The kitchen hand's tale: meet the unsung hospitality heroes

What is service excellence?

Caterina Borsato of Caterina's Cucina e Bar in Melbourne; Vicki Wild (and Martin Benn) of Sepia, Sydney; Longrain's Sam Christie; and chef Neil Perry talk service excellence. Video brought to you by Citi.

It's been one week since the release of the national Good Food Guide and we've been celebrating the figureheads of Australia's best restaurants, hard. But if there was one common theme to the acceptance speeches from the chefs, it was the truth that restaurants are not about one person. They are complex ecosystems that would implode without the work of tens and sometimes hundreds of unseen workers. They may not be the stars of the show but the smooth running of our best restaurants comes down to dishies and kitchen hands as much as it does a fearless leader.

Maybe no one has gone quite as far as Rene Redzepi, who famously made a NOMA dishwasher a shareholder in the business last year, but the top chefs and restaurateurs of Australia know they're nothing without their teams. Here are a few of the faces Australia's restaurants couldn't do without.

Matthew Boyle

Sous chef, Attica

Attica sous chef Matthew Boyle.
Attica sous chef Matthew Boyle. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Being the sous chef at Attica mightn't exactly be a lowly position, but Matthew Boyle has worked his way through every station in the kitchen of the Vittoria Coffee Restaurant of the Year since he came on board at 19 as a dishie and commis chef who had just accepted he wasn't quite fast enough to go pro in the AFL.

Back when Boyle started seven years ago, Attica was renowned for having a couple of the very worst prep jobs in the land. Remember the walnut amuse? It was a nimble-fingered nightmare that took six staff daily to peel the fine skins. "Ask any former employees," says Boyle, "it should be illegal."

But it was and still is little jobs like that which make up the finely tweezed and complex dishes in fine diners and it was Boyle putting his head down and getting on with them that's seen him rise to the sous position at the age of 26.

"You see a lot of chefs come through who think it will be them standing next to Ben and planning dishes, but it's those little tasks which separate people out. Ben (Shewry) always hires people on attitude, not on where they've worked before or even skills. It's attitude that matters."

As far as fine dining kitchens go, Attica is also an anomaly. Instead of having brigade rankings, the kitchen works in teams, led by a few senior chefs. "Everyone does everything. Even Ben helps clean – he's just that kind of boss. A typical day starts at 10am, then everyone goes down to the Ripponlea gardens at 1pm where we pick the leaves we need for service. Depending on your roster, you might be baking bread, doing staff meal or spending two hours sectioning 50-gram pieces of pumpkin for one dish. It's teamwork and from a sport background I love it."

The worst job now? "Bunya nuts. Ben will sometimes come in with a barrow full of them and his face will be so excited and our hearts will sink. The shells are like concrete."

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Wen Teoh from Flower Drum restaurant.

Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Wen Teoh

Busboy and section manager, Flower Drum

Service at Melbourne's 40-year-old Cantonese fine diner is a lavishly choreographed dance, which remains a prime reason to go.

Over dinner it's not unusual to be served by up to six or seven faces. And while it's the impressive gestures you might note – your face and drink preferences remembered – it's the little things that make Flower Drum hum. Order a whole mud crab in XO sauce and as you crack claws and discard legs you might notice (but probably won't) that the shells vanish. Not by magic, but possibly by Wen Teoh. Teoh came on board four years ago as one of many busboys assigned to keep waters filled and tables always, always clean.

"The floor is divided into four sections. We might sit a customer, make sure there are hot towels and find out what water they like. We try to notice if they are left-handed, we also pour soy sauce for the customers and between every dish we keep tables clean." Sometimes, that means a linen band-aid being placed over spills.

Originally from Malaysia and studying his masters in accounting, Teoh also steps into a section manager role alongside veteran staff who have been in the game for up to 27 years. Delivering signature dishes such as the Peking duck mean "waiters draw the sauce. Some very good waiters will do a duck, a giraffe or a crab. We must make things special in a competitive environment."

