil his connection with the city as a place of rest and relaxation. He recently celebrated his 50th birthday with a wild party at Bondi's Icebergs, which was quite an affair by all accounts. "I live in fear," he says. "Nothing is a given in any business but particularly food, it's quite heavily anchored to fashion and the economy. Our customer base is strong and not fickle, but I don't take it for granted. I still pinch myself and that's what keeps me heavily motivated in evolving."
Life on the road is rather different these days for McConnell, who says he's more than happy to pack kids bikes and disconnect from the grind of the city. McConnell, who is now remarried, says his three-year-old son, Henry, taught him one of life's greatest lessons. Together the blended family comes with three teenagers. "I put a higher value on time now," he says. "I don't take time with family for granted. In the past, I may have missed that and am trying to make that up now," says McConnell having just done a road trip around the Mornington Peninsula with all kids – with electronic devices and phones locked away.
The rock stars keep on knocking – U2 and The Rolling Stones were among the many stars to dine at Cutler & Co – but it was news that contemporary Chinese artist and activist Ai Wei Wei was dining at Supernormal that had McConnell most star struck. "I did contemplate doing a cameo drop-in," he says, smiling. "I'll be the first to admit I would have loved to have a chat with him."
Cutler & Co celebrates 10 years with a variety of events over winter. McConnell will cook with Marco Pierre White for Sunday Best at Canvas House, as part of Good Food Month on June 9. Visit goodfoodmonth.com.