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Red Spice Road: crafting Melbourne’s best-loved pork belly

“The trick is in the sauce,” he says. “It’s so important to get the balance of that sauce right.”

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When Red Spice Road Executive Chef John McLeay first cooked up a dish of chilli caramel-glazed pork belly, he had no idea he was creating a staple that would remain popular for over a decade. Served with apple slaw and black vinegar, Melbourne’s two Red Spice restaurants now prepare around 40 tonnes of pork belly per year.
 
“I’ve heard that Red Spice Road’s pork belly is one of the main reasons for Friday afternoon food comas in the workplace,” says McLeay. “It’s like eating chocolate – very addictive.”
 
McLeay learned the culinary arts not in a classroom, but in the bustling kitchens of the Hotel Australia, a venerable Art Moderne tower since demolished to make way for the St. Collins Lane shopping centre. Trained in Western cooking, McLeay travelled across Asia and was struck by how Asian cuisiniers find equilibrium between vibrant and fresh flavours.
 
“Somehow, I’ve always been drawn to Asia,” he says. “A lot of Asian food has that sweet richness, but also that salad to balance it. Travelling around and tasting Asian food when I was in my early 20s really influenced me toward what I do now.”
 
Today, McLeay supervises Red Spice Road, its sister restaurant, Red Spice QV, and Burma Lane. He’s also responsible for designing new dishes and making sure that each restaurant’s menu stays fresh. When McLeay’s chilli caramel-glazed pork belly appeared on the menu at Red Spice Road in 2007, he was attempting to bring an Asian philosophy of flavour-balancing to Melbourne diners.
 
“The trick is in the sauce,” he says. “It’s so important to get the balance of that sauce right. If you don’t have enough of the chilli component, it tastes too cloying. But if you get the chilli right, it balances out beautifully. The black vinegar that you pour over it has a sourness that balances the sweetness and the richness of the pork.”
 
The dish took off immediately, and Red Spice Road had to tweak its preparation process to accommodate selling over 80 kilos of pork belly per day. Making a day’s worth of chilli caramel sauce consumes an entire 25-kilo bag of sugar. Red Spice chefs cook their pork belly overnight, adding to the logistical challenge of meeting public demand for the dish.
 
In 2011, McLeay toyed with taking the dish off the menu, replacing it with a preparation of wok-fried pork belly with Chinese broccoli, chilli and basil that he believed was at least as appetizing as the original. The result was something like the New Coke fiasco played out over an afternoon – Red Spice Road customers complaining or even walking out when they found the familiar dish absent.
 
“I call it the Great Pork Belly Debacle of 2011,” says McLeay jokingly. “The next day we had to put it straight back on the menu.”
 
Eleven years after its arrival in Melbourne, the dish shows no sign of falling from favour. The Age attributed Red Spice Road’s win of the Good Food Guide 2016 People’s Choice award to its pork belly. Red Spice Road and Red Spice QV set an example of modern and creative Asian fusion dining even as fusion restaurants multiplied across Melbourne during the 2010s.
 
“When we first started at Red Spice Road, we were cutting edge,” says McLeay. “Since then, a lot of restaurants have opened that are of a similar ilk.”
 
McLeay believes the restaurant’s continued influence comes from its communal approach to dining. Instead of the typical Western arrangement of seating diners at tables for two, four or six, visitors to Red Spice Road sit along an enormous circular table beneath a red gauze lantern. “Asian food is all about sharing,” he says. “We’re communal. We’re all about fraternity.”
 
Red Spice Road is also planning a four-day pork belly extravaganza for April, steeply cutting the cost of its signature dish. The restaurant anticipates selling at least a tonne of pork belly during the event.
 
McLeay recommends pairing his chilli caramel-glazed pork belly with a glass of Pinot Noir or Tempranillo, or with a refreshing cocktail like a mojito that will balance out the richness of the dish.

John McLeay’s award-winning chilli caramel-glazed pork belly is available now at Red Spice Road and Red Spice QV.