Damien Pignolet: shaper of chefs

Shaper of chefs: Damien Pignolet with pastry chef Lauren Eldridge.
Shaper of chefs: Damien Pignolet with pastry chef Lauren Eldridge.  Photo: James Brickwood

With a week until the Good Food Guide Awards, we announce the Young Chef of the Year and salute the man behind this coveted prize.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Josephine Pignolet​ Young Chef of the Year Award. The man behind it, Damien Pignolet, has shaped the careers of some of the world's greatest chefs, from Sydney to London to downtown Los Angeles.

"The first time I met Damien, I was shitting myself," says Mark Best, a chef better known for his sharp mind and fierce, idiosyncratic attitude to cooking in his restaurant Marque than quaking in his work boots. But ask any young gun who's won the Josephine Pignolet Award over the past quarter century: Damien Pignolet is terrifying.

Josephine and Damien Pignolet at Claude's in Sydney in 1982.
Josephine and Damien Pignolet at Claude's in Sydney in 1982.  Photo: Supplied

Even though it has been years since his last fulltime stint in the kitchen, the legendary chef still has a kind of electricity about him. Dressing with a sort off-duty Cannes ease, down to the signature thick-framed glasses, he talks with a quiet intensity. And he still has the ability to scare the living daylights out of any young chef who crosses his path.

Whether you're talking to Best, James Parry or Brett Graham, the overarching message is "without the Josephine Pignolet award, I'd be nowhere".

The idea of Leo Schofield, then editor of The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide in 1990, the award was a way to honour Damien's wife and business partner, who died as a result of a car crash in the late '80s. So beloved in the industry was she, Neil Perry even named his first-born daughter after the bright young chef.  

Brett Graham at the Ledbury restaurant in London.
Brett Graham at the Ledbury restaurant in London.  Photo: Supplied

Alongside Gay and Tony Bilson, Damien and Josephine Pignolet were at the forefront of Australian dining in the 1980s. Under their watch, with a pared-back approach to cuisine that was revolutionary at the time, Claude's was celebrated as one of the all-time Sydney greats.

Best remembers visiting before he started cooking professionally. "It was just the very essence of French [ish] cuisine: ingredient-based, super simple. They had the tiniest kitchen and the tiniest team and they did their very best every day. And that still resonates today with me."  

The award might have been an idea borne from a tragedy but it has created the opportunity for multiple generations of talent to shine the world over. The award is decided by a panel of industry heavyweights that has over the years been made up by the likes of Janni Kyritsis, Neil Perry, Simon Johnson, Terry Durack and Jill Dupleix, headed up, of course, by the kingmaker himself.  

The panel looks for a chef who best captures something of Josephine's spirit. "She was incredibly talented and assured in her cooking. That was manifest in the way with which she handled food, which was beautiful to watch," says Pignolet whose grief is still raw 25 years after her death.

"No swashbuckler bullshit. One of the extraordinary things about Josephine was her ability to just throw things on the plate. And it was absolutely magic. It was this immediacy that she had. In that way, she was untouchable."

The Ledbury's Brett Graham, perhaps one of the best-known winners on a global scale (his London restaurant is ranked No. 20 in the World's 50 best restaurant list), credits his success in the competition to the fact he was just a pickhandle kid from Newcastle who didn't know any better. He didn't know, for example, to be nervous when faced with a panel including Pignolet, Durack, Dupleix and Perry. (This is the same chef, when having won his ticket to Britain, turned up at Gatwick Airport in board shorts and a singlet in the middle of December, not realising the different hemisphere meant different seasons.)

Mark Best at Marque in Surry Hills, Sydney.
Mark Best at Marque in Surry Hills, Sydney.  Photo: Janie Barrett

"But without the award," he says, 15 years and two Michelin stars later, "I might never would have gone to the UK, never would have had my time at the Square and wouldn't have opened [Notting Hill restaurant] the Ledbury."

Conversely, Sixpenny's Daniel Puskas was a mess before his interview. "I was so nervous. I walked into the room and I just seized up. My mouth went dry and I couldn't really talk. And then Neil Perry said 'maybe you should have a glass of water to calm down' and I went to pick up the glass of water with my left hand I was shaking so much he said 'Maybe you'd better pick it up with two hands'."

Some people try to game the process – telling the judges what they want to hear rather than being truthful, to Pignolet's great distress. Others like Puskas' business partner and co-captain at Sixpenny, James Parry, hit the books. "I think when I first entered the awards the first thing that I did was try and learn as much as I could about Josephine Pignolet. Digressions on Food by Gay Bilson gave me a lot of insight around the time it was written – you know, Damien and Josephine and Janni and Gay were all in their prime".

