Kurt samson during service at the Builders Arms
Kurt samson during service at the Builders Arms. Photo Tony Knox

Kurt Samsom

Kidneys convinced Kurt to consider a career in food. While still a kid in New Zealand, a friends father brought some kidneys home, cooked and ate them. It was his smile of contentment as he finished that intrigued Kurt. Then there was home. "My grandmother was great in the kitchen - she would do meals that were just amazing. They were always very straightforward but with heaps of vegies - anything from seven to twelve but it all came out hot."

Tastes had always been important to him, he remembers at about twelve working out sandwich combinations. "Just simple things like realising that if you put a little bit of beetroot in a salad sandwich and a little bit of mayonaise" you had a different product.

Kurt started his cooking career in Auckland at a little Italian place called "Franco's One On The Side". Here the herb supply was sourced from the botanical gardens which, apart from being very low cost, had an excellent variety. You just had to be discreet when harvesting. It was his introduction to fresh local produce.

But the most important of these early experiences was at a little Turkish place, Carvan Sarai, run by a woman called Claire Hindmarsh, whose travels in the Middle East gave her a love of Levantine food and a Turkish husband.

Kurt says, "I was at TAFE and they were teaching me French technique and then all of a sudden I came across this little Turkish kitchen and it was just like everything I've been taught about how to cook and they didn't follow any of it. But the flavour was fantastic." There was a dish using diced shoulder of lamb. "The guy, he used to be a truck driver in Turkey, put the lamb and onions in a cold pot, sprinkled it with some cracked black pepper, a big dollop of tomato paste and a handful of salt." Then covered it, cooked it for half an hour to draw out the moisture from the meat and onions, added flat runner beans, turned it down and walked away. "When the meat was cooked the beans were all kakhi coloured but the flavour was just awesome."

Kurt attempted to do it as he'd been taught at school - floured and sealed the meat, then added the onions and so on but the result was pale in comparison - even the texture of the meat was different. These experiences steered his palate towards the Middle East and defined the food he would cook.

Then as all young antipodeans do, he set sail for London and, in his case, two and a half years with Antony Worrell Thompson at "Menage à Trois". Kurt says that Antony "showed you a style where you didn't have to spend so much time on dishes." Where you could get the best out of good produce without having to "cook something for hours and turn it into something else." Working in such a high profile kitchen was a valuable learning experience.

The thing he regrets about his time in England is that he didn't make it across the Channel and do a stage with Raymond Blanc whose approach to food had really impressed him.

But in 1992 Australia, and Perth in particular, called. He went to 44 King Street, Phil Sexton's seminal Perth cafe. There he worked with David Coomer. David's current restaurant, Star Anise, is regarded as one of Perth's best. Kurt came Melbourne a year and a half later and Andrew Blake, who he'd met during his time in Perth, "set me up with Ian Curley" at The Point for a stint over Christmas.

He left there to join Greg Malouf who had recently taken over the dining room at O'Connell's. He says that Greg's "whole style was very similar to how I liked to cook myself." At that stage (1996) "Greg he was still finding his own feet we were doing things like devilled lamb with garlic Yorkshire pudding. We weren't doing a lot of Middle Eastern just little variations, a little twist, on every dish - he was still finding himself."

Kath Kalka was in charge of the pub meals. Greg "wouldn't have anything to do with it - he used to go over there with a whole lot of meat scraps and say 'turn this into money' and when he wasn't looking it used to end up in the bin."

Kurt says that he and Greg shared a style and passion for food though "I was probably a bit robust and he taught me how to refine it."

The inevitable career path beckoned and in late 1999, Kurt moved to Ownesville as chef. Here, over the next couple of years he continued to refine his style. Often with dishes that paralleled Greg Malouf's at MoMo.

There are some flavours that just go together "I automatically think eggplant, lamb, hommus. Because you can use tahini with lamb, that goes wonderfully. Caponata, sweet and sour, that little bit of fat you're going to get with it - great."

He likes to work within a known range of flavours - "Its not pushing the boundaries because they're proven boundaries."

He believes in the saying "what grows together goes together." It's only in the modern world that one can transport perishable items around the globe. "When lambs around it's springtime. Look what people put with lamb - peas, asparagus, broad beans, artichokes." Using spring vegetable just makes sense.

All chefs have their own method for creating menus. Kurt says, "I'm a shocker - I don't test or trail dishes. When I'm putting a menu together, it'll take me two or three days, but I'm always running the flavours through my head."

After leaving Owensville in March 2003 he moved to Harveys in South Yarra and introduced the locals of this salubrious suburb to the culinary delights of the Levantine. Then back with Greg at Momo for a moment until finally tiring of 'high-end' cooking, he went The Windsor Castle in Chapel St. The business eventually expanded to take in the Builders Arms in fast gentrifying Fitzroy.

Running two establishments Kurt found he was spending more time in the car than the kitchen. In the end he let the Windsor Castle go and plumped for the Builders. It was here that this interview took place and its accompanying photographs were shot. Just in time as Kurt is off to Perth to join his old friend David Coomer in a venture opening in March 2009. Pata Negra (black foot) is both their logo, the pig used to produce Jamon Iberica and the name of the business. It will serve food based on tapas from Spain with Moorish elements. Nothing fancy just good straight forward interesting dishes served in the modern manner.

Influences: his friend's kidney eating father for his involuntary expression of the sensual pleasure of eating. His grandmother for her taste and ability. Clair Hindmarsh's Turkish cafe in Auckland for the introduction to the flavours of the Levatine. Antony Worrell Thompson for his ability to make a simple, telling statement. Greg Malouf for his ability to refine flavours. He has also been impressed by Garry Rhodes for "what he did for Brit food. It was so simple but he just took it to the next level". Phillip Johnson "his food is so simple but the flavours are are always on the money."