Danielle Al­varez has man­aged to both im­press and an­noy one of the most in­flu­en­tial culi­nary fig­ures in the world, and she has done it by open­ing the hottest restau­rant in Syd­ney. It’s what hap­pened when the young chef left the iconic Cal­i­for­nian bistro Chez Panisse helmed by Al­ice Wa­ters to start Fred’s in Padding­ton with restau­ra­teur Justin Hemmes.

“I watched her cook for a long time,” Wa­ters tells WISH from her home in Berke­ley. “I ap­pre­ci­ated her and I was very un­happy when she left Chez Panisse.” Wa­ters is widely cred­ited with start­ing the farm-to-table move­ment in the 1970s when she opened a restau­rant mod­elled on a neigh­bour­hood French bistro. She wanted to feed her friends with fresh and tasty sea­sonal pro­duce and ended up hav­ing to go di­rectly to lo­cal farm­ers to get it. At a time when Amer­ica was known for its grow­ing in­ter­est in fast food, this think­ing was a rev­o­lu­tion. Today farm-to-table is the guid­ing prin­ci­ple of restau­rants around the world and is what in­spired the es­tab­lish­ment of Fred’s.

Al­varez, from Mi­ami, spent four years work­ing at Chez Panisse and learnt enor­mously from Wa­ters, her staff and her phi­los­o­phy of food. “All the other places I worked at taught me about restau­rants,” she says. “But Chez Panisse showed me how to cook.” The 32-year-old de­scribes the ex­pe­ri­ence not only as a rad­i­cal de­par­ture from her pre­vi­ous jobs, but as rather “mag­i­cal”.

“It was a sin­gle set menu and each day was dif­fer­ent. There was a group of four or five chefs and we would each take a course and the head chef would talk about what he en­vis­aged the dish to be. But it was com­pletely up to you to cre­ate what­ever it was,” she says. “At 5pm we would put up a plate of food, we would all taste it to­gether and cri­tique it and make ad­just­ments and by 5.30pm we would be done and start din­ner ser­vice. The next day it would be a blank slate and you would start all over again. It was pretty mag­i­cal to have that kind of fresh­ness, day in and day out.”

The food was made from scratch ev­ery day us­ing only the best lo­cal in­gre­di­ents in sea­son. If the menu had beans on it, the chefs would all shell the beans that day. “It is a food cul­ture that is about good val­ues,” she says of Chez Panisse. “Al­ice was maybe the first to recog­nise that it needed to be brought to the US in the 1970s. She wanted to cre­ate some­thing whole­some and beau­ti­ful. I think the cre­ativ­ity in Chez Panisse is not so much do­ing the thing that no one has done be­fore but us­ing the best of what is around in that mo­ment and mak­ing it a beau­ti­ful ex­pe­ri­ence for some­one.”

Wa­ters still believes in the val­ues of sea­sonal eat­ing and sus­tain­able farm­ing – in fact she con­sid­ers it more im­por­tant than ever. “It is so vi­tal that we do this now, it is such a po­lit­i­cally im­por­tant place for us to go be­cause of our health and be­cause of the health of the planet,” she says. “And it’s not any­thing new. Real food is so com­pelling to peo­ple be­cause it is al­most like we have this built-in mem­ory of it, the feel­ing of food cook­ing over fire, fresh bread com­ing out of an oven, sit­ting at a table with a whole group of peo­ple. These have been in civil­i­sa­tion since the be­gin­ning of time and I think when peo­ple get back in touch with that, they want to be there and they want to do it again.”

This ethos is what prompted Hemmes, who runs an em­pire of pubs and restau­rants in Syd­ney, to cre­ate some­thing like it in Aus­tralia. He and his food and bev­er­age di­rec­tor Frank Roberts put the word out they were look­ing for some­one from Chez Panisse. Lucky for them, Al­varez had just been on a hol­i­day to Aus­tralia and was look­ing for new op­por­tu­ni­ties. A few phone con­ver­sa­tions later, she was on the plane, then at farms sourc­ing in­gre­di­ents and cook­ing for Hemmes and Roberts. She made a king­fish sashimi with fin­ger lime, lamb with spring veg­eta­bles and rhubarb crum­ble. “It was re­ally sim­ple stuff but not too far off what we are do­ing now at Fred’s,” she says. “From that day it took 2½ years for Fred’s to open.”

