Life“ perfect environment ”
is all about taking the good and bad, bringing it all together and creating the
“There was a lot of love and emotion - great characters, good people and to this day they are some of the best people you could work for or with,” he said.
“I was away from home for the first time, out of the country for the first time and working some serious hours, but I was in a kitchen with Jamie Oliver. It was pretty surreal and life-changing.”
While there was a lot to learn, he was also afforded incredible opportunities, such as being sent on all-expenses-paid trips to source produce; tasting fine wines, meeting olive oil producers and seeing real Mozzarella being made. Sometimes they’d even get to go out and help Jamie Oliver on his farm where he was filming.
“It did a lot for everybody - not just for the underprivileged kids but for the staff - it was a special place,” said David.
“I grew up over there in a sense – I was in my early 20s and I got a real grasp of what life is all about.”
David was having the time of his life and on a high, but after four years it was all about to come crashing down. He wanted to get some experience at Michelin Star level and left Fifteen for a chance to work at Maze under partners Gordon Ramsay and Jason Atherton - and it was a kitchen nightmare.
“It was horrible - a complete contrast in working environments,” he said.
“It was a complete backflip on everything I’d done in the first chapter of my overseas experience - everyone was out to put everyone down, there was verbal and physical harassment - it was horrendous. But I wanted to do Michelin star - I wanted to come home with Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay on my resume.”
David lasted a year at Maze. He admits to ringing up his mum and crying on the phone every night, having given up what was an incredible lifestyle only to be plunged into misery.
“But these are the choices you make and everything happens in life for a reason,” he said.
“And I learnt a lot about the mentality of chefs at the highest level - I learnt more in that short time than four years with Jamie - about discipline and structure.”
David said at Michelin star level, the kitchen ran with military precision and anything less than perfection was unacceptable. Junior employees were pushed to capacity and the pressure was constant and intense, while David says those who managed to advance up the line were “brainwashed” into an established and accepted culture of abuse and bullying. There was screaming, yelling and even punching and he worked from 7am until 1am, with no breaks, food or water.
“I felt sick for a year - I’d wake up in the morning anxious - I didn’t want to go,” he said.
The experience may have left him a little scarred, but it also left him determined to make a difference, and he returned to Melbourne knowing he could handle just about anything.
“Life is all about taking the good and bad, bringing it all together and creating the perfect environment,” he said. “You take what you need from the experience.” He spent some time at a number of prominent Melbourne venues, but was unsettled and struggling to come to terms with life in Australia after all the excitement of his overseas experience.
It didn’t help that he was alone, while his then girlfriend Sally was spending three years studying on the Gold Coast.
Sally and David had known each other as teenagers in Wodonga, but it wasn’t until she holidayed in London and made contact with him there, that a relationship began to develop. She returned to spend the final year in London with him and they returned to Melbourne together – marrying four years ago.
Over time David realised he no longer wanted to work for someone else and was ready to go it alone and create his own destiny. Having made friends with the owners of Wodonga’s Broadgauge, a restaurant located in the former station precinct, he decided to step up when they announced they were ready to move on, and turn it into his own.
The time was right for the couple, who had added daughters Annabel and Ivy to the family, to trade in their “run down” two bedroom apartment in bayside Melbourne for a considerably more substantial house and garden in Wodonga.
“I had the opportunity to live the dream of opening my own restaurant,” said David.
“I’d always wanted to do it but not in Melbourne - there’s too much competition and the cost of living is too high – and you get to an age where you are ready to reap the rewards of family life and have a comfortable lifestyle.”
And it seems Wodonga grew up with him, the central business district being revitalised and turned into a regional capital with all new assets and infrastructure including the multi-million dollar Junction Place development. A new shopping complex has opened, a cinema centre and hotel with 90 rooms is on the way and the city has longer term plans to turn nearby barren land into a broader business precinct with residential apartments.
David said he believes he got in at the right time, becoming part of a bustling entertainment precinct with a variety of venues and its own sense of community that is becoming popular with both locals and tourists. He has also seen Australian cuisine evolve, particularly in country towns, where new chefs have arrived and are introducing a much more sophisticated and international approach to their offering.
At Miss Amelie, David has drawn on his experience in some of the best restaurants in London and Melbourne to create something entirely new that’s all his own, incorporating European style and using modern techniques.
“I guess that was my niche - it was the food direction that brought me to Miss Amelie - but I had to keep in mind the clientele I was going to serve,” he said.
“I didn’t want it to be too tricky or to have a menu riddled with words diners don’t understand - that was important to me - and I had to get it right from the word go.”
He is particular and a perfectionist - passionate about presentation and exploring a range of textures on each plate, while providing customers with impeccable service in a pristine environment.
“That’s my style and that’s my direction - I’m a massive believer that people eat with their eyes - but you need to back that up with flavour as well,” he said. >>
Sally took on the interior design challenge, meticulously considering the decor and each fitting to create their signature space, enjoying the way it is now illuminated by the gentle pink glow of the restaurant’s soft neon sign. They settled on the name Miss Amelie because they thought it was fun and sexy. It was also the name of a woman the couple met on a train while travelling in Europe. The artwork for their “brand” was created exclusively by Canadian artist Jenny Liz Rome.
“She was welcoming and helpful to us while we were travelling and her characteristics are what we wanted in our restaurant,” said David.
In the open kitchen a close-knit team is deep in concentration, painstakingly creating and testing each component of a dish, but David says they’re also having a good time and enjoying what they do. A sign on the wall in the room out the back says “work like it’s your own business” and that’s the way the team operates, understanding that whatever success they achieve, they achieve together.
“I had some world class mentors and chefs and it made me the person I am today, and that’s the legacy I get to pass down to the chefs working for me now in Wodonga,” said David.
“I’m the complete opposite to an autocratic-style boss - I travelled around the world in search of the perfect working environment and I created it here at home.”
David said it’s a family environment where everyone works together and respects each other and where young people starting out in hospitality can learn skills they once had to leave the country to experience.
“It’s important for young people to have direction, security and stability as well as a sense of ownership and belonging,” he said.
“I’m trying to create an institution at Miss Amelie where people can come and learn - and they don’t want to leave.”