MEET THE AUSSIE CHEF WHO’S KING OF THE LONDON FOOD SCENE, THANKS TO HOME COMFORTS AND HARD GRAFT.
We wouldn’t blame you if Brett Graham wasn’t on your radar – his restaurant, The Ledbury, is far away in west London’s tycoon-infested streets. Still, the prestigious ‘World’s Best 50 Restaurants’ list has him as the top Australian chef on the planet. For the second year running, The Ledbury is one of only two UK venues to feature, with Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner just cutting in above him. The 36-year-old son of a tractor salesman from Newcastle, NSW, has gone to Britain, taken on Ramsay, two generations of Rouxs and Blumenthal’s own legendary Fat Duck and beaten them harder than he does his eggs. As a kid it was ingredients, not cookery, that captivated him. “Food was fuel,” he grins. “Cheap steaks, all the meat well done. That’s how you grew up in Australia at the time.” Aged 15, he’d hoped for work experience with a vet, but was given a slot in the kitchen at Newcastle’s Scratchleys on the Wharf, where he impressed so much they offered him a job. He declined, but two days later changed his mind. Then, at 18, Sydney beckoned and he discovered the gruelling realities of restaurant life. “It was the hardest job I’ve ever had,” he says of his time under chef Liam Tomlin at Banc. “I spent months on vegetables.” After Graham complained of 120-hour weeks and two-day headaches, Tomlin told him to bugger off back to the mines where he belonged. “I thought, I’m going to show this fucking guy.” Within three years he’d won the Josephine Pignolet Award, which funds young chefs to seek kitchen experience overseas. He then grabbed a slot at two-michelin-starred The Square in London working under Philip Howard, and by 22, was leading cooks 10 years his senior. Twelve months later, Howard asked Graham to open a restaurant. Things started roughly at The Ledbury. “Some of the reviews were shockers,” he says. “It’s hard to take. You’re working your nuts off and some guy [critic Michael Winner] says your restaurant should be a car park.” In response, Graham decided to dial down the French and turn up the Australianness, his food became simpler, with unnecessary carbs and dairy removed. “I don’t take it too