James Parry (front) and Daniel Puskas at Sixpenny.
James Parry (front) and Daniel Puskas at Sixpenny. Photo: Edwina Pickles

"I didn't know what to expect," says ACME's Mitch Orr. "I was pretty nervous. I put on my best pair of pants and my best shirt. I wanted to go in as a professional and show that I cared about it and that it was important to me. And then they'd just start chatting about the old days and what Josephine used to do and that was amazing for me to hear. We all sit around telling war stories but to hear the forefathers of the industry in Sydney do it is pretty special. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," says Orr.

It was always about Damien and the panel finding people that had Josephine's spirit, he says. "It wasn't about whether you could cook. Obviously your resume shows whether or not you can cook. But it was more about the love of the industry and the love of food."

What the Pignolets were doing then is still something emulated today by many but nailed by very, very few. How many chefs can you name who have the skills, confidence and nous with fresh produce to serve a completely nude tomato? "A lot of people cook for a living but a lot of those people don't really understand how to eat," says Puskas. "She's someone that understood the true essence of eating with people. I think we get trained so hard to be chefs but do you really get trained to be a true cook?"

Mitch Orr outside ACME.
Mitch Orr outside ACME. Photo: Christopher Pearce

It's this breed of chef that Pignolet, over the years, has managed to shape. More, he's become a mentor and a friend to many of the winners. Parry even has him on speed dial. "I love that guy. The best thing about receiving the award was getting to know Damien. I'm always checking in with him. Even when we were about to open [Sixpenny] I used to meet him quite a lot – he'd keep my feet on the ground. He's an incredible man. I miss that there's nowhere to eat his food at the moment."  

This year's winner doesn't buck the trend when it comes to smart, forward-thinking sensitive young chefs, either. Lauren Eldridge, who has spent the past three years honing her skills on the pastry section at Marque, has really started to make a name for herself. Later this month the Best disciple will be travelling to India to cook at a summit celebrating some of the best woman chefs in the game including luminaries Gabrielle Hamilton and April Bloomfield.

It's a bit of a mutual admiration society when it comes to Eldridge and Best. "We're like-minded people," she says. "Sometimes you just meet your people and everything just works. And I was just lucky that surprisingly, a 50-something-year-old man is my people. I often think is he like me or am I like him? Because I don't know which would be worse."  

It's certainly clear the two have the kind of working relationship it's impossible to synthesise. "She's got the brains, and was very dedicated right from the beginning," says Best. "She had a real focus on the future and right from the beginning she really wanted to learn. And to me, that intelligence and that hunger for knowledge pretty much was the clincher."

The Josephine Pignolet Award has become the most serious measure for a young chef in the country, and has gone on to bear more talent than any other in its field. "There are some pretty key players on that list," says Best. "Maybe it took some of them a lot longer to come to fruition and maybe some never did. But the strike rate is very impressive. If you were a betting person, you'd bet on anyone that was represented in it."

THE WINNER OF THIS YEAR'S JOSEPHINE PIGNOLET YOUNG CHEF OF THE YEAR AWARD IS: LAUREN ELDRIDGE FROM MARQUE.

Damien on Lauren
"I think the thing that was important to me about that decision was that she was 100 per cent reliable. Assured, honourable, no bullshit whatsoever. I thought first of all, I'm very happy she's a patissier. Because we've never awarded it to someone who was solely a patissier. Secondly, her credentials and her base could not be better. She will be a good ambassador. I can't really say more, because she's very powerful. She's a force. Which is not abnormal for a patissier. I believe will perform her tasks brilliantly."

Lauren on Damien
"You get the sense especially after meeting Damien that it's not just about whether or not you can cook, but how you hold yourself. And that's maybe where quite a few chefs don't understand. He is looking for someone who is going to represent what he wants chefs to be. And he wants polite and presentable and going to say the right things in the right situation. In my mind you go, OK, that was your lady. You want that to be respected and represented."

The faces that shape your plates – a culinary snapshot of some of the Josephine Pignolet Bright Lights

1995 Mark Best, now at Marque, Surry Hills

2000 Brett Graham, now at the Ledbury, London

2004 Hamish Ingham,now at Bar H, Surry Hills

2006 Daniel Puskas, now at Sixpenny, Stanmore

2007 Phil Wood, now at Rockpool Est. 1989, Sydney

2008 Daniel Hong, now at Mr Wong, Ms G's, Sydney

2009 James Parry, now at Sixpenny, Stanmore

2010 Mitchell Orr, now at ACME, Rushcutters Bay

2011 Jason Saxby, now at Osteria di Russo and Russo, Enmore

2012 Terry Robinson, now at Sepia, Sydney

2014 Louis Tikaram, now at EP, Los Angeles