Simon Thomsen

Left to right: Thomas Johns, Mario Percuoco, Damien Heads, Jared Ingersoll, Dorothy Zagarella, John Lanzafame.
Ten years on … 2003 chefs to watch - Thomas Johns, Jared Ingersoll, Damien Heads, Mario Percuoco, Dorothy Zagarella and John Lanzafame - revisit the original story. Photo: Steven Siewert

TEN YEARS AGO, FORMER HERALD restaurant critic Matthew Evans cast his eye across the state's culinary landscape and singled out the young chefs to watch. He profiled them in a cover story in Good Food (then called Good Living) in January 2003.

''If there's one thing that seems to define these 10, it's love - of cooking, of making people happy and of the industry,'' he wrote, adding, presciently, that it's an industry with high turnover and burnout rates. Almost exactly 10 years on, not one of them is working in the same place.

A decade older, wiser and now, in turn, elders of the industry, Good Food tracked them down to see how their dreams and talents have evolved and what they have learnt along the way.

Their responses to questions about their lives, their careers and plans for the future (one is keen to pen a romance novel) are candid, raw, sometimes funny, and provide a compelling insight into Sydney's restaurant industry.

Damian Heads

Then Garfish, Kirribilli

Now Pony (three locations)

The 2003 Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year recipient left to work in Europe after the profile appeared. He returned to Fuel Bistro in Crown Street as head chef. A year later, Heads made his debut on the long-running Ready Steady Cook TV series and, in 2006, his destiny was sealed with Pony in The Rocks, followed by Steel Bar & Grill in 2008. He's just sold the latter.

Two children arrived amid a growing professional empire that now includes a second Pony in Neutral Bay, established in 2010, and, in late 2012, a third Pony in his home town, Brisbane. Heads vaguely recalls a holiday in 2011.

Highlight of the past decade? ''To start the Pony group and build it to where it stands today.''

Lowlight? ''We opened Steel Bar & Grill the same month the GFC hit and Sydney's CBD was a changed beast overnight.''

Anything you'd change in the past 10 years? ''Not really, I'm content that I've spent my time in the industry well.''

The biggest change in your life? ''Children: no more after-work drinks or lazy breakfasts. Responsibility: I have 40-plus kitchen people with careers to grow.''

Advice for your younger self? ''I was given the advice: 'Don't take a new position unless something about it scares you and will challenge you.'''

Is it harder, 10 years on? ''Everything costs more but consumers expect more competitive prices than 10 years ago.''

Did you achieve your dreams? Your goal now? ''My goal was head chef by 30 - I did it at 26 with Garfish. I now have the challenge of maintaining an interstate venue. New goals will be set after my next holiday!''

Where do you want to be 10 years on? ''I'm keen to give the family more time, while maintaining my career with hopefully a little perspective.''

Best part of the job? ''The people. It's a very social thing, being a chef in an open kitchen.''

John Lanzafame

Then Lanzafame, Haberfield

Now Restaurant consultant

The chef dubbed ''The Pizza Man'' sums up the decade thus: ''Three restaurants, one dud, two books, a couple of TV shows, celebrity chef.''

After Haberfield, and time with Pete Evans as executive chef of Hugos Catering, his eponymous restaurant reopened at the Star casino with a focus on pizza.

After winning a prestigious ''best pizza'' competition in New York, he travelled the world judging for pizza competitions and was also a member of Australia's Culinary Olympics team in 2008.

Lanzafame Trattoria moved to Crown Street, Woolloomooloo, in 2010, but closed in 2012.

He's currently scouting for a 40-seat bar-style space where he can cook and serve. ''It's been a pretty good 10 years. Huge.''

Highlight? ''My book Pizza Modo Mio. It's taken me all around the world. Opening Hugos Catering with Pete.''

Lowlight? ''Woolloomooloo killed me and drained me of everything I had. It doesn't matter who you are or what you're cooking, it's all about location.''

Anything you'd change? ''I'd probably hire a lawyer to read all contracts. I'm just a chef, so I should stick to cooking.''

