No more kitchen nightmares. What it's like to be a young chef today

Finalists for the Josephine Pignolet young chef of the year award: (Clockwise from top left) Matthew Bugeja (the ...
Finalists for the Josephine Pignolet young chef of the year award: (Clockwise from top left) Matthew Bugeja (the Dolphin), William Houla (Homage), Kylie Millar (Attica), Michael Carey (Jones and Co), Rhys Connell (Sepia), Lex Larment (Oscillate Wildly), Aaron Ward (Sixpenny), Joeri Timmermans (Automata).  Photo: portraits Nic Walker; artwork Dionne Gain

There's no denying kitchens have changed over the past 30 years. When Marco Pierre White ruled Britannia, it was a time of Marlboros for breakfast, screaming for elevenses and seconds of both all the way to supper. If your chef said "jump", you didn't say "How high?" You said, "Oui, chef!" Then jumped high, but quietly.

In Sydney in the late '90s, Irish chef Liam Tomlin drove Banc with two fists and the ability to give out a bollocking that would make a sailor blush.

Donovan Cooke and his then-wife Philippa Sibley at Melbourne's Est Est Est in 1997, when 16-hour days, six days a week ...
Donovan Cooke and his then-wife Philippa Sibley at Melbourne's Est Est Est in 1997, when 16-hour days, six days a week were the norm. Photo: Robert Banks

And in Melbourne in the '90s, it was Donovan Cooke and Philippa Sibley's Melbourne restaurant Est Est Est that epitomised the rock'n'roll kitchen lifestyle.

"The Est Est Est kitchen was f-----g horrible," says Ben Russell, now head chef of Aria Brisbane. "Donovan Cooke was a screamer. I'd start at 7am and he'd come in and just be raging. That'd leave everyone terrified for the rest of the day until dinner. I remember when I left Est Est Est and went to France and was working for another Marco Pierre White protege. Two days into it, it was the same, down to the style of bollockings. It's just learned behaviour, passed down from one chef to the next."

Matt Kemp, the one-time head chef of Banc, recalls Tomlin hitting him so hard with a pepper mill he doesn't know how he can still move his arm. "But I bet he's not like that anymore," says Kemp, now on hiatus in Pottsville on the NSW North Coast. "The psyche has changed as I've gotten older. I think there's a smarter approach to the way head chefs and restaurateurs treat their young chefs."

Jake Smyth says chefs are feeling vulnerable after the death of Jeremy Strode.
Jake Smyth says chefs are feeling vulnerable after the death of Jeremy Strode.  Photo: Supplied

Hazing may largely be a thing of the past, but today's kitchen front line says there is still a long way to go, and the hangover from those days certainly doesn't help with staff shortages. "It's an environment that not many people want to work in," Russell says. "And if they do, they don't want to do it for 20 years. Yelling at people isn't a sustainable way to work anymore."

Even Kemp, famous for his rages (he once called his then-wife and business partner a c---t on national television. She was pregnant at the time), has been forced to soften over the years.

He's still adamant about how a kitchen should be run, though. "If you want to achieve great results everything needs to be strict and regimented. But screaming and bollocking people doesn't work. I lost 80 chefs over the years because I was a f-----g lunatic."

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Jake Smyth, co-owner of Mary's, the Unicorn and the Lansdowne in Sydney, believes there has been a disruption in the industry. Just a decade ago, chefs were fighting their way into kitchens. And now it's near-impossible to find staff. The ease with which a chef can quit a kitchen and be all but guaranteed work the next day is a hot topic in kitchens across the country.

"Give me the names of 15 chefs over the age of 45 who are still cracking in the kitchen. You can't. Because they're all burnt out. I think young kids are watching that and they're thinking, 'I don't want to be that. He can probably cook like a motherf----r but I don't want to live like that'."

Smyth believes chefs need to leave the industry in a better state than they found it, and that comes down to building healthy restaurant atmospheres. "Younger generations are generally smarter than us, and we should be listening."

Kitchens are now forced to provide more than a learning environment fuelled by a strong backbone of mental and sometimes physical abuse (just a few years ago, a Sydney chef screamed at an apprentice until they fainted on the spot). Now, managers are working to create  a positive working environment where employees are nurtured and given opportunities to grow. "The system has flipped," says Monty Koludrovic, head chef of Icebergs and the Dolphin in Sydney.

"Now you have to provide something of interest to keep people engaged. I feel like that's forced us to reconsider how we work. There's a balance between providing people with an important cog in their career while making sure they're not overworked."

Despite changes, Russell says it's a long process and the restaurant industry has been slow to react. "Kitchens can't be pirate ships anymore," he says. "Chefs can't just wield knives and drink till 4am. But then, we're not quite Google either. You can't bring your dog to work just yet."

Traditionally, kitchens have been havens for psychos, grunts and misfits. It takes a certain kind of person to work an 80 to 90-hour week surrounded by hot things and sharp things, demanding perfection of themselves and everyone around them. Those types of kitchens produce discipline. They breed precision chefs who execute consistently, day in, day out.

"When a guy made 20 raviolis perfectly, and then the 21st one he buggered up, that's when he used to get a bollocking," Liam Tomlin told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2005. "And it made people really aware. They never slacked off because they knew that if they made a mess of something, there was going to be hell to pay for it."

Classical French cooking demands a lot of cannon fodder at the front line. "It used to be a bit Gallipoli-esque," says Koludrovic, who has seen both sides of the trenches over the years as head chef for Justin North's French restaurant Becasse, and now fostering a more forward-thinking environment for his chefs.

