In the kitchen with O Tama Carey, one of Australia's most intriguing chefs

Myffy Rigby
O Tama Carey has picked up flavours and inspiration everywhere she has travelled.
O Tama Carey has picked up flavours and inspiration everywhere she has travelled. Photo: Anna Kucera

Mapping out Sydney chef O Tama Carey's cooking career is easy.

Her early stint at the once massively cool Darlinghurst izakaya, Uchi Lounge. Those formative five years at Billy Kwong, climbing from chef de partie to sous chef, where she worked under Hamish Ingham. The subsequent pop-ups she ran with Ingham – the first Sydney had seen. Her years as head chef at Surry Hills Italian restaurant Berta, where she ran weekly dinners, never featuring the same ingredient twice. All of this is certainly proof she can hold the knife at the right end.

Hoppers and sambal at Lankan Filling Station.
Hoppers and sambal at Lankan Filling Station. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

Mapping out her style is more of a challenge. Her upbringing played a big part in forming the chef she is today. A peripatetic childhood meant she picked up flavours and inspiration everywhere she travelled with her mother. She never had great aspirations to be a chef – her interests always lay in working to travel, not travelling to work. She doesn't even like reading cookbooks all that much. Her quietly impressive ability to monkey-bar from Cantonese to Italian to Sri Lankan while still maintaining a steady taste-chord that is all her own makes her one of Australia's most intriguing chefs.

I was conceived in the reeds of the banks of the Goldsborough River [in Queensland], according to my mother. I've got this excellent photo from that time. Mum was this tiny little dark brown hippie girl and Dad is wearing a sarong and looks a bit like a hairy Jesus. They fell in love for half a second. Literally.

Growing up, we moved a lot. I went to eight different schools. I suppose that informed me as a person and my cooking as well. I've always skipped from cuisine to cuisine and taken bits of all of them. That's the way I've grown up and eaten.

I've always skipped from cuisine to cuisine and taken bits of all of them.

Everyone was always talking about food. Mum would have fantastic dinner parties, and that's when she would cook Sri Lankan cuisine – that would be her dinner party trick. It was greedy but it wasn't fancy.

I didn't really do an apprenticeship. I was in London and a family friend gave me a contact for a woman who had just opened a restaurant. I remember ringing the kitchen during lunch and [the chef] picked up the phone. She was like, "Don't ever call during f---ing service again" and slammed the phone down. She had a bit of a reputation. There were stories about her chasing suppliers through the restaurant with a cleaver because they'd turned up late.

At that time in London there wasn't a lot of south-east Asian food. I remember one day saying to a chef that I was craving laksa and she just looked at me and went, "What's laksa?". I explained it to her and she said, "We're putting it on the menu tomorrow; you have to make that". I had to ring up my mum and go, "Mum, how do I make laksa? I don't know how".

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When I came back to Sydney I still didn't know if I wanted to be a chef. I worked at the Uchi Lounge. The first time I knocked on the door and I walked into the kitchen there was just all these Japanese boys and they just looked at me. I was like, "Can I have a job here?". And they just went, "No you can't". I tried again and eventually they gave me a job. I loved it, but there was no one there to teach me and I was trying to do specials in my own style. I was out of my depth, but it was fun.

I stalked Kylie Kwong for ages to get a job. But she wouldn't give me one. I kept trying, and eventually she gave in. [The Billy Kwong kitchen] was really fast but the thing that I found amazing was all the chopping that we had to do. I don't think there's been a kitchen since, except for [Lankan Filling Station], where you have to chop so much. And we had so much fun. Kylie was amazing and she was doing what no one had really done. I think it was probably ahead of its time. That was my moment where I went, "I actually want to be a chef". 

How do you learn what you want to cook? Give yourself no choice. The thing that [owner] Andrew Cibej said to me when Berta first happened was, "You know it's going to have to be Italian?". And I'm like, "Yeah sure, I can do that". I had my own pasta on all the time. I had Italians come in and say, "Like their mama". That would always make me happy. I loved that place – it was amazing. Andrew just bought a restaurant and said to me, "here you go, do whatever you want".

What got me in the end was the exhaustion. [Berta] took so much out of me. There's only so long you can do that kind of thing, and as much as I love that, I also want to have a life and I want to, god forbid, earn money.

[Lankan Filling Station] was never going to be Sri Lankan. When I first started doing pop-ups I got a lot of stick from my family. But I had a moment last year where, because I wanted to make my own spice powders (Sri Lankans don't use pastes), I did a lot of research and experimentation and I think there was something that clicked. You know you have those moments where it's like, "Ah it all makes sense now".

I'm not really using traditional cooking methods. I'm not allowed to cook on chatty pots because they're unglazed clay but I'm going to sneak some in. When you say, "This is authentic Sri Lankan food", it isn't actually in Sri Lanka. I think a lot of this food is quite authentic but it's obviously cooked through me so it's authentic via my hands. If you're going to be that f---ing particular, then how far do you take that authenticity thing? If you can read the recipe and make the dish then you can probably make a really authentic version, whatever colour you are.