A Taste of Experience 2017 in Review

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When reviewing the year that has been, we thought, who better to do so than hospitality icons who have seen the ups and downs of the Australian food industry? We’ve asked these top chefs and industry heroes to share a little insight on the bigger picture of a career in hospitality, what 2017 brought them, and where to next?

When did you first enter hospitality,
and why?

Maggie Beer: In many ways it was my parents’ influence that encouraged me towards hospitality; my father, particularly, was a great cook and was obsessive about freshness and quality. As a child I learnt so much without realising it. Even when financially there were really tough times in our family, quality of food never suffered. Then the luck of coming to live in the Barossa continued my journey. This is where I really learnt about seasonality, simply because we lived it and it framed my whole philosophy on food. I have never done any formal training as a chef. I cook from the heart and wholeheartedly encourage improvisation in the kitchen, always looking to what’s on hand for inspiration. Being self-taught has let me break rules I never even knew existed!

Donovan Cooke: I entered hospitality when I was 15 years of age. So that’s 34 years ago. I didn’t do very well at school so I left. Basically my apprenticeship was washing dishes and peeling potatoes. I actually figured out I was quite good at it, I remembered everything they told me, everything sunk in.

Guy Grossi: I was 15, and it was because my dad was a chef. I went to help out, peel some potatoes and sweep some floors and that was it.

Philippa Sibley: I started in “hospo’’ in the late 80’s. Starting behind the bar and naturally gravitating towards the kitchens. My first proper job in a reputable kitchen was at Tansy’s restaurant. I applied naively due to my mum misreading their ad as “reasonably qualified chef needed” instead of “recently qualified”. Pretty embarrassing but I conned my way into the position regardless and haven’t looked back.

What would you (as you are now) tell yourself then (when you first started out)?

MB: Be tenacious, have a point of difference, think laterally and be prepared to work like the blazes! And to trust that whenever one door closes another will open, even if it doesn’t happen straight away, it will happen. Everything makes more sense with hindsight I know, but it still amazes me that it was really only when we made the leap of faith to close the door on The Pheasant Farm Restaurant that we then had the time to regroup and come up with the plan for a purpose-built Export Kitchen. When that was built it seemed everything was on a fast track towards where we are now.

DC: Basically, back then it was all about what you put in is what you get out. The quicker you move up the ladder the quicker you get the money; to get up the ladder you need to have as much knowledge as possible, and more knowledge than everybody else. So that’s what I try and tell all my kids [through the kitchen] over the last 34 years; it’s all what you put in is what you get out of it.

GG: It will hurt, but it’s worth it.

PS: I’d tell myself to forget about weekends, meeting anyone outside of work and to look after my knees…I do miss my old knees!

How has the hospitality industry in Australia changed from when you first started out, to now?

MB: We’re very lucky in Australia to have such a diversity of cultures that we can swap and borrow from to make up our own version of local cuisine. We are such a young country so we are still developing an Australian cuisine; it’s an ever-growing thing, which is wonderful, but particularly in South Australian food ‘produce as the star’ will always be key.

DC: I can’t see as many younger people getting into it. Definitely before there used to be an abundance of young Australian kids that wanted to be chefs, now it’s all people from overseas on working holiday visas, or looking to study here. There are not as many young local Australians who want to be chefs or waiters at all anymore.

GG: It’s vastly different. There’s more restaurants, more quality venues, higher expectations from guests, more media influence.

PS: The industry has changed for the better big time. When I first started it was scary. These days chefs can’t afford to be self indulgently horrible to their staff because they are “stressed” or think they’re allowed to because they’ve worked for Marco or some-such. Kitchen environments are far more nurturing and educational now and so they should be. Many of the kids coming through don’t stick to it now though as they’ve be lead to believe cooking is fun and glamorous?! Cooking shows have a lot to answer for. I also wish they’d stop banging on about their anxiety! Millennials… Food wise there has been a real shift to respecting the seasons and local and indigenous produce. The cooking and presentation of food is more natural; less contrived.

What’s the best thing about the world of food in Australia?

MB: The fact that we are young enough in our food culture to still give anything a go, rather than be restricted by preconceived concepts of what can or can’t be done, or tied to traditions so ingrained that new thoughts never have the space to surface.

DC: I think Australia gives you a very diverse range of food. The seasons are virtually true to what they used to be 20 or 30 years ago in Europe; you never used to get any stuff from overseas. It all used to be local, so there were real seasons. When it was summer you always knew you had really good tomatoes and basil so the combinations were pretty simple over there. Now, because it’s easier to get stuff flown in from all around the world it’s a lot easier for chefs, but in Australia; everyone has asparagus on the menu at the moment because it’s in its prime. However in the winter you’d be looking at things like celeriac. So it’s a real season driven food scene. It is quite weird however, because all the best seafood is in winter, but everybody eats it in the summer.

GG: The quality and the variety. We are spoilt for choice. You can get any cuisine at such high standards. And accessibility, you don’t need to pay a fortune for good food.

PS: In Australia, and particularly in Melbourne, our multiculturalism contributes hugely to our food and dining experiences. Now, authenticity is really important to our discerning eaters.

What do you think we need more of?

MB: I’ve seen some amazing food ideas come to fruition against all odds and that really excites me. We need more of that ‘bigger picture’ thinking.

