Kylie Millar, 31 and winner of the coveted Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year Award for 2018, has been cooking professionally for a mere five years but she's been leaving her mark in the kitchen since she was a kid – literally.
"There are probably still chickpeas stuck to the ceiling at home," she says, recalling a wild childhood attempt at hummus. "We didn't have a food processor so my sister and I thought a meat tenderiser was the next best thing. We bashed away while chickpeas flew around the room."
That was just one instance in a Sydney childhood characterised by cooking experimentation and creativity. "Curiosity is what drove me to cooking," says Millar. "When I was really little I saw a bottle of mayonnaise in the fridge and said to my mum, 'They can make it, how do we make it?'"
Her grandmother's generosity was also key. "My nana was a big influence," Millar says. "She'd be cooking for her tennis ladies, or the next-door neighbour, always something different, and she'd have us cooking, whether it was licking the bowl or putting cases for cupcakes in the tin."
When school finished, Millar tossed up between hospitality and sports science. "I was really into open-water swimming, national titles and all that, and sport pulled me a little harder at the time."
She studied physiotherapy but travelled in her holidays, falling particularly hard for Italy's food culture. "I remember being down the Amalfi way, being amazed by the incredible lemons and the fact that it was Tuesday night and there were families eating in all the little bars and restaurants."
You see the legends that have won and it's like, Oh wow, I have big shoes to fill.
A couple of years later, in 2012, she threw her hat into the MasterChef ring. "I thought, what the heck, I'm going to give it a go." She came a respectable sixth but it was the opportunity to learn that was the real win.
Highlights included going to Italy to cook for chef Massimo Bottura and doing a dessert challenge in front of her pastry heroes. "I had heart palpitations when they came in: Kirsten Tibballs, Philippa Sibley, Darren Purchese," she says. "I saw Philippa in the bathroom and told her that I brought her book to set every day. She said, 'Oh, aren't you nice.' She was beautiful."
Purchese offered Millar work experience in his dessert kitchen once the show was over. "I was super green and he was really patient," she says. "He didn't know if I could cook or if I was going to be an annoying person asking 1000 questions." She asked, he answered, she learnt and then Purchese connected her with his old stomping ground, the much-lauded Spanish restaurant Mugaritz.
Hitherto, she'd focused on dessert. "I think that comes from being in my nana's kitchen: sugar, butter, flour, I feel comfortable with them." But at Mugaritz, Millar was thrown into the seafood section. "It challenged me to expand myself," she says. "I opened sea urchins, cleaned fish, squid. I loved it."
A stint on the meat section showed her the connections between her physiotherapy training and cooking. "It's anatomy," she says. "I can appreciate muscles and how they work in different animals, think about a cow standing up and know that a muscle is a harder worker and will want a slower cook. It's funny how the two disciplines merged."
Next, Millar followed up with 18 months at Attica. "In Spain, I was taken by how passionate they are about their ingredients: their anchovies, cheese, olives," she says. "I wanted to work somewhere in Australia where there was a similar appreciation for local produce, the stuff we have here that no one else has." Attica chef Ben Shewry's investigation of native produce seemed like the right fit.
"Every place adds a little bit to your toolkit and your knowledge," says Millar, who not only appreciated the bunya nuts and emu eggs, but also Shewry's style as leader. "He takes care of the people who are working for him; you want to do your best for him because he's doing his best for you," she says.
There was a cloud, though. Despite the imprimatur of highly regarded employers, Millar still felt like a bit of a pretender. "I started so much later than other chefs, I didn't come through apprenticeships and kitchens and I don't really have any qualifications," she says. "It wasn't that people were nasty to me, it's more me always thinking that I need to prove myself."
In that context, winning the young chef award was a huge fillip. Running since 1990 in NSW and nationally since last year, the award commemorates chef Josephine Pignolet, who died in a car accident in 1987. The selection panel is chaired by her husband, Damien Pignolet, who becomes mentor and cheerleader to those who win. Past winners include industry heavyweights Mark Best, Phil Wood and Dan Hong.
"I started shaking when Damien rang me to tell me I'd won," Millar says. "He told me I ooze with enthusiasm when I speak about food. I was happy and honoured, but it was more the huge confidence boost. It felt like I was accepted and I finally had an inner sense that I am able to be in a kitchen."
Most of the cash prize (up to $20,000) has been put aside for Millar's restaurant dream, "maybe in the next two years". Some of it will go towards her next work experience step, a stint with Dan Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York, starting in August. Blue Hill uses its own farm-grown produce and animals, which felt like a nice flow-on from Attica, where Millar was overseeing the gardens. "I don't have a particularly green thumb but I love being outside," she says. "I love that connection of picking something, bringing it inside and cooking with it."
When she thinks about the restaurant she'll one day open, that connection between produce and plate is key. "I want it to be personal. I would love to have things I've grown, cheeses made in-house, charcuterie and bread too. I want to know how everything is done," she says, sounding like the grown-up version of that little girl at the fridge wondering about the mystery of mayo.
The Josephine Pignolet award has spurred her on. There's awe and pressure – "You see the legends that have won and it's like, Oh wow, I have big shoes to fill" – but motivation, too. "It will keep me pushing myself," she says. "If people have faith in me, they must see something, and I have to trust it, too."
Applications for this year's Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year Award have now closed. The Good Food Guide Awards, presented by Citi and Vittoria, will take place in early October.