Five Minutes with Red Spice Road Executive Chef, John McLeay

Published on: 23-Sep-2016
Five Minutes with Red Spice Road Executive Chef, John McLeay

John McLeay's love affair with Asian food began in his early twenties on a trip to Thailand. Overwhelmed by a symphony of new sights, smells, sounds, flavours and exotic ingredients, John started his culinary adventures through Asia and has never looked back.

When John McLeay fell into cooking, the thought of regular travel to Asia as part of his job was not even a consideration. Fast forward to the present and John does just that with his role as Executive Chef at Red Spice Road, Red Spice QV and Burma Lane taking him on regular trips to Thailand, Vietnam, Burma and surrounds. These regular sojourns help to fuel John’s passion and expertise for South-East Asian cuisine.

With extensive experience under his belt from restaurants such as the Livebait, Botanical, No 3 Station Pier and the Establishment, John was a natural fit when he took the reigns at Red Spice Road in late 2007. He quickly cemented his reputation behind the woks of this iconic laneway restaurant, with The Age Epicure lauding his food as “uniformly impressive”.

You can taste John's passion for the unique Asian flavours found in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, China, Burma, Laos and Japan, which he re-interprets with a generous dash of modern Australian style back in the Red Spice Road and Burma Lane kitchens.


Q: What is the ‘can’t miss’ foodie event in your calendar each year?

A: Well for me it’s Red Spice Road’s Laneway event which we do for the Melbourne food and wine festival. Other than that I always enjoy the shared table luncheons which are held monthly, It’s a great chance to catch up with other chef’s.


Q: How long have you been a chef and why did you decide to pursue this career?

A: Hmmm, it’s been pretty much 33 years. I kind of fell into the career, I didn’t really enjoy school and ended up doing work experience in a large hotel where I got thrown into the kitchen. I didn’t end up going back to school. As they say, the rest is history.


Q: Can you explain your food philosophy?

A: I try not to over complicate things and working with Asian food it is very flavour driven, if you play around with most Asian cuisines too much you lose what the food is meant to be.

In saying that though sometimes you need to play around with different ingredients with different cuisines, for example I really think fennel is a natural with Asian flavours as the aniseed flavour of it easily fits in.

Oh also, my chef’s would tell you my philosophy is “fresh and vibrant” they get sick and tired of me saying it.


Q: If you weren’t a Chef, what would you be?

A: Like a lot of people I would’ve loved to be a professional sportsmen. Three small things held me back from my doing this 1. Talent 2. Motivation 3. Genetics


Q: What is your favourite ingredient?

A: Always a tough one to answer so I’ll name a few.


Scallops - love their beautiful sweet flavour and they go well with so many things


Pork - in all shapes and forms, I couldn’t live without it. Whether it’s cured , dried or used fresh, it’s amazingly versatile. I guess one word sums it up “BACON”


Chilli - I just simply couldn’t cook without it, adds so much balance to so many recipes.


Truffles - the thing I’m most jealous of Western chefs being able to use. I adore the amazing earthy flavour.


Q: What do you like to eat at home when nobody’s looking?

A:  Fajita’s such an easy no fuss thing to eat at home. Grab a fajita pack some tinned red kidney beans, tinned corn, chorizo and some salad ingredients are you’ve got a tasty meal in 10 mins.

Oh and Cadbury chocolate, I love the stuff and it must love me because it seems to want to stay around on my stomach.


Q: If you could invite any Chef for dinner, who would it be and why?

A: I’ll go 2 ways with this. Firstly one of my best mates Adam Trengove simply because I love his company.

And the other one is Anthony Bourdain, like most chefs I love his programs and books and let’s face it, he would have some kick-ass stories.


Q: What is the best piece of advice you could give to aspiring chefs?

A: Gather as much knowledge as possible, travel, read and experiment, basically immerse yourself into what you do. Many other chefs would say work hard but I think work smart is better advice.

Oh and try as hard as you can to retain your friends, to many young chefs lose their friends due to extreme work hours. Also try and socialize with people from industries other than hospitality, it just makes you more well rounded as a person




Unique South-East Asian style dining experience in the heart of Melbourne.

The stunning space, friendly team and delicious food make Red Spice Road and Red Spice QV the perfect destination for a fun and fabulous meal with colleagues, friends or family.

Led by acclaimed chef John McLeay, their menu emphasises freshness, presentation and above all, flavour. Their philosophy is food should look great and taste even better.

Their menu draws on flavours we love using Melbourne’s freshest ingredients to create delicious modern Asian food with Melbournian attitude in the heart of the city. Choose from the extensive menu, great value banquet options, or ask our knowledgeable staff to suggest the perfect menu for you.


Red Spice Road, 27 McKillop St, Melbourne CBD | (03) 9603 1601 | Find out more 

Red Spice QV, 37 Artemis Lane, Melbourne CBD | (03) 8660 6300 | Find out more


Citibank customers can enjoy a free bottle of award-winning wine, every time they dine and pay with their Citibank card at Red Spice Road and Red Spice QV.

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