Master chefs

You must be prepared to bleed, burn, and perform surgery on your own spleen. Your family must be unusually tolerant, because you will be unavailable for birthdays and anniversaries. You should practise your knife work and keep your hair short.

We’re not talking about preparing for a career as a surgeon, a soldier or an Antarctic scientist, but passing on advice from a host of Australia’s top kitchen talents (and a few international stars) to the next generation of aspiring Damien Pignolets and Jacques Reymonds.

Long-term success in the restaurant industry takes more than a season of one-hour episodes. Most roads to chef stardom are paved with potato peels, not with pigs’ heads, croquembouche or perfectly tempered chocolate. The pressure tests, the tears and the fierce competition, however, are very much for real. Here, then, are some pointers from the real master chefs.

Prepare to be burned
“I tell them all to learn the basics. They need to burn their forearms, throw a sauté pan and smell like a deep-fryer at some point in their career. Might as well do that stuff early on.” Grant Achatz, Alinea, Chicago

Consider becoming a dentist
“Learn to make puff pastry and fillet a fish before you spherify a pea or make avocado air. Or, if you’re smart and love cooking, become a dentist who has great dinner parties instead.” David Coomer, Star Anise and Pata Negra, Perth

Bide your time
“For the first five years, just say ‘yes’. After that, question everything.” Dan Hunter, Royal Mail Hotel, Dunkeld

Mind your head
“Young trainees or apprentices are not hired for their skills. We don’t look to their hands, we look to their heads. If they are keen and like to work hard, we can train and mould them to what we want them to be. And forget about your best mate’s 21st or your girlfriend’s birthday party, because on Saturday nights, while your mates are drinking their Bacardi Breezers, you’re cleaning down a greasy, filthy kitchen – at midnight after a 12-hour day – with scalded hands and damp, sweaty socks.” Teage Ezard, Ezard and Gingerboy, Melbourne

Mind your fingers
“I don’t think any industry is more deserving of the ‘blood, sweat and tears’ description. I’ve always prided myself on not cutting myself, but in truth I’ve had my slips, so a bit of blood, yes. The sweat part is inevitable when you work in a 40-degree kitchen. Tears – I’ve made a fair share of kitchen staff cry. I don’t do it as a sport; I’m tough on them because I want results. So my advice to anyone entering the industry is know that it’s hard, backbreaking work.” Guillaume Brahimi, Guillaume at Bennelong, Sydney; Bistro Guillaume, Melbourne

Mind your vital organs 
“I expect all of my staff to be self-critical. I ask them to ask themselves one question when looking at what they have just achieved: ‘Are you satisfied with that, I mean really satisfied?’ If the answer is ‘no’, then they are instructed to take their little Victorinox paring knife from their cute little TAFE-issue red toolbox and remove their own spleen.” Mark Best, Marque, Sydney

Mind your back 
“Think about your longevity and set yourself five- and 10-year goals. Take a long hard look at yourself in the mirror every year and if you’re not on course, kick yourself on the arse. Ask more of yourself than others expect. I still set myself goals. At the moment my five-year plan involves dominating the whole of the UK. I’ve even got the hitman lined up for Heston.” Sat Bains, Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottingham, UK

Take each day as it comes
“Look on each day as an opportunity to create your own adventure. It changes the perspective on the mundane tasks (cleaning the bins, for instance) as well as the highs and lows of service.” Chui Lee Luk, Claude’s, Sydney

Know what makes you tick
“Ensure that the reasons you want to go into cooking for a living are solid. These vary from cook to cook. Cooking brings me instant gratification and creative satisfaction. This gratification also extends to the enjoyment and pleasure it brings others. This can be in the simple but essential form of nourishment, a contribution to the moment or a lasting memory. The fine produce, people and buzz of a busy kitchen and restaurant are a bonus.” Andrew McConnell, Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc, Melbourne

Read, read, read
“Be a sponge and write everything down: every recipe, every dish, every piece of advice, every quote. Read, read, read, educate yourself and always question everything; constantly ask yourself why things are behaving the way they are. Be true to your beliefs, never compromise, and develop your own philosophy influenced by your mentors, not by copying others.” Justin North, Bécasse and Etch, Sydney

Lay off the salt
“The best piece of advice I was ever given: when cooking dried pulses, beans et cetera, don’t let salt anywhere near them or they won’t cook. In fact, you should overcook them before any salt or bacon joins them or it makes the pulse tense up again (if a bean can tense up). I have found this has helped avoid many tears over the years.” Fergus Henderson, St John, London

Lay off the sauce
“Don’t drink too much, but develop a taste and knowledge of wine and the finer things; this will prove indispensable. Check your palate with others, all the time – it changes and might need tuning.” Scott Minervini, Lebrina, Hobart

Don't lay off the sauce
“Read as much as possible; spend all your spare money on books and beer. Knowledge is a wonderful thing and some of the best ideas are thought up in bars at three in the morning sharing thoughts and brainstorming with colleagues.” Sean Connolly, Astral and Sean’s Kitchen, Sydney

