Young Chef of the Year winners give advice to their younger selves

Mitch Orr,  winner of the Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year Award 2010.
Mitch Orr, winner of the Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year Award 2010.  Photo: Sahlan Hayes

Are stages a thing of the past? Certainly ACME's Mitch Orr thinks unpaid internships in big brigade kitchens are losing their lustre. 

His advice to today's young chefs bent on self-improvement? "I'd really try and travel and immerse myself in the culture and food I was most interested in, or go and work for the young chefs who are really influencing the way the industry is going today."

Orr says he can't overstate how much of a career boost he received from winning The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide's Josephine Pignolet Chef of the Year award in 2010. This year, the impact will be even greater, with the news that the JP Award is becoming national and drawing together the awards from all three editions of the Good Food Guide.

If Orr were today's newly crowned JP winner, he'd seek hands-on work in a small kitchen – his time overseas after picking up the title helped him realise what he didn't want to do.

His hit list today would include chefs James Lowe (Lyle's, London), Fabian von Hauske and Jeremiah Stone (New York City's Contra and Wildair), Jeremy Fox (Rustic Canyon, California), Carlo Mirarchi (Blanca, NYC) and Lee Tiernan (Black Axe Mangal, London).

Sixpenny's Daniel Puskas and James Parry in their plot near Mittagong in 2011.
Sixpenny's Daniel Puskas and James Parry in their plot near Mittagong in 2011. Photo: Simon Alekna

Daniel Puskas, who won the JP award in 2006, has spent years paring back the menu at his Stanmore restaurant Sixpenny to its purest form.

And since he and his then-business partner James Parry (JP winner, 2009) opened Sixpenny 2012, he's been growing vegetables and herbs on a plot of land just outside Mittagong.

If he were to hit rewind, he'd shun kitchens and head to Europe, spending time on farms learning from "the real rock stars", producers. "Whether it's growing vegies, making cheese, wine or milking goats, I love the feeling of getting back to the land and handling products that get me excited to cook simple, delicious food."

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This search for purity sees chefs and diners alike name-checking Dan Barber's New York restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns – Huxtaburger kingpin Daniel Wilson included.

"I feel the connection of produce to the earth is something that a lot of young chefs should be into more," says Wilson, who jointly won The Age Good Food Guide Young Chef of the Year award in 2003. "Learning what goes into growing amazing seasonal produce can only lead to more respect and understanding, which can then hopefully be instilled into the next generation."

So there's Orr's immersion technique and the back-to-earth approach, both of which sound more exciting than standing in a huge kitchen picking parsley.

Pastry chef Lauren Eldridge.
Pastry chef Lauren Eldridge. Photo: Nic Walker

But some chefs are just looking for their Mr Miyagi. Or in Lauren Eldridge's case, her Francisco Migoya. 

In 2016, Eldridge was the only woman to have won the JP award in a decade, and happened to be staging at Massimo Bottura's Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, when it hit number one on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list last year.

But if she were choosing a new path, she would go directly to the pastry Picasso, Migoya. "He has always been my pastry idol and is currently working for The Modernist Cuisine [a group of food-obsessed scientists, research and development chefs], so it would hopefully provide me with a greater technical and scientific understanding of cooking."

A baby-faced Daniel Wilson, joint winner of the Young Chef of the Year 2003.
A baby-faced Daniel Wilson, joint winner of the Young Chef of the Year 2003. Photo: Eddie Jim

The confidence that comes from taking home a prize like Young Chef of the Year can give some people the nudge they need to take a risk, or even better, a risky adventure.

"It's life-changing," says Orr. "It opens up a whole new world of opportunity for a young chef. It gives them a really solid foundation to take their career into their own hands, allowing them to build their future."

Robin Wickens, of the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld, three hours drive west of Melbourne, won The Age Good Food Guide award in 2005.

Robin Wickens in the kitchen garden at the Royal Mail, Dunkeld.
Robin Wickens in the kitchen garden at the Royal Mail, Dunkeld. Photo: Supplied

"It's massive for young chefs, even those that don't win," says Wickens. "Just inspiring them to enter and feel good about being a young chef is huge for the industry. This competition shows that there are still young, passionate, hard-working chefs coming through."

Puskas and Wilson both agree that winning an award like this can provide a huge leg-up in the industry. "It's an amazing opportunity for young chefs to push themselves beyond their comfort zone, strive for excellence and also network with others chefs of the same calibre," says Wilson.

Although, says Puskas, "It's important to remember we're chefs, not rock stars. Stay humble."

Past winners

The Age Good Food Guide

2002 Andrew and Matthew McConnell Diningroom 211 (shared)

2003 Emma Mackay and Daniel Wilson, Blakes Cafeteria (shared)

2004 George Calombaris, Reserve

2005 Robin Wickens, Interlude

2006 Tim Saffery, The Court House

2007 Dallas Cuddy, Verge

2008 Adam D'Sylva, Pearl

2009 Chris Donnellan, Gingerboy, and Justin Wise, The Press Club (shared)

2010 Nicolas Poelaert, Embrasse

2011 Michael Fox, Cecconi's Cantina

2012 Josh Murphy, Cumulus Inc

2013 Mark Briggs, Sharing House

2014 Oliver Gould, Stokehouse

2015 Joshua Pelham, Estelle & Timothy Martin, European (shared)

2016 George Tomlin, the Town Mouse

2017 Jarrod Di Blasi, Ezard

The Sydney Morning Herald

1990 Sean McKinnon, Berowra Waters Inn

1991 Mary Jane Hayward, Taylor Square Restaurant

1992 No edition of the GFG

1993 Timothy Pak Poy, Claude's

1994 Peta Lewis, Windows over Sydney, Gazebo Hotel

1995 Mark Best, Macleay Street Bistro

1996 Sean Kenvyn, Merrony's

1997 Simon Fenwick, Bennelong

1998 Alexander Olajos, unemployed at the judging time

1999 Emma Wood, Rockpool

2000 Brett Graham, Banc

2001 Kylie Simpson, Lynwood Cafe

2002 Weyman Leong, Lunch

2003 Damian Heads, Milsons

2004 Hamish Ingham, Billy Kwong

2005 Jacqueline Bourke, Sean's Panaroma

2006 Daniel Puskas, Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay

2007 Phil Wood, Tetsuya's

2008 Daniel Hong, Bentley Restaurant and Bar

2009 James Parry, Oscillate Wildly

2010 Mitchell Orr, Sepia

2011 Jason Saxby, Quay Restaurant

2012 Terry Robinson, Sepia

2013 Nick Gardner, Tetsuya's

2014 Louis Tikaram, Longrain

2015 Julian Cincotta, Nomad

2016 Lauren Eldridge, Marque

2017 Noel Jelfs, Eleven Bridge