Biggest change? ''Pizza changed my career. I made a lot of money, so I can't complain.''

Advice? ''Buy property to build my dream restaurant. And follow my Italian heritage a lot more.''

Is it harder? ''No, it gets easier. Knowledge is power and the more you get, the more powerful you become.''

Achieve your dreams? Goal now? ''My first restaurant by 30 - I reached it at 27. My new goal is a new restaurant and to re-establish myself in the market again. And to have fun.''

Ten years on? ''I still want to be cooking. It's what I love. My wife is a chef, too, so we do that together. And maybe get that elusive one hat from the Good Food Guide.''

Best part? ''Same as 10 years ago: cooking and seeing those empty plates come back.''

Dorothy Zagarella (nee Creenaune)

Then Fins (then in Byron Bay)

Now Shop assistant, Paesanella, and mother of two

Life is a full-time occupation. Just ask Dorothy Zagarella, who left the industry she'd loved for 20 years to have a family. After Fins (now in Kingscliff), she spent four years as head chef at Longrain before leaving in 2007 to undergo IVF after several years of trying to fall pregnant.

''It was pretty huge to give up my career - it's like breaking up with your best friend - to focus on kids, but it was very important to me,'' she says. Two miracles happened, now aged four and two.

Nowadays you'll find her every Saturday, in Haberfield cheese shop Paesanella, working on her Italian, serving and sometimes cooking for the shop. ''And eating cheese,'' she laughs.

Highlight? ''Finding out we were pregnant and having my children. My husband [they've been together for 21 years, but eloped seven years ago]. And my vegie patch at home.''

Lowlight? ''Leaving the kitchen and Marty Boetz and the team.''

Anything you'd change? ''No. Life falls as it falls.''

Biggest change? ''My kids, Rosie and Romeo. And that I sleep even less than when I was working 100-hour weeks.''

Advice? ''Just be true to yourself and go for what you want.''

Would you return to cooking? ''Not at that level. It's not fair to my family.''

Achieve your dreams? Goal now? ''Definitely. I wanted to be a good chef and I had a great 20-year career. My goal now is to be happy and grateful for what I have.''

Ten years on? ''I want to be sane. And have a healthy and happy family.''

Best part? Cooking: ''The adrenalin of service. And the family bond your team creates.'' Parenting: ''Hugs and kisses.''

Mario Percuoco

Then Zenith on Booth, Annandale

Now Acqua Pazza

Naples-born Mario, son of Buon Ricordo's irrepressible patron Armando, and part of a family dynasty that stretches from Brisbane to Sydney, has carved out his own reputation as a fine chef since earning one hat in Annandale 10 years ago.

He left Zenith in 2006 to open Intermezzo in Sydney's GPO, staying for three years. In 2010, he achieved his long-held dream, opening his own ristorante, Acqua Pazza, in the city.

Highlight? ''Opening my own restaurant, Acqua Pazza.''

Lowlight? ''2012. It was a tough year to own a business. Really rough.''

Biggest change? ''My divorce and my second wife.''

Advice? ''Spend more time with your family and keep a balance in your life.''

Is it harder? ''It's only hard if you don't like it.''

Ten years on? ''Now is enough for me, but hopefully cooking for people without any financial pressure.''

Best part? ''Enjoying my customers: sitting with them after service and talking about life.''

Jared Ingersoll

Then Danks Street Depot, Waterloo

Now Just closed Danks Street Depot

When Good Food started researching this story, New Zealand-born Ingersoll was the only chef at the same restaurant, 10 years later. That ended several weeks ago when he closed Danks Street Depot, in Waterloo, after 11 years.

''After 27 years of service and 11 years of running restaurants in an increasingly tough market, I needed a change,'' he says. He cites numerous overseas trips as a guest chef, three books, championing sustainability, opening a Sydney International Airport branch of Danks Street in 2010, then Cotton Duck in Surry Hills, in 2011, which lasted for 18 months, as achievements.

Highlight? ''Realising closing Danks Street and moving away from the pans is the right decision to make.''