It's intense work. Manager Jason Lui says the system means they always know who's missed something if it goes wrong. But Flower Drum breeds loyalty. Teoh tries to be better every day and he believes "Flower Drum is the best, in every way".

Ahana Dutt, fire-stoker at Firedoor, in Sydney.

Photo: Christopher Pearce

Ahana Dutt

Demi-chef-de-partie, Firedoor

The journey from Kolkata to Surry Hills via Bombay is one Ahana Dutt – chef, Studio Ghibli fangirl and voracious reader of murder mysteries –  made 3½ years ago. In that time, she's worked her way from the commercial kitchen of a hospitality group, to stoking the fires at a two-hat restaurant where everything on the menu is licked by flames.

Having fallen in love with the process of working and cooking with fire, she has no plans to leave the restaurant any time soon. The yin to executive chef Lennox Hastie's yang, one of her jobs is to keep Hastie calm and focused in the kitchen during service. "Anyone who sits at the counter comments on how it looks like a well-coordinated dance," says Dutt. "But inside the kitchen, it doesn't feel like that. Communication can become very difficult because it's so loud over the fire. [Keeping Hastie focused] is kind of what I have to do for everything to run smoothly – he tends to get a little bit distracted."

Her other big job is to start the fire every morning – the most essential part of running the Firedoor kitchen. And she has her recipe down pat. "Ideally, the perfect fire would start with your base of ironbark, then with the kindling you mix a bit of the the outside of a grapevine, which burns really fast and forms really nice coals. Let it burn down to embers, then start to build it from there. You almost get offended if someone else touches that fire. You want to say, 'let it be. I created it'."

Hannah Coomber, head florist at Merivale, pictured in Paling Flowers, Sydney CBD.

Photo: James Brickwood

Hannah Coomber

In-house florist, Merivale

Super early mornings. Late finishes. Thorn-pricked fingers and demanding clients. The life of a florist isn't all sunshine, rainbows and flowers.

True, it still involves a huge amount of blooms, especially if you're the florist at Merivale and responsible for maintaining flowers at 25 venues across Sydney including the Paddington, Fred's, Mr. Wong, Uccello and Est.

Hannah Coomber cut her teeth and tulip stems at Potts Point's Grandiflora (essentially the Attica of Australian florists) before the store's owner, Saskia Havekes, recommended her to Bettina Hemmes when the Merivale design boss needed an in-house florist for the hospitality group 18 months ago.

"A great floral arrangement should have something you don't expect," says Coomber. "Something interesting. When somebody looks a bunch you want them to say 'wow – I never would have thought to put those flowers together'."

Coomber heads to the Flemington flower market three times a week with her team, arriving at 5am to score the best gear. It's then a "mad run-around" to have fresh flowers in all the venues by the beginning of lunch service. If there's an event requiring floral arrangements that evening, she won't finish until at least 7pm.

Merivale also opened Palings Flowers in the CBD six weeks ago, where Coomber manages the store and creates floral arrangements for the venues. The florist was previously based out of a secret rooftop nursery in the Ivy complex. "There are living plants everywhere in the venues and you just don't notice them," says Coomber. "Gardeners are another unsung hero of the industry."

Coomber says challenges of the role include creating arrangements with whatever flowers are in season that day ("it's like having to come up with a recipe on the spot") and keeping table flowers fresh. Petals dropping in a customer's consomme is not ideal. Coomber uses an app to manage this, alerting to her when the dogwood at Coogee Pavilion might need replacing, say, but factors such as excess heat from the kitchen means a flower's lifespan can be difficult to predict in the restaurant environment.

Coomber's favourite restaurant in which to install flower arrangement is Fred's. "We spend a few hours there each week," she says. "I love [Fred's chef] Danielle Alvarez and her cooking philosophy, so we try to use a lot of locally grown stuff that ties into the kitchen like aniseed, pomegranates and kumquats.

"I also get to work with the bar team at Charlie Parker's, so if I see something at the markets like rose geranium, I can use it in an arrangement and it will go on to have a second life as a cocktail ingredient. It's a beautiful thing."

Prime Ndikumwenayo the kitchen hand from Africola.

