Head chefs step out of the shadows

At the helm: Aria Sydney chef Joel Bickford is Matt Moran's first mate.
At the helm: Aria Sydney chef Joel Bickford is Matt Moran's first mate. Photo: James Brickwood

"Let's cut the bullshit," says Matt Moran. "I'm not cooking your fish when you come into my restaurants."

I'm at lunch with the celebrity chef at his flagship Aria fine-diner overlooking Sydney Harbour. We're eating steamed Murray cod with chilled angasi oyster and white radish by the restaurant's freshly-appointed lead talent Joel Bickford, former executive chef of The Gantry at Pier One hotel, Walsh Bay.

Moran can't stop gushing over how much loves Bickford's new menu. "He's a bloody good cook – that's why I hired him – but he also has a great personality and understands the restaurant's philosophy."

The Sydney Morning Herald's chief food critic Terry Durack is a big fan of Bickford's cooking too, writing in his recent Aria review that "if this is succession planning, it has success written all over it".

Aria is one of many establishments where the chef leading the kitchen is not the chef most guests associate with the restaurant. However, these chefs in the shadows are the ones writing rosters, designing menus, plating food, wrangling suppliers, recruiting staff and dealing with myriad operational duties.

Often referred to as head chef, these crucial bosses of the kitchen sit at varying degrees between sous chef (directly responsible for the kitchen's daily service) and executive. The executive chef is the top dog who may often own the restaurant or, as with Moran, many restaurants.

Steamed Murray cod with chilled angasi oyster and white radish at Aria.
Steamed Murray cod with chilled angasi oyster and white radish at Aria. Photo: Christopher Pearce

"I still wander into Aria all the time," says Moran. "I think the difference is when people see me in the restaurant they're like 'oh my god, you're here!'. They're shocked. And I'm like, 'Well I own the bloody joint. Of course I'm here. It's not that unusual. It's still my house.'"

The role of a head chef in 2018 is more vital than it has ever been. In a highly competitive restaurant industry, executive chefs may often find themselves hosting events, cooking at festivals, on the road for book tours, appearing on television and anything else that needs to be done to keep the restaurant in the public eye and fully booked. The executive needs to absolutely trust their head chef to helm the restaurant when they have other obligations. Here's a snapshot of some of best chefs working in the shadows around the country.

Imogen Czulowski, Africola, Adelaide

"For the first time in my life I have an office day," says Imogen "Mo" Czulowski. "I guess you know you're about to turn 30 when you have an office."

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Czulowski was appointed head chef of South African-Australian good times restaurant Africola 12 months ago after five years as sous chef at Fino Seppeltsfield in the Barossa. Africola executive chef and owner Duncan Welgemoed had been "pestering" Czulowski for years to work for him and eventually the 29-year-old decided she needed a change of pace and accepted her first head chef role.

"It was straight into the deep end," says Czulowski. "I've learned a lot about how a business develops. You're introduced to it a little bit as a sous chef, but as a head chef it's your job to make sure the restaurant is really striving. It also means dealing with a lot of numbers and spreadsheets."

"Mo is very driven, very ambitious," says Welgemoed. "I put the team under a lot of pressure but Mo just keeps her cool and gets on with it. She never complains and I never step on her toes and undermine her development or the way she runs a service.

It's your job to make sure the restaurant is really striving.

Imogen Czulowski

"When you take on a head chef role, and there's an executive chef above you, it's very easy to be a glorified sous chef. I've had that with previous head chefs at Africola who weren't bringing much game. Mo's not like that."

"I spend a lot of time keeping my staff amped up," says Czulowski. "If you've got someone having a shit time, it's toxic. The whole family can fall down from that. Maintaining a fun work environment is a difficult part of the job, but – and this will sound naff – it's also the most satisfying."

Welgemoed controls the overall menu direction while Czulowski is responsible for day-to-day dish development. "I'm quite seafood and vegetable-focused whereas Duncan is far more meat driven," she says. "Generally, I will find a producer and say, 'These guys are sick, I really want to use their produce. How can we incorporate it into the menu?' Other times Duncan will say 'I've seen this dish and I want you to do an interpretation of it. But you need to make the Africola version f---ing cool.'"

Imogen Czulowski in the open kitchen at Africola.
Imogen Czulowski in the open kitchen at Africola. Photo: David Solm

Welgemoed will then tweak the dishes "here and there" and offer feedback. "But I never criticise," he says. "And honestly, if Mo is 100 per cent behind a dish, then I'm like 'Cool. Do it. I believe in you.'"

Czulowski says she is interested in running her own restaurant one day, but believes it is important to put in the hard yards as a head chef first.

"A lot of chefs think apprenticeships are the hard years but then you go through these other blocks of learning. When you're a head chef – when you're making bold decisions for the business – it can be frightening. But when you get it right, you're like 'Hell yeah. I can bloody do this.'"

Imogen Czulowski accepted her first head chef role when she joined Africola in 2017.
Imogen Czulowski accepted her first head chef role when she joined Africola in 2017. Photo: Andre Castellucci

Joel Bickford, Aria, Sydney

"I knew where Joel's head was at The Gantry and I knew he wanted somewhere better than where he was," says Moran. "Somewhere he had more freedom to focus on fine dining rather than be part of a hotel. I knew that and I probably took advantage of it."