Lowlight? ''It depresses me that we've shifted away from what's important - food quality and good service - in favour of the next big thing and what's groovy.''

Anything you'd change? ''No. Absolutely nothing. I've made some shocking mistakes, but it's all about growth and learning.''

Biggest change? ''My gut. It hangs out and never used to be there. It's freaking me out.''

Advice? ''Don't take yourself so seriously and chill out.''

Is it harder? ''Mornings are a little harder. I'm 41 and it's a high-energy game. But I enjoy having an older brain.''

Achieve your dreams? Goal now? ''Heaps. We wanted to create something iconic and stand the test of time. Danks Street Depot did that. Now I want to spend a lot more time with family and not let that gut get bigger.''

Ten years on? ''I'll be happy still being alive.''

Best part? ''The people. Hospitality is all about relationships.''

Thomas Johns

Then Pello, East Sydney

Now Dining Abode

Within a year of Pello closing in 2008, and following brief stints at Balmoral Bathers Pavilion and Bannisters on the NSW south coast, the former two-hat chef established Dining Abode, a private caterer, serving fine cuisine at home.

The hours suit having a young child, Johns says. ''I'm no longer interested in owning a restaurant.''

Highlight? ''Two hats in the Good Food Guide and working with some good kids. Two, Dan Hong and Mitch Orr, were named best young chef.''

Lowlight? ''Closing the restaurant.''

Anything you'd change? ''A restaurant takes a lot of money to run. I'd start with more capital and perhaps an investor.''

Biggest change? ''Having a child. He's five soon and it's why I like what I'm doing now.''

Is it harder? ''It's easier for me now, but if I was still in a kitchen, then yes.''

Achieve your dreams? Goal now? ''I achieved more than I dreamed. I just wanted to make myself and others happy. Now I want to grow Dining Abode and have a chef of my level working with me.''

Best part? ''The interactions with customers and going somewhere different every week.''

Will Meyrick

Then Jimmy Liks, Kings Cross

Now Sarong, Mamasan, Bali; E&O, Jakarta

It's chaos right now for Meyrick as the expat Sydney chef puts final touches on E&O, a new Thai restaurant in Indonesia's capital, opening later in February.

It's his third place, after two opened in Bali's Seminyak: Sarong in 2008 and Mamasan in 2011, following a peripatetic life since leaving Jimmy Liks in 2004.

At age 27 Meyrick moved to Bali for 18 months to run food and beverage at the Sofitel before relocating to Thailand in 2006, to consult for Karma Resorts in Koh Samui and Lotus restaurant in Hong Kong.

He returned to Bali in 2007, where a contract setting up F&B for Sentosa resort ended badly and he was almost forced to return to Australia with nothing, despite having a Javanese partner (now his wife) and baby.

Now he is plotting to become Indonesia's Neil Perry, with 10 restaurants under his knife.

Highlight? ''Setting up Sarong, the first restaurant where I had total creative and financial control.''

Lowlight? ''Losing everything when the Sentosa consultancy collapsed: the house I built, my working visa and trying to figure out my next move.''

Anything you'd change? ''I wouldn't change a thing. Even Sentosa taught me a lot.''

Biggest change? ''The last three years have changed me the most. I feel like I've married Indonesia, as well as my wife, and it's my duty to increase the opportunities for people in the industry here.''

Advice? ''Stop smoking. Make mistakes so you can learn from them. And don't be too keen to open up your own restaurant too quickly.''

Achieve your dreams? Goal now? ''More than I expected: three children, and being able to run multiple restaurants. My goal now is to be one of the leading restaurateurs in Jakarta.''

10 years on? ''Sitting in a hammock with a Pina Colada by the ocean. I'd like to sell everything and go back to running one hotel.''

 

George Francisco

Then Dish, Newport

Now Roberts, Hunter Valley

A decade ago Francisco also opened Chelsea Tea House, in Avalon, with his then-wife. He then moved to Jonah's in 2005 after the partnership at Dish imploded. During those five years, Francisco was also executive chef at the one-hat Bonville Golf Resort, near Coffs Harbour.

