While the Good Food Guide Awards are on pause this year (thanks a bunch, COVID), the mighty surge of young cooking talent is unstoppable. Allow us to present, with great pleasure, this year's crop of bright chef sparks to watch in NSW.
Choosing just six chefs out of the 40 applicants, each aged under 30, who entered our Young Chef of the Year competition has been no easy task. Despite an all-time low when it comes to finding hospitality staff, pre-existing cheffing talent is at an all-time high.
Beating out the 34 other applicants are, in alphabetical order, Arnold Wong (Cafe Paci), Eytan Harel (Fred's), Hannah Cox (Cirrus Dining), Jason White (Firedoor), Tristan Rebbettes (Mona Farm) and Victoria Rose (Arthur Restaurant).
The six award finalists converged on Margaret restaurant in Double Bay last week to meet the panel of judges who decided this year's NSW winner. The judging panel was made up of the award's long-standing supporter and judge, Neil Perry (Margaret), and ex-winners Dan Hong (Ms G's, Mr Wong, MuMu), Lauren Eldridge (Berowra Waters Inn) and Dan Puskas (Sixpenny). They were joined by Good Food Guide editor Myffy Rigby.
There can, however, be only one winner. And this year, that winner is Jason White, head chef of Firedoor. "Jason clearly had done time in good kitchens," says Perry, "and has a job as a head chef in one of Sydney's most respected restaurants. He was, for maturity, skill and time in the right places, the best pick."
A restaurant known for its singular approach to cooking (the kitchen operates purely by the power of woodfire), Firedoor presents a rare set of challenges for a young chef. "Not only did Jason's pedigree stand out, it was his sense of passion, commitment and dedication to the craft," says Hong. "He had clear goals and aspirations that really aligned with what the award was all about."
The award was founded in 1989 by chef Damien Pignolet to honour his late wife and fellow chef Josephine Pignolet, who died in a car accident. It aims to uphold similar philosophies as those Josephine held dear. Judges are looking for a chef with an intelligent, gentle, yet rigid approach to cooking, with a clear focus and plenty of spark.
"Jason has a clear and determined focus on sustainability for the industry, both from an environmental angle but also for staff conditions and training," says Eldridge. "He is a strong choice to ensure a great future for the industry."
Current role Head chef, Firedoor, Surry Hills
One of my most significant highlights occurred when I had just started working at Rockpool George Street, aged 17. The head chef at the time, Mike McEnearney, asked me which dish on the menu excited me most. I told him it was the truffle omelette special. That night, he sat me down in the dining room with a glass of red wine while he cooked me the omelette. I was so nervous and embarrassed that I didn't know what to do, so I quickly scoffed the perfectly cooked omelette. I was completely blown away. It was my first real dining experience.
After cooking, my second biggest passion is growing produce. To that end, Dan Hunter [Brae, Victoria] is the chef I'd most like to work with in Australia. It is not that he owns one of the best restaurants in the country that inspires me most. Rather, it's the fact that he chose to open Brae rurally, showing others that they can also succeed beyond the confines of city life. It would be a privilege to have the opportunity to further cultivate my own cooking and growing skills in his enormous kitchen garden while gaining insight into ways I could one day open a high-end rural restaurant.
Overseas, the chef who most inspires me is Dan Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. His work with universities and farmers in America is something I would love to replicate in Australia by developing heirloom seed varieties designed to thrive in harsh Australian conditions. The way Dan has designed his menu is not only delicious and well-executed, but also extremely informative in the sense that it helps connect people to food by immersing diners in the story behind it. When I dined at his restaurant a few years back, it was really a lightbulb moment for me of just how good vegetables can be.
Cafe Paci is where I am finally starting to discover my own style of cooking. It's a restaurant that I love eating at and I adore its complexity yet simplicity in every dish and its use of simple, good-quality, seasonal ingredients. I have learnt and grown so much as a chef and human being since working there. I truly believe that every kitchen I have worked at has prepared me for this point in my career.
Brandon Jew (Mister Jiu's, San Francisco) is a chef I deeply admire due to his work in pushing Cantonese cuisine forward. People often have preconceptions of what Chinese-American food is like or what it should be, but what Brandon is doing is so inspiring as his dishes transcend those ideas. He has created his own Californian spin on Cantonese dishes while respecting Cantonese food at heart. What he is doing resonates with me deeply and I would love to learn from him and incorporate his philosophy and skills with my own.
I used to think that the key to being a successful chef was to cook creative, delicious food, but the book Letters to a Young Chef by [French chef] Daniel Boulud revealed so much more. Daniel made me realise that, as a young cook, I must keep pushing myself to be curious and learn more inside and outside of work every day. After finishing the book, I felt like it was full of wisdom not just regarding the kitchen, but also on how to live and learn as well.
