New talent time: Meet Sydney's emerging hospitality stars

Myffy Rigby
Pop-up partners: Chefs Alex White (left) and Dave McKinn from Los Gueros at Young Henry's in Newtown.
Pop-up partners: Chefs Alex White (left) and Dave McKinn from Los Gueros at Young Henry's in Newtown. Photo: James Brickwood

Some young chefs say they don't want to be limited by traditional paths into the restaurant industry. Here's how they are making a name for themselves.

There's creative energy rippling through our city. Chefs are finding new ways to feed people and express their ideas outside the traditional trappings of a bricks-and-mortar restaurant, whether that's a taco stand in an inner west brewery, bottling hot sauce, restaurant takeovers, a living room residency or making something familiar and yet entirely new with corn. Sit up and pay attention to these strong new players.

Cheesemaker and chef Colin Wood with his Jersey milk cheese.

Chef Colin Wood calls himself Poly's 'casual cheese guy'. Photo: Supplied

Colin Wood, Poly

Ever dreamed of the perfect pan-fried cheese? One in which the Jersey milk curds are creamy and supple yet still hold together firmly enough for a golden coat? That's what chef Colin Wood makes every Monday at Mat Lindsay's Surry Hills wine bar, Poly. Wood, who calls himself the restaurant's "casual cheese guy", has a hefty resume under his belt. He had 10 years working for restaurateur Andrew McConnell's Trader House group in Melbourne and time in New York with Ignacio Mattos (Estela, Altro Paradiso) before heading back to his home state of Western Australia, where he subsequently lost all his work during lockdown last year.

Now he's in Sydney and he's keen to work towards opening his own cheese-centric place – an idea born at McConnell's Cumulus Inc. while he was running their staff education program. "We were using cheese from a local maker called Richard Thomas. I got really friendly with him when he came and held a class on cheesemaking at the restaurant," says Wood. "I just watched how focused he was and how much knowledge he had about it all and it just kind of clicked, so I started making cheese at home. It just gave me time outside of the kitchen to be creative. It was an outlet."

Wood has been making cheese for seven years now. But his own space to create is high on his list of priorities. The idea of something single-minded, such as a place devoted to cheesemaking, appeals immensely. "I really admire Josh Niland and what he's done for seafood and Calum Franklin [chef at the Holborn in London and self-described "pastry deviant"] for his pie work. Ultimately I'd love to have a small kitchen to create food in a small wine bar setting but then also have the space to create and age cheese. I just really want to concentrate on the art of cheesemaking and I want to bring that to the Australian public in a different way."

Try Wood's grilled Jersey milk cheese at Poly, 74-76 Commonwealth Street, Surry Hills, polysurryhills.com.au

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Chefs Dave McKinn and Alex White,  Los Gueros - a pop up Mexican restaurant. Photographed at Young Henry's brewery in Newtown. Photographed Thursday 24th June 2021. Photograph by James Brickwood. SMH GOOD FOOD 210624

Chefs Dave McKinn (left) and Alex White of Los Gueros sling tacos at Young Henry's brewery in Newtown. Photo: James Brickwood

Dave McKinn, Los Gueros

Making tortillas to order for your taco business is one thing. But treating your own corn the way they do in Mexico by soaking it in limewater then grinding it by hand to make the flour for the tortillas? That's next level. But that's what chef Dave McKinn does, with his business partner Alex White. When McKinn's not working double shifts alongside ex-Momofuku chef Cian Mulholland at the Hotel Palisade, he and White have a residency at Enmore craft brewery Young Henrys slinging tacos under the name Los Gueros. They've also done pop-ups at Glebe wine bar Number 92, a newish haven for young chefs with big ideas.

"We've been going very quietly for a couple of years now," says McKinn, who has spent a lot of time in Latin America, as well as worked the burners at Sydney's Bodega for a number of years. "We concentrate mostly on tacos but we're putting a lot of emphasis on the tortilla. We're doing things the traditional way. It was one of those things we saw was missing from Sydney and thought we'd give it a crack. It took a lot of research and practice trying to figure it out but we're really happy with how things have been going."

Currently, they're doing about two services a month and are looking to build momentum to open their own establishment. "In the long run we are still aiming for bricks and mortar but the benefit of not having that is that we can take our time and let the business grow organically. We've done this over a couple of years without having to spend too much money. We've just been able to test our product out progressively and let it get better and better."

Los Gueros will be slinging tacos on the second Saturday of the month (COVID restrictions willing) at Young Henrys, 76 Wilford Street, Newtown, younghenrys.com

Cassandra and Matthew Bugeja, at Ain't Nonnas pop-up at The Throsby in Wollongong.

Cassandra and Matthew Bugeja at Ain't Nonnas pop-up at The Throsby in Wollongong. Photo: Supplied

Cassandra and Matthew Bugeja, Ain't Nonna's

Wollongong really got lucky when the Bugejas moved in. The pair, who met a decade ago working at Becasse, Justin North's now-closed temple to modern French cuisine, have been in residency at The Throsby wine bar for the past few months until they find a site of their own. The pop-up trattoria is serving big Italian flavours with a modern twist, alongside minimal-intervention wine and unapologetically loud music.

Their plan was always to open something permanent, but COVID knocked the wind out of their sails – investing a lot of money into a fixed restaurant seemed too risky. "We really started to second guess whether the climate was ready for what we wanted to do. And I think that's where the idea of the pop-up to test the market came first. We felt like we needed to prove it to ourselves too," says Cassandra.

