Flat out or time out? How Melbourne chefs are playing lockdown 5.0

Chef and cheesemaker Lucy Whitlow at Osteria Ilaria in the Melbourne CBD.
Chef and cheesemaker Lucy Whitlow at Osteria Ilaria in the Melbourne CBD. Photo: Eddie Jim

Lucy Whitlow hasn't been in a restaurant kitchen for more than a week, but she's still kept to a strict schedule. The pastry chef at Osteria Ilaria in Melbourne's CBD is also a budding cheesemaker and COVID lockdown means more time to hone her craft. 

Mornings are spent making new cheeses, which takes about four hours, then in the afternoon she checks on those already draining in one of four refrigerators. Others might need brushing with brine to stop them drying out. Later, it's time to make her clabber – a term for fermented milk that behaves in a similar way to sourdough culture. Whitlow must feed the clabber 12 hours before she wants to make her next batch of cheese.

"Lockdowns are really good for cheesemaking because I have those consecutive days," she says.

Executive chef and proprietor at Lee Ho Fook, Victor Liong.
Executive chef and proprietor at Lee Ho Fook, Victor Liong.  Photo: Christopher Hopkins

After her interest was sparked by the array of European cheeses on Osteria Ilaria's menu, Whitlow and a co-worker decided to have a go at cheesemaking themselves, experimenting at home and enrolling in courses. When the Italian restaurant closed for lockdown in March last year, Whitlow went full throttle, making cheese every day.

"I went through the process of making it and doing everything wrong the first time and then trying to figure it out the next time."

Whitlow's bries and tommes (a style found in Switzerland and the French Alps) are now at the stage where restaurants including Congress, Bar Liberty and Osteria Ilaria are more than happy to serve them, and her current employer would like her to increase production.

Almay Jordaan, co-owner and chef at Old Palm Liquor in Brunswick East and Neighbourhood Wine in Fitzroy North.
Almay Jordaan, co-owner and chef at Old Palm Liquor in Brunswick East and Neighbourhood Wine in Fitzroy North. Photo: Supplied

As Melbourne waits out its fifth lockdown since the start of the pandemic, restaurants and chefs like Whitlow are doing what works for them.

For Victor Liong, executive chef at Lee Ho Fook in the CBD, the period has been a much-needed break. Liong has been cooking dishes such as a six-hour lasagne and sending the leftovers to friends via Uber the next day, in addition to doing paperwork and brainstorming menu changes.

Chef Nicholas Chia has also been busy with paperwork, albeit as part of his application for permanent residency in Australia. Part of the application process involved a two-hour Zoom interview last week. "I basically needed to prove I have skills and knowledge to be a chef," says Chia. 

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The 28-year-old works as a chef de partie (a chef responsible for a specific section of the kitchen) at Cremorne bistro Frederic, which remains closed during lockdown. After being unable to work for much of 2020, the Malaysian-born chef said he felt anxious when the latest lockdown was announced.

"You start going back into the whole 'how long will this lockdown last?' thing," he says. Chia has also spent his time cleaning, exercising on his balcony and reading books about financial planning. He hopes to have his permanent residency in hand by 2022.

Meanwhile, Almay Jordaan, co-owner and chef at two venues in Melbourne's inner-north, has worked every lockdown. This time around she's also juggling a one-month-old baby while trying to keep her staff motivated at Old Palm Liquor in Brunswick East and Neighbourhood Wine in Fitzroy North.

Chef Ali Currey-Voumard with Campbell Burton, owner of Public Wine Bar in Fitzroy North.
Chef Ali Currey-Voumard with Campbell Burton, owner of Public Wine Bar in Fitzroy North. Photo: Supplied

Jordaan's two businesses haven't hit the pause button since March 2020, launching a takeaway menu within 24 hours of the first hospitality shutdown and trialling multiple concepts ever since. She and husband Simon Denman had only opened Old Palm Liquor six months before the pandemic. 

"There are no big investors, it's just us," she says. "There's no choice but to throw everything at it 24 hours a day."

By now, the couple's restaurants are well-oiled machines. Without pausing for breath, Jordaan explains how when news of a lockdown breaks they switch into takeaway mode, from calling their web developer to activate the online store, to checking they have enough packaging and staff who can drive.

"What we've gotten to now is the thing that works and it's just not that taxing any more," she says. "But we're constantly asking staff what can we do better and what can we make easier. Those are questions you can ask them every day and it doesn't get stale."

Also in Fitzroy North, chef Ali Currey-Voumard served her first menu at Public Wine Shop just 10 days before lockdown.

"It's certainly tiring because you're running on so much adrenaline and then you just stop all of a sudden," she says. "But right now I feel very excited to be able to reopen soon."

Currey-Voumard has had plenty to keep her busy since July 16, especially catching up on invoicing and other paperwork that piled up in the flurry of opening the restaurant. She also had to figure out what to do with all the sourdough and fresh produce that would no longer be needed (making preserves and a fermented Slavic drink called kvaas – usually made with rye bread – took up a few hours of the chef's time on last Saturday).

Now Currey-Voumard is focused on her takeaway window at the shop for this weekend. "It's meant to be really cold so I want to do things like baked oysters with garlic bread, little bowls of fish soup, and maybe open some magnums [of wine]."