Current role Chef, Fred's, Paddington
In five years' time I hope to be returning from my own overseas experience and working towards opening my own business. I would like to have my own small neighbourhood restaurant that is accessible to everyone and focuses on seasonality.
One of the major challenges our industry will have to face and confront in the next few years is sustainability. We will be required to contribute to progressing towards a greener future. This means educating diners about what is being served and how it has been sourced; educating the customer on seasonality and showcasing Australian ingredients; steering away from imported luxury items.
In August 2019 while working at Sixpenny I had the opportunity to travel to Hong Kong to partake in a pop-up with neo-Parisian restaurant Belon. The trip was insightful as it exposed the inner workings of a restaurant of that calibre. Notably, the availability of incredible ingredients was inspiring. The trip retains such significance in my career due to the fact I was honoured with the opportunity to serve a dish that I had come up with.
Current role Junior sous chef, Cirrus Dining, Barangaroo
I've always been attracted to a small kitchen with a specific focus and I think Thi Le (Anchovy, Melbourne) does this beautifully. I see her as someone that brings her heritage to the forefront of her cooking along with the flavour and stories of suppliers. I also love Thi Le's approach to just getting into it and getting started, even on a small budget. As a young queer woman, it's always an absolute treat to see other queer folk doing what they do well!
Tierra de Fuegos: mi cocina irreverente by Francis Mallmann is a book I picked up while living in Argentina after finishing school. I had an interest in food at this stage but had no idea who Francis was. The book contained many aspects of Argentinian cooking that I was familiar with, but it had these unexpected flavour combinations that sparked my curiosity. I love that he makes the career of being a chef a lifestyle choice, centred around putting love into food as if you are cooking for family and friends on a Sunday afternoon. Now that I cook in kitchens that rely heavily on specialised equipment and ingredients from all over the world it is a relief to read a book that never asks for a blender or anything you can't find at a fruit and vegetable grocer or a butcher or fishmonger.
COVID has changed how and where people are wanting to live. In the past year-and-a-half, a huge number of people have chosen to relocate from major cities to more regional areas. Those people still want to enjoy the same quality of food in their new homes. This is an opportunity for the industry. By focusing on locally produced food and the stories of individual towns and their people, restaurants can really do something that sets them apart. It's a chance to showcase how food can be delivered meaningfully, a benefit for the community and for the chefs who work there.
Current role Executive chef, Mona Farm, Braidwood
I really admire the dedication of Ben Shewry [of Melbourne's Attica] to using interesting Australian native ingredients. It's his unique style of Australian cooking that makes me want to work with him the most. I also look up to the way Shewry runs his kitchen. From what I have seen, he genuinely wants to prioritise creativity, innovation and fun.
The best restaurants I've been to have been independently run. I think in the coming years it's going to be difficult for young chefs to run their own places. Looking forward, it's going to be much harder for those independent, original, ground-breaking and quirky restaurants to survive. The dream for me used to be owning my own restaurant but I'm not sure that's feasible anymore.
I'm excited to be a part of a team who is dedicated to making a culinary destination outside of the city. Here in regional NSW we are so lucky to have access to some of the best produce in the country. We get our fish fresh from the South Coast and our meat right here in Braidwood [in the NSW Southern Tablelands]. When things open up again, I'm so excited to share this with the cities and to really put regional NSW on the map.
Current role Sous chef, Arthur Restaurant, Surry Hills
The highlight of my career is my current role at Arthur. It gives me a lot of pride to work with an independently run business, and to put into place systems and practices that will make it thrive.
I would most want to work with Copenhagen chef Bo Bech. He has an amazing philosophy about what a restaurant can be, and what food should be to people. I am even more inspired by his latest work: Geist restaurant and his pop-up series in New York. To my mind he is one of the most talented chefs of our time, and I endeavour to learn from following his journey.
Sauces by James Peterson should have a place in every chef's book collection. It also contains one of the most curious 17th-century recipes: baked chicken with capers and oysters, which I would love to replicate in a modern format.
It would be good to see Australia's untapped ethical game industry thrive, as this will put less pressure on other farmed species keeping up with the demand. Growing up in the Hunter Valley, it would be a regular occurrence for my uncles to go out hunting for boar or deer and would come back with enough meat to fill the freezer. Australia has problems with invasive wild deer and boar, as well as large numbers of kangaroos.
The Good Food Guide 2022 magazine will be published on November 30 with presenting partners Citi and Vittoria Coffee, and free with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Also on sale from December 7 in newsagents and supermarkets.