Prep artichokes
“Find the best restaurant and the best chef and pester them for a job every day. Once you get the job, do the prep work that scares the crap out of you and keep doing it until you know it like the back of your hand.” Andrew Clarke, Rock, Hunter Valley

Walk before you run
“The most important thing is not to run before you can walk. Learn the classic foundations of the craft first. Learn the rudiments of the kitchen from the beginning. Until you have mastered the basics, you will never be able to create your own individual style. Too many young chefs rely on technology without understanding it. Technology should never overtake the taste, flavour and texture of an ingredient. This should always be respected first and modern equipment only used to bring out the best in the produce we use. Also, ask plenty of questions and if you don’t fully understand the answer, make sure you keep asking why.” Heston Blumenthal, The Fat Duck, Bray

Beg if you have to
“Do whatever you can to work with the leaders in the industry. Beg if you have to.” Simon Johnson, Simon Johnson stores, Melbourne, Sydney and Perth

Get real
“You can’t learn to cook overnight, and this is something I was saying to Justine from MasterChef; the longer you’re in the industry, the more knowledge you’ll have, but it takes years and lots of hard work. A lot of kids get into it for the wrong reason. Do it because you love it and enjoy it, not for some celebrity status.” Matt Moran, Aria, Sydney and Brisbane

“Get hold of a restaurant guide and make a list of the restaurants that cook food you love and go to see them personally. If they don’t give you the time of day, go back the next day, and the next, and… you get my drift.” Matt Wilkin­son, Circa, the Prince, Melbourne

Know your priorities
“I like to ask young apprentice applicants, ‘Would you prefer your own restaurant one day, or a television career?’ If they answer the latter, it’s pretty clear they are entering the wrong game.” Teage Ezard, Ezard and Gingerboy, Melbourne

Get a haircut and…
“Keep your emotions in check, embrace all feedback and stay focused. Keep reminding yourself sleeping and long hair are over-rated.” Paul Wilson, Middle Park Hotel, Melbourne

Find a mentor
“Find and work with a good mentor. I don’t think the cuisine is as important as the way they express themselves with food. Chefs develop different and individual styles; it is important to recognise what cuisine you want to produce, then source a mentor who will help develop and expand your skills and hopefully guide your career.” Meyjitte Boughenout, Absynthe, Surfers Paradise

Follow that mentor
“To succeed, you have to make sure being a chef is definitely what you most want to be. Find a mentor to train you in all the basics of cooking; develop a palate memory bank; and take your inquiring imagination and infinite capacity for endless repetition into every task throughout your career.” Peter Doyle, Est, Sydney

Learn the guitar
“Cooking will always be bloody hard work, so if this doesn’t appeal, sweep streets. Be prepared to devote most of your working hours to the craft. But always have another outlet such as sport, a hobby, music, an interest in the arts to create a balance to the work life.” Damien Pignolet, Bistro Moncur, Sydney

Listen to Beethoven
“Travel to see food and culture in situ, and if you can’t travel, read. Context is important. Be a citizen of the world, not just the kitchen – be inspired by music and art as much as by a new ingredient. Be intelligent: there is no longer a place for slothful, brain-dead chefs. Eschew testosterone-fuelled kitchens and situations. Strive to be a philosopher chef and read Brillat-Savarin.” Scott Minervini, Lebrina, Hobart

Be devoted
“Continually absorb. Have humility. Devote yourself. Surround yourself with the best. Buon appetito!” Guy Grossi, Grossi Florentino, Melbourne

Be generous
“Forget the glamour and media hype: running a restaurant is a hard bloody slog. Have courage, be resilient, be passionate and demand the best from yourself and those you work with. Be ever so slightly mad. Above all, be generous.” Christine Manfield, Universal, Sydney

Be a slave
“Never be afraid to work for nothing. I’ve done it many times and have worked in some great restaurants as a result. If you have the chance to do some work experience in one that you love, immerse yourself in it and try to absorb what makes it great. Above everything else, work for the right people. I’m only interested in who someone has worked for, and for how long.” Philip Johnson, E’cco, Brisbane

Be loyal
“Although it’s important during your training to experience different styles of chefs and restaurants, don’t change jobs every 12 months; loyalty leads to trust, responsibilities and opportunities. It’s more impressive for a chef to show that commitment and loyalty than to work in 10 different restaurants in 10 years. And read, read, read.” Peter Gilmore, Quay, Sydney

Love what you do
“To be a chef, you have to have passion for food, cooking and eating – the last being hugely important. With passion, you’re halfway there. Technique can be taught, passion can’t. Finally, you’ve got to love what you do; this is not about just making a buck, if that’s the case, do something else. The joy lies in the buzz, the satisfied and happy guest, the thank you. It really is a tough business, but it really is sweet.” Tetsuya Wakuda, Tetsuya’s, Sydney