The restau­rant opened on Ox­ford Street in Oc­to­ber last year. At its cen­tre is a 2.5m hearth where food is cooked over fire and a huge wooden table where Al­varez and her col­leagues pre­pare the meals. It is an open kitchen like no other (Al­varez ad­mits swear­ing is out, or maybe “just un­der our breath a lit­tle”) and it has at­tracted al­most as much at­ten­tion as the food. “I was wor­ried when we opened that peo­ple would think it would be too in­tru­sive, the kitchen and the cook­ing, that it would dom­i­nate the room,” she says. “But I have been pleas­antly sur­prised to see peo­ple come in, see the kitchen and say, ‘wow, this is awe­some’, but then go on with their night. They will come over to me and say

“It is al­most like we have this built-in mem­ory of food cook­ing over fire, fresh bread com­ing out of the oven.”

some­thing and then go back to their table. It is like you are at a great din­ner party and ev­ery­one is in the kitchen, like you al­ways end up be­ing.”

Al­varez, whose fam­ily is orig­i­nally from Cuba, grew up cook­ing with her grand­par­ents, who all lived within a few streets of her house. She stud­ied art his­tory and be­gan her ca­reer in gal­leries. “I loved learn­ing about other cul­tures through art. You learn about how they lived, how they ate, how they cel­e­brated,” Al­varez tells WISH, sit­ting at one of the ta­bles of Fred’s when it is closed and pleas­antly quiet. But once she started work­ing in a gallery in Mi­ami, she fig­ured out pretty soon it wasn’t her thing. “It wasn’t my pas­sion,” she says of show­ing and sell­ing art­work. “So then I had to ask my­self, what did I want to com­mit my life to, and I de­cided cook­ing was the way. I had never worked in a restau­rant, ever, but I just knew I loved the act of it as I had done it with my mother and grand­mother. So I signed up for cook­ing school.”

Her first proper kitchen ex­pe­ri­ence was at the three­Miche­lin-starred restau­rant French Laun­dry in the Napa Val­ley, run by fa­mous Amer­i­can chef Thomas Keller and voted the world’s best restau­rant in 2003 and 2004. Al­varez au­da­ciously wrote them a let­ter and scored an in­tern­ship in 2006. She re­calls be­ing ter­ri­fied, at just 22, walk­ing into a kitchen that had so much pres­tige. “I feel like that was the first mo­ment that set me on this path and I am re­ally thank­ful for that,” she says. “Al­though it’s not the kind of food I do now, work­ing with such tal­ented peo­ple and see­ing peo­ple at the top of their game from the be­gin­ning of your ca­reer can be a real mo­ti­va­tor. Once you see and work with the best, you know how the best work.”

Al­varez has gone from an un­paid in­tern to a head chef at her own restau­rant in a decade. “Ten years still seems pretty fast for me,” she con­fesses. “But I am very grate­ful. I still feel like I have so much to learn and I don’t feel like I am ever at a point where I can say, ‘I have this, guys’. Ev­ery day I feel like I am not ready for this but I am go­ing to go for it any­way. For a lot of us, fear is what holds us back and if you just at­tempt some­thing, hope­fully you will be pleas­antly sur­prised at the re­sults, as I have been here.”

Al­varez has a lot to be pleas­antly sur­prised about. You can­not get a table at Fred’s for weeks. Crit­ics have de­clared it the hottest restau­rant in town, prais­ing not only the food but the stun­ning de­sign of the space and its down­stairs bar Char­lie Parker, which was done in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Hemmes, his sis­ter Bet­tina, stylist Amanda Tal­bot and ar­chi­tects Acme & Co. “They have cre­ated this re­ally beau­ti­ful room,” says Al­varez, whose orig­i­nal vi­sion guided the de­sign of the restau­rant.

It is also the at­mos­phere that is driv­ing Fred’s suc­cess – it’s fine din­ing food but much more re­laxed. “When we spoke about this place, Justin was very much on the side of want­ing for peo­ple to feel com­pletely re­laxed,” she says. “When he en­ter­tains with his friends and fam­ily, he wants to laugh, he wants to feel com­fort­able, he wants the food to be so de­li­cious that ev­ery­one is get­ting into ev­ery­one else’s plates. You are mop­ping the sauce up with bread. So for all of us, it was a con­scious de­ci­sion to try and make Fred’s feel that way.”

“[Hemmes] wants the food to be so de­li­cious that ev­ery­one is get­ting into ev­ery­one else’s plates.”


The Padding­ton restau­rant cen­tres on a hearth where food is cooked over open fire.

Fred’s restau­rant and the down­stairs bar Char­lie Parker was de­signed by ar­chi­tects Acme & Co, to­gether with Justin and Bet­tina Hemmes, and styled by Amanda Tal­bot.

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