After nine years at the helm of Manuka Woodfire Kitchen, chef Kenny McHardy says at Shirley’s, there is no ego on the menu at his new wine bar in Fremantle’s East End, where he’s channelling the lessons of a lifetime into the space where he says he wants to “look after the locals.”

How did Shirley’s come about, and what can we expect?

It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I’m limited in what I can consistently do at Manuka, so handing out pastry recipes and then cooking them to perfection in a wood oven is a challenge. I’ve always wanted to do something where I’m basically back to doing recipes that are decades old, some passed down through my family, others through the restaurants I worked at.

Who is Shirley?

The name is my wife Jodie’s grandmother, but it also suggests comfort, home, and warmth. We get a lot of ladies come through, and we just wanted to create a safe space in Fremantle. We were going to do outdoor dining as well, but we pulled back on that. We’ve got everything contained inside these four walls. 

So, while you’re known for the food at Manuka Woodfire Kitchen, is Shirley’s a restaurant or a bar?

We like to think of ourselves as a wine bar. We’ve got a bar that you can sit up on. Florian, my restaurant manager from Manuka, is a sommelier who wrote the wine list, and Ellery, our manager [at Shirley’s Fremantle], has created an amazing cocktail list. There’s a heavy focus on wine, and it’s been great to be broad with that—with wines from California, New Zealand, Italy, Spain and Australia.

The message is to expect something other than a Manuka experience.

On the food side, Manuka has become known for its big dishes. It’s sharing and challenging if you’re a solo diner or even as a couple to get a taste of the whole menu. With Shirley’s, everything is individual. You can buy a smoked fish pie and have a beer for fifteen bucks, or you can come in and order everything off the menu and have a bloody good night. And have some aged steak as well.

It sounds like the back-to-basics approach really agrees with you?

I absolutely love it. I’m doing things I enjoy, like making custard tarts or even a trifle. I’ve also got a great little baker’s oven, and everything is fresh every day. I make gluten-free focaccia and fresh bread with spelt flour, and we bake fresh tart cases. It’s about 50% baked, and the other 50% off the wood grill. But the menu keeps evolving.

Would it be fair to say that the pastry side is key to Shirley’s experience?

I don’t want to say we’re a licensed bakery, but I feel like that sometimes. I’m doing a lot of pastry work. You can buy proper puff pastry for about $40 a kilo or make it. Butter is $16 a kilo, so it costs about $8 or $9 for two kilos of puff pastry. Nothing tastes better than handmade. We combine that with Mandurah mullet, which we fillet, brine, smoke, and then make a bechamel with fennel, leek, onion, garlic and a bit of lemon zest. Milk, nothing else, no stocks. And then allowing that smoked fish to come through in a pie. 

Do you feel like there are things you’re doing now at Shirley’s that you wouldn’t have expected five or ten years ago?

I was always of the mindset that I’m never going backwards in my career when it comes to recipes. I was going to move forward and stay innovative. But now I’m like, the best recipes are the ones I left behind.

So, age and experience are elements that come into play?

With Shirley’s, I don’t need to put any ego on the menu. And, I used to worry about things day-to-day, week-to-week. But now, I realise that you just look at it all over a year – don’t start questioning too much at this stage, and just keep on.

Read more: Where to eat in Fremantle

Images © Jo Tuney

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