Photo: David Solm

Prime Ndikumwenayo

Kitchen hand, Africola

The kitchen hand role is arguably the least glamorous but probably most appreciated role in kitchens the world over. They are the dish-washing, onion chopping, emergency-replacement-ingredient-fetching and sometimes cheer leading petrol in the engine.

Prime Ndikumwenayo has been the kitchen hand at Africola for four years. "He's the heart of our operation," says owner Duncan Welgemoed. "If he stops, we all stop. I would sacrifice a thousand commis chefs for one great kitchen hand such as Prime."

A refugee from a war-torn part of central east Africa, he came to Australia 12 years ago. "I'm from Burundi, which is a small country in central east Africa. I didn't work in kitchens before I came over. This was my first job I got after meeting Duncan at a festival. It's not something you do in the long term, and it's not where my qualifications are, but I like the environment and the people I work with. They helped me out when I needed them."

It's big work. "My shift is about 8½ hours and for 110 customers that might mean washing 385 crockeries, 120 baking trays, 150 pots and pans, cutlery and other kitchen utensils. I also chop the onions and peel the garlic."

But in busy services it's often kitchen hands who assess disasters unfolding and step in to right the ship. Welgemoed's best example is when "our wash up sink collapsed mid-service during a 250 covers night, so he carted five butchers' tubs of boiling water upstairs, set up a makeshift washing up area in the car park, turned up his French pop music and spent the rest of the evening washing dishes in the moonlight and dancing with the front of house as they scraped plates into the bin. Saved service."

Ndikumwenayo doesn't plan to become a chef: "Some friends fall in love with the kitchen, but this is the second thing that I do. But every six months I think I will move on and I stay. You can tell I like it when I'm still here after four years."

More unsung heroes

"Cath Walsh is on call 24/7 for the Porteno group so every manager and chef in the group contact her to get everything done; from last-minute menu changes, to changing opening times on Google, website bollocks, bookings issues, organising functions even turns out shifts on the floor if we're in the shit. The group probably would have to shut without her. I love the group that I work with and think that it's some of the coolest joints around; everyone knows the big dogs of the group but they all have a lot of respect for Cath. I think she use to run the floor at Bennelong or worked the floor for many years at when Guillaume was there." Michael Nicolian, Continental Deli

"We have a great kitchen hand from Mexico. She is actually a doctor. Her name is Stefi and she is awesome. Love her death and she has an amazing heart." Joseph Vargetto, Mister Bianco, Melbourne

"John 'Jonno' Holoway, one of my kitchen hands, just turned 70. He's a beast. He also is responsible for creating language, building the pyramids and quite possibly creating Adam and Eve. He is somewhat of a God." Joel Valvasori, Lulu La Delizia, Perth

"We have the world's most amazing glass polisher named Sammy who has been at Rockpool for like, eight years. He's efficient and friendly and hard-working and knows everyone and their attitudes. Cannot be faulted." Brooke Whatmore, Rockpool Group

"Her name is Sharlene, she's been in Australia for only a year [from China], speaks fluent English, studying IB (year 12 for smarties) and is only 16. She works the big Saturday shift, and she is brilliant. Did I mention she is only 16? Legend." Paula Scholes (aka Miss Pearls), Madame Brussels, Melbourne

"People often speak of Japanese cocktail master Hidetsugu Ueno (of Bar High Five fame) but there are few who dare to talk in whisper about the true master of Japanese Master Bar-backing, Koji Hosaka. A true genius of his craft, he has been the solitary pillar of strength, replenished garnishes and clean glassware that has upheld the entire Swillhouse group (Hubert, Shady Pines Saloon, Frankie's Pizza, the Baxter Inn) and maybe every other Sydney venue (just in his spare time) with speed, finesse and cracking wit. Bartenders and management alike breathe a sigh of relief in his presence for his ninja skills are second to none." Rachelle Hair, Gwen, Los Angeles

The national Good Food Guide 2018, in partnership with Citi and Vittoria, is available from newsagencies, bookstores and via thestore.com.au/goodfood, RRP $29.99