DC: Homegrown talent. I don’t think the kids want to do it anymore. As I say, it’s really difficult to get young, enthusiastic Australians to enter into hospitality. A lot of them start, and I don’t know if it’s too hard or they realise they have to work nights, and public holidays… trying to get the people who are really motivated to see it as a career rather than just a job. It’s gotta be a bit more than the job, it’s a way of life.

GG: Aspirational people to work in the industry, those who view hospitality as an honourable and viable career, with a commitment to learning.

PS: I think we have it covered as far as how many restaurants we have. I’d like to see more collaborations and more support of small local restaurants and cafes. We are lucky to have eager, talented young chefs and front of house professionals and they need to be encouraged. Hospitality isn’t seen as a “trade” as it once was. It’s a vocation!

What were the highs and lows of 2017 for you?

MB: 2017 has been another very busy year with a second series of The Great Australian Bake Off on Foxtel, another Masterchef appearance and a special that I filmed in Japan. I also released my most recent book ‘Recipe For Life’. I have two great passions; sharing my love of cooking delicious, simple food, and improving the health and nutrition of older people. I hope this cookbook does both but it’s not for ‘old’ people, it’s for everyone. I have been delighted to work with leading Alzheimer’s researcher Professor Ralph Martins in recent years and I have learned that if we are to avoid Alzheimer’s and other lifestyle diseases it is what we eat today that matters.

DC: I think, trying to set a business up [Ryne] is always a high and a low. You have the good points and the bad points. Like; sign the lease here, which was amazing, and then the builders come in, and you realise there’s been an issue with the grease trap. So that puts you behind schedule and that becomes a low point of the whole thing, because you can’t progress. Every day, there are highs and lows. To learn from them is the most crucial thing.

GG: The highs were getting two new venues open; Arlechin and Pezzo. The lows; opening two new venues at once!

PS: One of the highs this year was having nearly all of the worlds’ best chefs here in little old Melbourne for the big one! The San Pellegrino Top 100. What a coup! Biggest low by far was the tragic passing of my friend and industry legend, Jeremy Strode. Please pay attention to your peers and ask often: “Are you ok?”

What does 2018 hold in store?

MB: 2018 will no doubt hold more challenges and victories in equal measure, but I am committed to always keep an open mind when it comes to whatever crosses my patch. Some of my best decisions have been based on things I never had as part of my plan, so I never want to set things in stone. The simple fact that I love what I do makes every day a new chance to share my love of food with others. Helping people to bring the joy of a good food life into theirs on a daily basis is what drives me and I am lucky to have every opportunity to do so.

DC: Let’s get through 2017 yet. Now we’re trying to generate local and repeat clientele. 2018 hopefully is going to be an amazing year because we’ve [Ryne] had good reviews, we’ve had lots of people come back, and we’re just going to keep striving to get better on a weekly—daily—basis. At the bar we want to sell some things that people can snack on [such as Jamon Iberico and Oysters] while they’re waiting for a table, or if they just want to come in for a drink.

Basically I’m cooking food I’ve done for the last 34 years, but I’m doing it in a more up-to-date style. All the classic flavours I’ve done all my career, classic marriages but using modern techniques. All these fundamental things I did in the mid 90’s I’ve just kind of refined them because I’ve learned how to cook a little better.

As the weather changes, so will the menu become a lot lighter. More emphasis on fresh, summer flavours. Basically over each month I expect to change three quarters of the menu.

GG: Who knows, I’m still trying to plan next week!

What is your personal recommendation for a Melbourne restaurant?

MB: Attica.

DC: Depends what you want, Asian or Western. If I was going out with the wife and the kids, it would be somewhere in Fitzroy for crispy barbecue duck. Or if it was a bit more serious and I wanted to go for a steak I’d probably go to the Station Hotel in Footscray, because I live over that side of the water. If I was going for a little bit more Japanese style I’d go to Nobu, the wife likes the sushi bar at Nobu so I go there quite a bit. I like to go to either Estelle or Saint Crispin, and normally I just let Scott [Pickett] cook for us, the kids like it there as well.

GG: Hard question… there’s so many! I like simple dining and tasty food. I love Estelle Bistro or Movida.

PS: My favourite restaurants are Anchovy in Richmond where Thi and JY are doing amazing modern Viet cuisine (just celebrated my 50th there). Also had one of the best meals ever in Melbourne at Lume in South Melbourne. Shaun Quade is a star.

Cheese or dessert?

MB: Cheese, every time.

DC: Both.

GG: Cheese, every time.

PS: Believe it or not I’m not a pudding gal. Cheese for me!

Breakfast, brunch, or lunch?

MB: Brunch. It covers all bases!

DC: I’d rather go for lunch because you can drink alcohol.

GG: Love a lunch. Long lunch. Some rosé. Hopefully sunshine.

PS: Late breakfast. Chefs don’t do “brunch”, they know better and fear they may lose their powers if they do!

Megan Osborne

Megan Osborne is a freelance writer, but more importantly, a foodie. How can you not be living in a city like Melbourne? Every day holds an opportunity to find a new gem, and in between uploading photos of her cat on Instagram and generally making a mess in the kitchen, she’s on the lookout for the next tummy-satisfying diamond. Or goldmine—she’s not fussy.