The man at the helm of a London restaurant with two Michelin stars tells Barbara Sweeney about cheese sandwiches and a Hunter region childhood.
e’s one of the world’s leading chefs and his London restaurant, The Ledbury, has not only been awarded two Michelin stars but it also sits at the number 10 spot on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, a UK guide. Several London newspapers have declared it the UK’S top restaurant. Aged just 36, Brett Graham’s rise has been remarkable — and intriguingly this is the first establishment at which he has been head chef. His success, as Brett tells it, is down to an inner competitive drive, determination and a prodigious work ethic, learnt from his parents, Jeff and Jenny Graham. Brett grew up in Williamtown, a very small dot on the map north of Newcastle, with his parents and his older sister, Renee. The culinary career began when he did a year 10 work experience placement with Newcastle seafood restaurant Scratchleys On The Wharf. Brett was so taken with the action that, after working his day shift, he asked to stay on and do the night one as well. Within three days the owner had offered him a job. Three years later, in 1997, third-year apprentice Brett moved to Sydney and one of the most ambitious new restaurants of the day, Banc in Martin Place. It was while at Banc that Brett won The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide/ Josephine Pignolet Young Chef Award, which included a flight to London and introductions to chefs. “I thought I’d go to England for a year, save up some money and travel,” Brett says. But after he worked at a two Michelin-starred restaurant, The Square, its chef and co-owner, Philip Howard, proposed that they open a new restaurant with Brett in charge. “When I agreed, I was 23 years old,” Brett says. “It was a big risk. I hadn’t developed a repertoire of dishes before arriving in England. I’d never been a head chef,
Hnever had to write a menu. I went to London as an open book and I landed there full of that real, raw, Australian let’s-have-a-go energy, determined to make the experience work towards my career.” The Ledbury opened in 2005, by which time Brett had another compelling reason to stay on in London; Natalie James, who is now his wife. The same year, Brett received a call from one of his teachers in Newcastle, Reinhold Forster, who had a plan to start a culinary scholarship for TAFE students. Back then Brett wasn’t so sure about the scholarship bearing his name. “I felt a bit weird,” he says. “I was only 24. Reinhold was the driving force. But I wanted the students to understand that just because they’d done an apprenticeship in Newcastle that didn’t mean they had to have a small horizon. “I wanted them to get exposure to top-level hospitality in the UK, with the idea that they would return home and invigorate the local industry. It’s made me incredibly proud over the years, with guys like Troy Rhoades-brown of Muse Restaurant in Pokolbin, Eliza Taylor, who now works with Maggie Beer, and Chris Thornton of Restaurant Mason in Newcastle winning the scholarship.” Trips home occur fairly regularly: he was in Newcastle last year to mark 10 years of the scholarship and was back in the country earlier this year to appear on the cooking show Masterchef. And Australia is never far from his thoughts. “So many great young Aussies come to work for me,” Brett says. “What I love about them is how positive they are. They want to put their heads down and are not afraid to work hard.” For more information on the Brett Graham Scholarship, visit hunter.tafensw.edu.au/students/pages/scholarships.aspx