What makes a great chef? Is it all about being able to lead a team, create original flavour combinations and challenge diners with new dishes? Or is it just the ability to cut an onion really well? It's all of the above, along with a sense of play and originality that adds something extra to the Australian dining scene. The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2016 senior reviewing panel worked together to come up with a list of finalists for the Citi Chef of the Year award which they believe reflects Sydney's diverse, exciting and ever-changing restaurant culture. We wish all five nominees the best of luck at the annual The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide Awards on September 7.
Alessandro Pavoni, Ormeggio at The Spit
The Lombardian chef has made great inroads over the past year with his fresh, innovative Italian menu, with the help of offsider Victor Migoya. His menu may have its roots in northern Italy, but it's injected with all the brightness and breeziness of a Sydney summer. His restaurant, nestled among the luxury yachts and sprawling mansions of The Spit, is simultaneously a relaxing place to dine but with plenty of action on the plate.
Martin Benn, Sepia
It's been quite a year for this popular chef, from creating a Sepia pop-up at Eric Ripert's Manhattan restaurant Le Bernardin, to making it into the S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best list. It's not just the envelope-pushing tasting menu that's turning heads, either – his bar menu of things cooked on the robata is reason enough to visit. A chef with a sense of style all of his own, Benn commands worldwide industry respect.
Pasi Petanen, Cafe Paci
Finnish by name, Finnish by nature with some very Australian sensibilities thrown into the mix, the ex-Marque chef is a firm believer in doing things his way. After taking over an old taqueria and painting the entire place a single shade of grey, he started serving a progressive menu that has, at times, started (whipped lardo) and ended (chocolate-covered chicharron) with pork fat. It's a semi-permanent restaurant, true, but it has so cemented itself in Sydney dining culture that it's been standing for almost two years.
Peter Gilmore, Quay & Bennelong
Chef, artist, passionate grower of tiny vegetables. Whether he's tweezing tiny flowers onto things or constructing that gravity-defying pavlova, Peter Gilmore means business. He's got enough of them, too. There's the mothership, Quay, which still impresses with its all-star locale and menu, but there's his newest acquisition too, inside the ribs of the Opera House. This is where he's created a three-part epic journey of bar and restaurant dining, putting the best of Australia on the plate with a delicate touch.
Ross Lusted, Bridge Room
Lusted's great taste, approach to produce and the way he steadfastly refuses to put on a tasting menu are just three reasons he remains one of the most original cooks in the business. At first glance, there's a relaxed gentleness to his food, but look closely and be rewarded with wild risks, smart pairings and no small amount of pure honed skill. And all with a quiet assuredness emulated by many but perfected by few.
The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide awards are on September 7. The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2016 will be available from participating newsagents, 7-Elevens and supermarkets for $10 with the newspaper on Saturday, September 12, while stocks last.