Save the best
“I learnt this lesson as a kid in my family restaurant in Italy: my uncle Ciccio, one of the chefs, had just come back from the markets with a tray of beautiful peaches. I couldn’t resist them, so I took the best one for myself. While I was eating it, my uncle came to me and said, ‘It’s okay this time, but remember we always leave the best for the customers.’” Lucio Galletto, Lucio’s, Sydney

Give your best
“Once you enter this industry, you eat and breathe it. It takes a great amount of hard work. You must have a funny mix of  passion and discipline to succeed; throw in a good business head and get used to giving it your best when everyone else is celebrating or enjoying themselves.” Karen Martini, Melbourne Wine Room and Mr Wolf, Melbourne

Dare to dream
“Have your wildest dream be to become a chef and really go for it. Study old menus of all cultures; this will help you to develop your cuisine. Make cooking your lifetime’s research and ambition. Travel and eat the world and keep your eyes sharp. And dream some more.” Cheong Liew, The Grange, Adelaide

Adopt the five per cent principle
“A piece of advice that I have always held dear and pass on to all aspiring young chefs who work for me is from an interview in Le Figaro with Joël Robuchon. The interviewer asked Robuchon how he stayed at the top of his game and he replied that he got up every morning and did his best, and by doing this he discounted 95 per cent of the competition as they were unable or couldn’t be bothered to produce their best every day. That way he only had to worry about being better than the five per cent of the competition that were left in the game.” Dietmar Sawyere, Berowra Waters Inn and Forty One, Sydney

Stay the course
“Get a good all-round apprenticeship under your belt. Stay the full term: this teaches you loyalty and gives you the probability of learning pastry and baking as well as getting the chance to actually cook on the stoves. Do a deal with your head chef and if you stay three years, get him to organise a job overseas for you once you have finished your time. Once overseas, stay there for at least three years, move around every year, and choose only the best. Do not worry about money (it will come), but if you can, save and travel. It sounds like a contradiction but trust, me it’s possible. The harder you work the luckier you are. Trust your love for the industry.” Shannon Bennett, Vue de Monde, Melbourne

Know your producers
“Don’t be satisfied with ringing up and ordering something: go where it’s grown and get to know who produces it – even if it’s overseas. Look after your staff.” James Kidman, Otto, Sydney
Know the business
“You have to have a combination of ambition, passion, creativity and dedication. The life of a chef involves incredibly long hours, which follow you for the rest of your career, and you have to make sacrifices with your social life, which you pretty much kiss goodbye. But being a chef in today’s world requires more than just cooking skills; you have to be able to implement business acumen and management of staff.” Greg Doyle, Pier, Sydney

Eat your own food
“Everybody who works in your kitchen should eat off the menu in the restaurant. The thing that most chefs forget to do is eat their own food. They’re constantly tasting it, but they never sit down, look at the menu and order dinner. And you can absolutely tell. There’ll be good food on the menu, but not much you want to eat. It’s because nobody’s thought about it as food that a customer has to eat because they’re hungry.” AA Gill, restaurant critic, The Sunday Times, London

Believe in yourself
“I think the most important thing is to focus on the detail; it’s the thing that sets the greats apart. Know what you want to do, and have a really strong belief in yourself. That is, have a philosophy and remember you will only achieve what you set out to do if you take people with you.” Neil Perry, Rockpool and Spice Temple, Sydney; Rockpool Bar & Grill, Sydney and Melbourne

Be true
“Don’t start out with the full package where everything is perfect from day one: the perfect kitchen, restaurant, wine cellar et cetera. For the first couple of years (or the first four, as I did) you will probably be struggling with finding the right format for your cuisine. When that is settled the rest will follow naturally. Be patient with your work. Find the essence of what you like about gastronomy or a dining experience, remember that at all times, and build your restaurant around that, not what fashion dictates. Be true to yourself.” René Redzepi, Noma, Copenhagen

Keep the faith
“Be single-minded and fanatical, keep your head down but your eyes up, don’t let history dictate your treatment of staff, let your food do the talking and don’t chase dollars, don’t copy others and keep faith in the fact that what you are doing is worthwhile and some day people are going to notice.” Ben Shewry, Attica, Melbourne

Be original
“Don’t make the common mistake to copy the existing renowned chefs and try to replicate their cuisine.They have worked hard for many years to perfect their style and concept of cuisine, and they know and enjoy what they are doing. Take it as a long process, learn properly the technique and skills, the basis of cooking. ” Jacques Reymond, Jacques Reymond, Melbourne

Live to cook
“It’s not just a job; it’s a way of life, so live to cook, don’t cook to live.” Martin Benn, Sepia, Sydney

Reap the rewards
“Remember this above all: every day you are cooking you have the opportunity to give pleasure to your guests via your craft; in return, their enjoyment will give back to you the fulfilment of all your skill and passion.”  Damien Pignolet, Bistro Moncur, Sydney

The last word
“To become a chef doesn’t take the four years of an apprenticeship, it takes a lifetime – so don’t quit.” Giovanni Pilu, Pilu at Freshwater, Sydney


This article is from the September 2009 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.

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