Emerson Rodriguez is the Hunter Valley’s most inconspicuous chef. Born in the capital of the Philippines, Manila, and raised in the province of Cavite until he was 11 years old, he is one of the most accomplished unsung chefs working in Australia today.
“I’ve been cooking for 24 years,” says Emerson, as he wipes down the shimmering stainless-steel benchtops of his kitchen at the end of another busy service.
“You don’t do something for this long if you don’t like what you’re doing and don’t have any motivation for it.”
Motivation is a key concept for Emerson. At age 40, he is the owner of two successful restaurants in the Hunter Valley: Emerson’s, his namesake, located in Lovedale, and his most recent venture, with mates Sam Alexander and Patrick Hester, the fiery Yellow Billy restaurant in Pokolbin.
Tonight, having pumped out non-stop meals in the space of two-and-a-half hours within his 40-seater restaurant, he is keen to get home and seize what precious little sleep he can get, before waking up early and driving to Sydney to inspect the fish markets with his supplier.
“By the time you get home after service, you’ve got that much adrenaline pumping through your body, it takes an hour or so to settle down,” Emerson explains. “I can usually survive on four hours sleep. I’ve been doing this for 20 years or so.”
Motivation mixed with sleep deprivation hasn’t always been the way for chef Emerson. His youth was plagued by poverty. His father passed away when he was six months old.
“Mum couldn’t afford much except dried fish and rice, so that’s pretty much all we ate when I was growing up in the Philippines,” he recalls.
Emerson spent his days as a boy working at his grandmother’s market stall. Jobs included collecting and carting handfuls of freshly killed chicken carcasses by their feet, slowly turning a lechon (whole pig) while it roasted over a fire, or rolling hundreds and hundreds of spring rolls. Times were tough.
Over time, though, the eclectic aromas of the market and street stall perfumes wafted their way into the young boy’s mind, soaking his synaptic pathways with the scent of the market, and laying the foundations for his future life.
“I had no choice to become a chef, I grew up around food,” Emerson explains as he drives down the M1 at 3.30am the next morning. “I can remember Mum and my aunt sautéing onions and garlic, and I just loved that smell. I still love it today.”
When he was 11 years old, Emerson moved with his Mum and step-dad from Manila to Australia. The family settled in Woodberry, near Beresfield, on the outskirts of Newcastle. At 16, he was kicked out of the local high school for "wagging". When his parents found out, he was kicked out of home as well.
“I guess I was just hanging around the wrong kids when I was young,” Emerson says. “I was on the dole for about six months until I got a job at Maccas, doing the breakfast shift. Then I’d push trolleys at Woolies in the afternoon, and then pack shelves at ‘Big Dub' (W) at night.”
Emerson says his fledgling career as a chef was sparked while working at the Golden Arches.
“Working at McDonalds was one of the best things I ever did. I learnt how to be responsible and fast and organised on the production line, and how to be clean in the kitchen as well. After that, I got offered an apprenticeship at Anchors Seafood Restaurant, and I haven’t looked back.”
Emerson visits the Sydney Fish Market as often as he can. Here, he meets with Novocastrian fishmonger Tony Wearne from Shane’s Seafood.
“I’m always looking for something different,” Emerson says, walking with baffling energy between boxes and crates of fresh and frozen fish.
“I’d love to get my hands on some mirror dory … it’s just as sweet but much cheaper than John dory. Hopefully, I can get some blue mackerel as well,” he continues. “People think of it as bait, but it’s beautiful eating fish and if you smoke it you can keep it longer… I usually just brine them, smoke them and serve it cold with a remoulade. It’s so popular.”
It’s just past 6am. Men, mostly, shout at each other across the cavernous lit space. Row upon row of blue boxes and white crates host a myriad of edible sea life; the colourful shells of mud crabs, the silvery flat body and beady eyes of a mirror dory, the distinctive yellow arc of kingfish tails, all resting on ice for the fishmongers and the chef to inspect. Emerson leans over to check the incisions that are cut into the tail of the yellow fin.
“Tuna is a pelagic fish, it moves, which is why they have so much fat content in the tail, because they’re burning it all the time, constantly swimming,” Emerson explains. “These cuts tell you about the quality of the fish, whether it’s good for sashimi or not … I like to buy a couple of top-end fish, like this, for Yellow Billy.”
Having walked past just about every box and crate of sea life stacked eight high on the wet concrete floor, Emerson gives Tony his list of wants, desires and demands and waits until the auction is over.
“Not a bad catch,” Emerson says later on, driving back home to the Hunter. “We got some sashimi grade squid, a 25-kilogram jewfish, a box of mackerel, a box of mirror dory, and some prawns … There’s nothing better than fresh seafood.”
The following week and 16 services later Emerson is up early again. It’s just gone 4am. He’s packing the car with rods and reels and tackle boxes to go fishing at Stockton beach.
“I can’t waste a day,” Emerson states. “I can’t just sit around at home doing nothing. It’s not who I am. Fishing on my day off is relaxing for me,” he says.
Standing with a surf rod in his hand, watching the waves roll in, he is still thinking about his businesses back in the Hunter.
“I was having lunch at Emerson's with some friends last year. It was the first time I’d ever sat down in my own restaurant and had a meal,” he says. “I looked around and saw the wait staff and thought about the chefs out the back cooking for us and it just hit me like a tonne of bricks … ‘Wow’, I thought, ‘I actually own a business, I employ people, I’m responsible for them … I actually contribute to society’."
There are no hats, no stars; there should be. There is, however, a relentlessly humble determination to work hard, for his family and for himself.
“My motivation comes from growing up with nothing in the Philippines, and just trying to be better than that, for my kids. It’s not about getting recognised or winning awards or anything like that," he says. “I work hard because I love what I do.”