After four decades in the restaurant business, the chef tips his hat to his peers and the rising stars of Australia’s ever-evolving dining scene.
The chef talks kitchen heroes and bright young things
I recently turned 60, a milestone that has got me thinking about the past 40-odd years of my restaurant life and where Australia is on its own culinary journey. I may be heading towards the end of my career but many others are just starting out.
It’s gratifying to see some brilliant young talent in the kitchens and on the floors of so many restaurants. In Melbourne, my dear friend, Ben Shewry, is cooking at the top of his game at Attica in Ripponlea. The same applies to Dan Hunter at Brae, in regional Victoria’s Birregurra, which features magnificent gardens and accommodation. Both are deserving of their places on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Another regional gem can be found in Geelong, where Aaron Turner has created the fantastic Igni. And, of course, Ross Lusted at The Bridge Room and Peter Gilmore at Quay are still cooking up a storm in Sydney.
All of these restaurants have much in common. They strive for perfection every day, they achieve a sense of greatness and they encourage their staff. That last point is pertinent. When I started in this business four decades ago, there weren’t many chefs mentoring up-and-coming talent. But a stack of chefs from my era – Tetsuya Wakuda and Peter Gilmore to name just two – have inspired a whole new generation.
I was lucky enough to work with Kylie Kwong (Billy Kwong), Mike McEnearney (No. 1 Bent St) and Ross Lusted in their early days of cooking. They’ve all gone on to great things and their focus on the very best ingredients Australia has to offer inspires many. I hope that I played some small part in their success.
In Sydney’s Chippendale, my old Wockpool chef, Mat Lindsay, is cooking incredible food at Ester (and baking the best restaurant bread in town). And I’m really excited for Phil Wood, who I was privileged to work with for eight years, as he joins Point Leo Estate, a winery restaurant on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. I expect great things from him.
I also look at the chefs who work for me now – they have the talent to do whatever they like but they choose to stand by my side. I’m immensely proud of them.
There are plenty of other chefs I admire, including Dan Hong, whose bustling Chinese restaurant, Mr Wong, in Sydney is the real deal; and Danielle Alvarez, who oversees an experience that includes all the fire-cooked food a person could want at Fred’s in Paddington. This is great produce and fantastic craft.
Christian McCabe and Dave Verheul have the same focus on quality at Embla, in the heart of Melbourne, where I always order the wood-fired roast chicken. The team at Gauge in South Brisbane are making spectacular food, too. And in the revolving doors of the restaurant world, talented chef Analiese Gregory, who was working the stove at Bar Brosé in Sydney, recently moved to Franklin in Hobart to replace David Moyle – another great young cook, who is returning to his Melbourne roots to focus on new venture Longsong.
It’s incredible how much food – and the restaurants serving great food – has changed in the past 40 years. There are so many affordable, delicious options from Australia and beyond. How lucky are we to have such a wonderful variety of cuisines? I feel honoured to have been part of our great culinary history – and happy to see the amazing possibilities ahead.
Brae restaurant (above); Mike McEnearney, former head chef at Neil Perry’s Rockpool (left)
(Clockwise from top left) Attica’s Ben Shewry; neighbourhood dining at Sydney’s Ester; Ross Lusted from The Bridge Room; stir-fried king prawns with chilli sauce at Mr Wong