Shortages of skilled staff and rising wage costs have forced chefs to think differently, cook differently. "We're not going to see a return of that style of [classical] cooking any time soon,"  Russell says. "It's most noticeable in these new-age restaurants. The kitchens are just so different. At a nuts and bolts level, it's mostly preparation-based and service becomes an assembly job. And that makes kitchens a much more comfortable and pleasant place to work in."

And what about the screaming? Does it produce more delicious food? "My answer is no," Koludrovic says. "The other way wasn't pleasant for anyone. Being angry all the time isn't a nice way to be. Especially not for a hippie from the scrub like me."

The Good Food Guide goes national this year with hats awarded across Australia. The Good Food Guide 2018 will be launched in October with our presenting partners Citi and Vittoria and will be on sale in newsagents and bookstores.

Yes, chef! How our kitchen culture is changing for the better

Each year, I have the privilege of sitting in on the judging panel for the Josephine Pignolet Award – the highest Australian accolade a young chef can receive, in honour of the late Josephine Pignolet – a talented chef who died early in her career. The award, which becomes a national title for the first time this year, is decided by a panel of judges, led by Josephine's husband, chef Damien Pignolet, with chefs Ben Russell (Aria Brisbane), Phil Wood (ex Rockpool) and hospitality stalwart Margie Agostini.

I learn more about what's happening in the industry sitting in on that panel one day of the year than I do interviewing 100 head chefs. And I think that's because there's honesty, openness and a willingness to share that isn't a result of media training, or driven by a need to self-promote. It's a completely raw insight into what is actually affecting young chefs on the front line.

There is usually a bit of overlap with the sorts of restaurants the young chefs are gravitating towards (Septime in Paris and Amass in Copenhagen are this year's hot tickets) and the sorts of things they're interested in learning more about (2017 is the year of patisserie and minimising waste).

But this year the one phrase I kept hearing during the day was  "mental health". Nearly every one of the eight finalists mentioned the importance of a more positive kitchen culture. One chef had even stopped cooking for a year because of the toxic workplaces he was in, only to find the passion for the work outweighed the environment.

They each saw their role in the kitchen as ambassadors for growing healthier young chefs, encouraging people to stay in the kitchen longer. They argue that the "yes, chef" mentality doesn't foster creativity. That encouraging chefs to love the industry the way they do, to stay longer and work harder at their craft, comes down to a grassroots changing of the guard and of the environment.

If the biggest change to come from this is happier chefs staying in the industry longer, creating more delicious food, this can only be a good thing, right?

The young chef of the year finalists of the Josephine Pignolet award.

Finalists clockwise from left: Kylie Millar, Michael Carey, Aaron Ward, Lex Larment, Rhys Connell, Joeri Timmermans, William Houia and Matthew Bugeja. Photo: Nic Walker

Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year Award finalists

Meet the finalists of the Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year Award, who are out to change Australian kitchen culture for the better.

Matthew Bugeja, The Dolphin (NSW)

It was working for the Three Blue Ducks that first prompted the chef to make the cultural shift from fine dining to a more natural cooking style. And now he's at the Dolphin, it's all about bridging the gap between fine dining and casual, produce-driven food. For Bugeja and his wife, a chef at Sean's Panaroma​ in Bondi, cooking at home is a chance to experiment with dishes they might not have a chance to cook in their respective restaurants.

Michael Carey, Jones & Co (ACT)

A proud Canberran born and bred, Carey's love of cooking began in the garden as a child. His father, a horticulturalist, taught him the importance of fresh, local, seasonal produce. For him, it's all about Italian food – he name-checks Massimo Bottura as one of his heroes. Carey's goal is to be a mentor-chef who  nurtures and encourages other cooks.

Rhys Connell, Sepia (NSW)

Free-thinking, fast-talking Rhys Connell is all for experimentation. He has tried burying bunya nuts in his vegetable crisper. He's made Aussie-style umeboshi with cherries. And he once threw a party for his sourdough starter. But he's also practical and honest about finding his voice as a chef. What's important to him is the process of starting from scratch, and using food not just for nourishment but as a remedy.

​William Houia, Homage (QLD)

Hyper-local, hyper-green and hyper-seasonal is what Houia's cooking is all about. With 80 per cent of his menu sourced from the Lockyer Valley, in south-east Queensland, the New Zealand-born chef would eventually like to run his own restaurant celebrating a green ethos with a strong focus on paddock to plate.

Lex Larment, Oscillate Wildly (NSW)

Purity and a natural way of cooking are important to this chef, who hopped on a plane from Portugal just to make the panel interview. While he has a keen interest in French-based cooking, his goal is to travel broadly, immerse himself in other cultures and bring those influences back to Sydney. For him, the allure of cooking is intrinsically linked to the act of dining.

Kylie Millar, Attica (VIC)

The only woman to get through to the final round, Millar might be working the sauce section in a three-hat restaurant, but she would really like to be a butcher. The young chef boasts an eclectic resume – she is a trained physiotherapist and speaks fluent Spanish. Focused on produce, learning and education, Millar is also obsessed with the theatre of highfalutin' pastry work.

Joeri Timmermans, Automata (NSW)

Having worked at a series of heavy-hitting Sydney restaurants (Bentley, Momofuku Seiobo, Automata), the Netherlands-born chef has a keen interest in what's in the glass as well as what's on the plate. Off-duty, he favours casual wine-focused restaurants such as 10 William Street. On duty, he values a calm kitchen where the focus is on finding elegance in simplicity.

Aaron Ward, Sixpenny (NSW)

The Sixpenny influence is clear and present when it comes to Ward's approach to food and cooking. His fascination with unconventional seasoning (he has recently been messing with his own style of katsuobushi using duck and lamb hearts rather than skipjack tuna) stems from a growing awareness of food waste. Ward strives to enhance flavour rather than change it, favouring complexity behind the scenes rather than showiness on the plate.