How Australia's top chefs release the pressure

Myffy Rigby
Franklin chef Analiese Gregory diving for abalone.
Franklin chef Analiese Gregory diving for abalone. Photo: Adam Gibson

If there's been a watch-term that's really bled through 2018, it's been 'work-life balance'. It's a complex matter – not least for people who live to work, rather than work to live. But it's also been an area in the spotlight for a reason. High octane work environments such as kitchens are breeding grounds for mental health issues, and it's not going away. 'Do more with less' is an ethos that's here to stay.

It's been a tough year for many restaurants, but not everyone agrees that this is down to chefs finding balance in their personal lives. Some believe it's a matter of owning the life you've created. "Most people that I know who've been working long term and particularly owning and running hospitality businesses are just still trying to get by with the general understanding that this is the life we have chosen," says Dan Hunter, head chef of Brae in Birregurra, Victoria.

But Hunter also says that that life must be created with the right foundations. "I hope some of the changes we've been making over the last four and a half years are helping our team to have a different and better work experience within the this industry."

The Good Food Guide is in its second year as a national book, with hats awarded across Australia.
The Good Food Guide is in its second year as a national book, with hats awarded across Australia. Photo: Supplied

Josh Niland, the young chef behind Sydney's Saint Peter and the neighbouring Fish Butchery, sees the struggle of barely seeing his family as a palatable evil for now. "For both my wife and I, having two new businesses and two children has seen our downtime reduced dramatically and at times have struggled to see one another in a week. Obviously this is so common in any profession, but we see it as a short term sacrifice that is ultimately necessary for the success of our business."

The temptation to constantly work when you're doing something you love is a feeling Analiese Gregory of Franklin in Hobart knows all too well. So she pulls herself out of the kitchen whenever she can. "It's taken me a long time to realise that spending large amounts of time outdoors is integral to my happiness," says Gregory. "I love the feeling of jumping in the sea and being part of the underwater world, the forests of different types of seaweed, algae, fish, urchins – it's ridiculously beautiful and refreshing. It always leaves me feeling tired but sated and a lot calmer and less stressed about the world."

"No matter what job you do I think it is important to have some time out to recharge and renew the batteries, says Quay's executive chef, Peter Gilmore. "For me, doing something different to what you do for work is important to refresh. That's why spending time outdoors in the garden is so inspiring."

I love the feeling of jumping in the sea and being part of the underwater world.

Analiese Gregory

The argument is to be at the top of your game you need to put in the hours. "In my career to date I've always just gone to work, no matter how long things take to get done and as a result have done stupid hours for 20 plus years," says Hunter. "I was always of the understanding that anything done to an elite level requires commitment and time - most of us don't expect world class athletes to train for less than necessary and then win medals."

Paul Carmichael, head chef of Momofuku Seiobo, Sydney, says the mix is different for everyone as far as work/life balance is concerned. "It is absolutely important to have something outside of the restaurant but whatever that mix is, it needs to make you happy and be satisfying. Have your priorities in whatever order matters to you, love yourself (if you don't know how, seek out the tools to learn to do so) and create spaces to flourish within those things that are priorities in your life."

Meet the Citi Chef of the Year finalists

We asked Australia's top chefs how they carve out personal time for themselves to keep sane.

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Chef Peter Gilmore cooking at his home on SEPTEMBER 13, 2018 in Sydney, Australia.  (Photo by Christopher Pearce/Fairfax Media)

Quay chef Peter Gilmore in his home kitchen. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Peter Gilmore, Quay, New South Wales

Finally Peter Gilmore has a restaurant worthy of his food. Thanks to a multi million dollar makeover, the jewel in the Fink Group's crown is unrecognisable as the restaurant that Once Was. The six- or 10-course menu is a letter of intent from a viscous miso bagna cauda hiding under a bed of sweet raw heritage peas to a whole sand crab claw, shelled and gently poached in butter. Oh, and the most luxurious crumpet in the land.

What he cooks when he's by himself: "A simple pasta – olive oil, garlic, chilli, lemon and ricotta or feta."

Overseas Passenger Terminal, The Rocks, Sydney, 02 9251 5600, quay.com.au

Good food. Momofuku Seiobo. Terry Durack review. Chef Paul Carmichael. Photo by Edwina Pickles. Taken on 24th March 2017.

