Life can be full of big "who knews?". Who knew, for instance, that the head chef of Aria Brisbane would have started life as a weedy kid in a small town on the northwest coast of Tasmania, crossing Bass Strait to work at some of Melbourne's most influential restaurants before heading to the South of France to cook on superyachts for Russian oligarchs? Or that knocking on the back door of a South Melbourne restaurant would lead to the biggest learning curve of his career?
That restaurant was Est Est Est, the game-changing fine diner run by then-husband-and-wife team Philippa Sibley and Donovan Cooke. Every aspiring young chef was knocking on the door to get involved in the late '90s.
Ben Russell started off working there without pay on his days off from Lygon Street bistro Jimmy Watson's. Eventually they employed him. "That's where," says Russell, "in the shortest period of time I've learned the most."
In many ways, Est Est Est was the making of Russell. But it was also a defining time of his life outside of the kitchen. While working there, his father died suddenly. "That was very, very shocking for me," he says. "But I kept on pushing on because that was what we did. I worked there for a year-and-a-half after Dad died."
During that time, Russell became increasingly withdrawn. He developed a stomach ulcer. "I was having problems eating, along with all the psychological issues that come with that. By the time I left, I was just a broken bag of bones."
"It's pretty wholesome, connecting with food, and just seeing that everyone does actually care."
Unsure of what to do with himself, but certain he couldn't continue the way he was going, he bought a one-way ticket to Paris and spent some time in the city regrouping before travelling to the South of France to work as a stagiaire.
"The first place I worked at was in Cannes. I was staying in a hostel, but it felt really comfortable. I was living the dream, walking through the markets in the morning on the way to work, I was very content.
"When you immerse yourself in a food culture that is very genuine and legitimate, it's a very real thing," says Russell. "It's pretty wholesome just being in that environment – going to the markets, connecting with food, and just seeing that everyone does actually care. It's not just you. You're not some culinary rebel punk. It's what people do. It's life. I think if you're looking for direction, it's very settling."
Then there was his time working on superyachts, including a stint with the Al-Fayed family, of Harrods Department Store fame. "I guess in any industry, the first jobs you get are not the best ones. They're the ones that industry-wise, people don't want. That's how it works. So, in the beginning my first job was for a young Russian couple in Monaco. They seemingly just had more money than God and they couldn't get rid of it quick enough. I come from a small town in Tasmania. I didn't even realise that people lived such lives."
Despite the chaos of being at the beck and call of oligarchs, Russell says he really grew from the experience. He gained a proper understanding of cooking from the markets surrounding the ports, and was forced to simplify his cooking style. "I remember Bettina, one of the yacht owners I worked for, was a really good cook. She'd want a really rustic gazpacho. I hadn't ever seen anything other than the one that I had to push through a fine drum sieve five times. So here I was putting what I would view as a sandwich through a mouli … I'd physically twitch."
Coming back to Australia for good, Russell drifted around before settling in at Aria in Sydney. "I'd never worked in a big kitchen before. It was a skill that I wanted to learn," he says. "I could already see back then that there probably wasn't any real future in running 60-seat restaurants."
He was just 25 when he started as sous chef, managing a brigade of nearly 30 people. "It was probably the first restaurant I ever worked in where we were both serving food that I was proud of while we had a bit of fun. We didn't feel like we were in the coalmine."
Russell's been working for the same company at several different venues for close to 14 years now. "I have a pretty strong personal relationship with Matt [Moran]. I do have a lot of respect for the guy. He's got a lot of attributes that I don't have. He's amazing at the PR side of the game. I've got a little bit of a bad attitude around all of that stuff, so it's worked really well having someone that is amazing at it who has left me to just be a chef."
Today, he runs Aria Brisbane on Eagle Street Pier, which opened the same year Brisbane experienced one of its greatest floods in recent history.
Russell was stuck in his apartment for days. "They eventually opened the fire stairs, but I was on the 29th floor so lugging beers up was fairly problematic."
Over the years, Russell has assembled a loyal team – some who have been with him from the beginning. "I think we're nice to them and we have a really interesting kitchen culture," he says.
"It hasn't been intentional but I'm so grateful that it's there. We try to be a little bit empathetic to how stressful it is for a young chef coming into a big kitchen. If that's not handled correctly and you don't make them feel welcome and give them the knowledge to be successful in that environment, well then, how is that healthy?"
Music to cook to: Torn and Frayed (Rolling Stones), The Passenger (Iggy and the Stooges), Superstition (Stevie Wonder), The Swimming Song (Loudon Wainwright III), Son of a Preacher Man (Dusty Springfield).
Midnight snack: After service on Saturday night, we sit in the kitchen and maybe have a beer and snacks. We save up all the fish wings from the previous couple of days for our snack of choice, fried fish wings. And tins of XXXX.
Kitchen weapon at work: The thing I'm really obsessed with are those little magic sponges you buy from Daiso.
Formative food moment: The first time I ever stuffed a pig's trotter.
Non-cooking ninja skill: I can fix absolutely anything with gaffer tape.
Ben Russell is the Queensland chairman of the Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year Award. The winner will be announced at the National Good Food Guide Awards sponsored by Citi and Vittoria, held at Melbourne's Crown Casino on October 8.