A Pokolbin institution, Roberts was one of the first places the US-born 30-year veteran dined when he first moved to Australia. He took charge 12 months ago, along with Tower Estate's restaurant, Nine, and Peppers Convent. A cafe for the winery cellar door is slated for 2013.

Highlight? ''Dish. It was fun and cool and people loved it.''

Lowlight? ''The three of us blew the partnership at Dish.''

Anything you'd change? ''I wish I'd worked something out to keep Dish running longer.''

Biggest change? ''Moving to the country. My entire life I've lived by the ocean. Going from 75 per cent seafood on the menu to 25 per cent.''

Advice? ''Don't worry about reviews and what critics think about you.''

Is it harder now? ''Yes. Physically. Plus the cockiness of youth, who thinks older chefs are irrelevant, is hard to swallow, although I bet I was the same.''

Achieve your dreams? Goal now? ''A lot of them. What I'm doing now is exactly what I dreamed of. Now I have to figure out how it can make me financially happy, too.''

10 years on? ''What I'm doing now, but I want to write a romance novel.''

Best part of the job? ''Happy customers. A compliment makes it all great.''

 

Warren Turnbull

Then Banc, city

Now Five restaurants in Sydney and Auckland, New Zealand

After Banc, a crucible for many fine chefs, imploded, Turnbull spent time ''hiding away'' at the American Club before an 18-month stint at Cruise, Circular Quay.

He launched Assiette in 2005, attaining two hats before closing in 2012 and relaunching it as the simpler Albion Street Kitchen. Nearby, District Dining had a three-year life span before he superseded it with Mexico Food and Liquor in 2012.

The concept is also a hit in his native New Zealand, with two Mexico restaurants in Auckland opening after the Rugby World Cup, plus five more rolling out across the country in 2013.

Just like 10 years ago, he still dreams of moving back to his birthplace, where wife Mimi Gilmour has lived for the past two years.

Highlight? ''Meeting my wife, Mimi.''

Lowlight? ''Seeing what's happened to the industry. It's getting simpler and breaks my heart coming from a fine-dining background.''

Anything you'd change? ''No, I've been really happy. Perhaps I'd save more money. And take more breaks. We still haven't had our honeymoon.'' (Two years later.)

Advice? ''Don't drink so much and waste the early years in your career. Get on with it. Invest in something other than restaurants.''

10 years on? ''Retired on the beach? (Laughs). Love to have little boutique hotel or farm near the sea. And definitely kids.''

Best part? ''Happy faces of customers who love what you do and keep coming back. And teaching your chefs.''

 

Chris Woodyard

Then Three Clicks West, Annandale

Now Madam Sixty Ate and Sal Curioso, Hong Kong

Chris and wife, Bronwyn Cheung, closed Three Clicks West in late 2007, after the birth of their first child, moving to Hong Kong five months later.

After a stint as culinary director at the five-star W Hotel, he opened Madam Sixty Ate, a Western-style restaurant, in July 2011. It made the Michelin Guide later that year. The Latin American-flavoured Sal Curioso followed in November 2012. A third restaurant is due in October 2013.

Highlight? ''Birth of my two kids, Sienna and Lucas. Opening Madam Sixty Ate.''

Lowlight? ''Having to fire a chef and friend that had worked so hard for the success of our restaurant.''

Anything you'd change? ''Spend more time with my kids. The hours have always been the same, but the sacrifices seem to carry more importance when you have a family.''

Biggest change? ''About 10 kilograms! You come to a point that you realise you're not invincible and need to make a few changes to the way you live.''

Advice? ''Be patient. Like most young chefs I didn't have enough patience and that showed in my food. Patience needs to be balanced with drive.''

Is it harder? ''Finding young chefs with drive and commitment is harder. Being a chef is probably easier as you age because you become so much more organised through experience.''

Where do you want to be 10 years on? ''To grow and consolidate our restaurant group, Woolly Pig Concepts, while achieving a better work/life balance for myself and my team.''

Best part? ''Growing my team. I love watching the change occur in young chefs when the passion takes them to a whole new level and changes their job to a career.''