Chef Paul Carmichael in Momofuku Seiobo's open kitchen. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Paul Carmichael, Momofuku Seiobo, New South Wales

Anyone who suggests you should sit anywhere but the bar is huffing a little too hard on the restaurant's house-fermented chilli paste. That bar, which circles the open kitchen where head chef Paul Carmichael and his crack team work the pans, is the perfect vantage point to watch the show. Live marron wrestling each other in a cast iron pot are brought over for a viewing before they're taken off to be grilled, and smothered in chilli paste, served with a side of puffy coconut buns. Bombastic flavour and messy fun.

How to de-stress after a difficult service: "I usually talk to my eight-year-old daughter who is an epic human."

80 Pyrmont Street, Pyrmont, Sydney, 02 9657 9169, seiobo.momofuku.com

Analiese Gregory, Franklin, Tasmania

"I get much more enjoyment out of making everything from scratch these days as opposed to buying in. If we make a pizza I'm more interested in adding sourdough, milling grains, making cheese, than in making it fancy." So says Analiese Gregory who took over the kitchen here in mid 2017. The former Quay chef has embraced life on this rugged island, foraging, diving for abalone, making mozzarella. The food is fancy though. Not through use of gels and hydrocolloids but through delicate layering of deliciousness, masterful use of a showpony scotch oven and an accomplished, well-travelled hand with spice.

Where you'll find her when she's not in the kitchen: "In bed. I love sleeping so much I should never have become a chef. Failing that I will be napping on the lawn or diving/hiking/foraging/horse riding/making cheese. It's a strange mix of action or total inertia."

30 Argyle Street, Hobart, 03 6234 3375, franklinhobart.com.au

Dan Hunter, owner chef of The Brae restaurant in Birregurra. 3 September 2015. The Age Epicure. Photo: Eddie Jim. GFM

Dan Hunter of Brae restaurant in Birregurra. Photo: Eddie Jim

Dan Hunter, Brae, Victoria

Chef Dan Hunter's cooking is almost otherworldly. Baked beetroot, local honey and a massive spoonful of trout roe see the brine, earth and sweetness make an incredible team. Bonito cured overnight with kelp and mountain pepper is soft and warm with just the right balance of sweetness and savour. Pork jowl and green lip abalone is sticky and salty and gone in one bite. The smoked eel churros? Everything you've heard and more. Dining in this sprawling converted weatherboard house is all about deep, unhurried comfort.

Favourite non-cooking activity: "I'm actually pretty well occupied with not doing too much and a day without plans is usually pretty appreciated – chill in the morning, long breakfast with heaps of coffees and a magazine, play some records, an early afternoon Manhattan, jumping on a trampoline with my daughter."

4285 Cape Otway Road, Birregurra, Victoria, 03 5236 2226, braerestaurant.com

*AFR USE ONLY. DO NOT USE WITHOUT CONSULTING AFR PHOTO.* Chef, Josh Niland, from Saint Peter's Fish Butchery in Paddington, Sydney. 6th June 2018 Photo: Janie Barrett

Josh Niland is behind Saint Peter and its spin-off, Fish Butchery. Photo: Janie Barrett

Josh Niland, Saint Peter, New South Wales

There are few menu constants at this modest Paddington hotspot where Josh Niland cooks seafood with talent and integrity. Sweet South Coast oysters are a given, served naked and fat. Broadbill belly cured into a kind of fish bacon will likely feature too (pan-fried with brussels sprouts as a side, maybe), and either custard or lemon tart is a must. Niland's commitment to high-quality produce, however, means the carte is an ever-changing adventure spotlighting Australia's best ocean catch.

The importance of time out of the kitchen: "Any time away from the kitchen is spent with Julie and the kids. Even if its an extra half an hour in the morning before I race away that we can have a coffee together or even finish assembling a puzzle, I value that time immensely and believe it aids in keeping me focused and also happy."

362 Oxford Street, Paddington, Sydney, 02 8937 2530, saintpeter.com.au

The Good Food Guide is in its second year as a national book, with hats awarded across Australia. The Good Food Guide 2019 will be launched on October 8 with our presenting partners Vittoria Coffee and Citi, and will be on sale from October 9 in newsagencies and bookstores or pre-order now via thestore.com.au/gfg19 (delivery included), RRP $29.99.