And the name? "We always get asked, 'Why Ain't Nonna's?' It's because the town has such a long migrant history stretching back to the gold-rush era," she says. "We have a lot of Italian friends who'd say, 'It's good, but it's not as good as nonna's.' We realised we didn't want to compete with that so we're being a bit cheeky and saying, 'Let's do the classics but have a bit of fun with it.' " Inspired by places like Hobart  Italian wine and snack bar Templo, they do a take on the Sicilian chickpea pancake panelle – deep-fried and served with preserved lemon and a pickle and herb mix on top.

Strap in for the Ain't Nonna's brand of fun food and good times at The Throsby, shop 2B, 88 Kembla Street, Wollongong, thethrosby.com

Chef Alejandro Huerta from No. 92 in Glebe.

Mexican chef Alejandro Huerta landed in Sydney recently. Photo: Supplied

Alejandro Huerta, No. 92

If you've never heard of Alejandro Huerta, there's a good reason. The Mexican chef landed in Sydney only recently. But his resume reads like a dossier of bucket-list restaurants: Pujol in Mexico City, Ferran Adria's test kitchen in Spain, Noma in Copenhagen.

What is he doing in Sydney? Working at the helm of a little wine bar called No. 92, on a quiet corner in Glebe, which is fast gaining a reputation as a talent incubator. 

Huerta started collaborating with young talent around the city, first as the opening chef for Manly Mexican restaurant Chica Bonita's CBD venue. He took part in a pop-up with city bar PS40, a venue that devotes its kitchen every Tuesday to one-off dinners and collaborations.

"I met so many chefs through that," says Huerta. "Toby Wilson [Ricos Tacos and Ghostboy Cantina], Hugh Piper [Fabbrica] – and then we became friends. I really like the fact it's building a community.

"And then when I moved over to 92 I thought, 'Why not do it again?' We got some of the chefs to take over the kitchen and let them do whatever they liked. It's been a good opportunity for them to do things that are different from what they do every day.

"Hugh [Piper] has his Peruvian influence and he was happy to showcase some recipes from his family. As you grow up you learn that family and a close group of friends are the most important thing and I think that a lot of young chefs are trying to grow, build a name, and the best way to do it is to work together towards something. You learn, and you're able to share recipes and ideas."

During September, No. 92 will be devoted to Mexican cuisine for the whole month.  

The endgame for Huerta is to have a restaurant dedicated to showcasing Mexican food and culture. "There are some people doing amazing things with Mexican food in Sydney and I would love to have my share in that."

Catch Alejandro Huerta and regular chef residencies at No. 92, 92 Glebe Point Road, Glebe, No92gpr.com.au

Gaspar Tse of Hotluck Pantry.
For Myffy Rigby Good Food story on next-gen talent, July 29, 2021.

Hot sauce has become a permanent part-time gig for Gaspar Tse of Hotluck Pantry. Photo: Supplied

Gaspar Tse, Hotluck Pantry

Hot sauce. Who knew it would be the salve we all needed post-2020? For Gaspar Tse, what started as something to keep him busy during lockdown has turned into a permanent part-time gig. Making and selling hot sauce (Hotluck Pantry) now takes up the better part of the chef's week. Not only that, it also became the foundation of Hotluck Club, a series of pop-up collaborations with chef friends from around the city including Enrico Tomelleri (ex 10 William Street), Toby Wilson and "Big" Sam Young (Ms.G's, Totti's).

The chef, whose kitchen resume includes Flower Drum and Taxi Kitchen in Melbourne and Cafe Sydney, The Unicorn, Restaurant Hubert, and 10 William Street in Sydney, says the pop-ups started as a way to test the market before opening his own place. It was something fun to do with friends that also broke up being in a restaurant kitchen all the time.

"COVID really highlighted how stagnant the traditional restaurant model was, and it encouraged me to try something different," says Tse. "I feel like young chefs are looking on a wider spectrum these days. We don't want to be boxed in. We want to do something exciting and unconventional."

Tse believes this change in tone has been a long time coming, and many of the perceived limitations around what can be achieved as a young chef and business person are a hangover from the business model generations of chefs were trained in.

"You work in a set venue for a certain amount of years and only after that time period are you even allowed to think about doing your own thing," says Tse. "Whereas I feel like there are so many mediums to look at and get inspiration from. That has its pluses and minuses but it has created a much more dynamic landscape."

Follow @hotluckclub and Tse's own handle @sendnoodzz on Instagram for all the latest hot sauce and pop-up dates.

Good Food Guide Young Chef of the Year Award nominations are open

Are you a young chef under the age of 30, based in NSW and Victoria, and awesome? Enter this prestigious competition for a chance to join a roll call of some of this country's most influential chefs. Five finalists from each state will be chosen to appear in front of a panel comprising three industry veterans and a senior Good Food Guide critic. They will be interviewed and asked to cook a dish that best highlights their skills. Young chefs may work in any section of the kitchen, at any position, as long as they are aged under 30 on November 19, 2021. For an entry form, please email National Good Food Guide editor Myffy Rigby (myffy.rigby@goodfood.com.au). Entries close July 31, 2021.

The Good Food Guide Awards, presented by Vittoria Coffee and Citi, will take place later this year.