Before Bickford was steaming Murray cod at Aria and dealing with hotel diners at The Gantry, he was head chef under James Viles at Biota, Bowral. The 44-year-old's resume also includes sous chef for Steve Manfredi at Bel Mondo and Astral.

"Joel has always been a quiet achiever – the guy behind the scenes," says Moran. "I think at his age, with three kids, he deserves to be up on stage. When James [Viles] found out he was coming to work for me he said, 'mate, it's the best thing you've ever done, but it's also the best thing he's ever done'. If someone says that about an ex-employee, you know that the guy's a really bloody good guy."

Bickford is the first Aria head chef that hasn't come up through ranks of the two-hatted restaurant. "You're a kid in a candy shop coming to a place like this," he says. "It's certainly the biggest kitchen I've ever worked in. It's nice to come to restaurant that's still very excited about growing itself. To not just steer a ship that's already travelling, but being integral to change it in certain ways."

Bickford was tasked with designing a new menu with increased clarity and elegance celebrating Australia's finest produce. A menu to keep business at Aria booming. However, while press releases for Bickford's appointment announce him as executive chef, he doesn't have carte blanche to plate anything he wants and Moran continues to guide each new dish onto the menu.

"Joel writes a menu, I see it, I make comment on it, and we have a tasting," Moran says. "I'm no shrinking violet when it comes to how things should and shouldn't be. Certain customers expect certain things and the menu still has to be conservative at some level. We can't be too cool."

Chris Watson, chef at Cutler & Co. and Marion.

Chris Watson values his role as head chef at Cutler & Co.. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Chris Watson, Cutler & Co. and Marion, Melbourne

Chris Watson has been working in professional kitchens for the last 17 years and for more than half that time he's been on the pans at the two-hatted Cutler & Co., joining chef and restaurateur Andrew McConnell's Fitzroy flagship six months after it opened in 2009. The 32-year-old also helms Cutler's sister wine bar, Marion, next door.

Watson believes dish collaboration with McConnell (who also counts Cumulus Inc., Supernormal, the Builders Arms Hotel and Meatsmith in his portfolio) is a win for customers.

"Andrew will drop by probably once a week to touch base, taste a few things and talk about the menu," he says. "Any dish concepts I come up with at Cutler, Andrew will test, cook and taste himself. There's a bit of process to arrive at the final dish, but there's no set procedure. We're always talking about what's coming in, what ingredients are looking good and new menu ideas.

"Dishes are always better after a few people have been involved in the process. You want people who can say, 'maybe that seasonings not quite right' or 'let's change this ingredient to that'. That extends to the wine team and floor managers tasting it because they have a sense of what the guests are looking for."

The collaborative nature of a head chef's role contrasts to many (but not all) hotshot executives with something to prove.

"We're certainly not a restaurant that's trying to push the envelope to the point of something that's super interesting but doesn't actually taste that great," says Watson. "We just want people to be happy, eat delicious food and feel like they're getting great value for money. "

Watson says that although he has thought about leaving Cutler and opening a solo venture, he values the role of head chef because it doesn't come with all the headaches of owning a business. Instead, it allows him to spend more time in the kitchen.

"There's a lot of positives in working for a group with an established reputation and lots of resources," he says. "We're lucky to be pretty busy. It's tough in a small business trying to get people through the door and managing your costs. Here I can focus on what's important, which is what the guest is receiving when they come into the restaurant."

Chefs Joel Alderson and Phil Wood at Pt Leo Estate. Photo Anson Smart for Good Food.

Chefs Joel Alderson (left) and Phil Wood at Point Leo Estate. Photo: Anson Smart

Joel Alderson, Point Leo Estate and Laura, Mornington Peninsula

Phil Wood knows a thing or two about being a head chef. The culinary director of Point Leo Estate worked in the shadow of Neil Perry at Rockpool (later Eleven Bridge) for eight years before coming to the Gandel Group's $50 million restaurant development at Point Leo on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula in 2017.

"I was very fortunate to work with Neil in the trusting relationship we had," says Wood. "If he didn't like something he would tell me, but that would be from him sitting down in the restaurant and eating rather than coming into the kitchen and trying things. He was so busy, it was probably quite relieving for him to have someone he trusted operating Rockpool and moving it forward."

Now Wood has his own head chef, Joel Alderson, to look after the operations of Point Leo Estate Restaurant and its attached fine-diner, Laura.

"Operations are my main role so I can free up Phil's creative side and build the business," says Alderson. "So that means ordering, rostering, daily menu alterations, event planning and recruitment."

Alderson was executive chef at Melbourne's Hotel Windsor for five years before making the seachange to Point Leo with his partner Ainslie Lubbock and their three-year-old son. Lubbock, formerly of Cutler & Co. and Attica, also manages the restaurant.

"The opportunity to work with Phil and learn from him was a major reason to move to Point Leo," says Alderson. "Ingredients wise, he looks at food in a such a broad sense it puts depth of flavour into everything that he does. We're working through the next menu change together now and looking at different suppliers and what we can get from the region."

"It's great to have another person to work with on sourcing ingredients and to develop ideas," says Wood. "It has also been great to separate myself from the day-to-day stuff and focus on the bigger picture. Head chefs are a vital cog in the kitchen."