What I learned working at the world's No. 1 restaurant

Award-winning chef Lauren Eldridge.
Award-winning chef Lauren Eldridge.  Photo: Supplied

Take note, young chefs trying to get noticed at the world's best restaurant: get punched in the face.

That was how Lauren Eldridge, last year's recipient of The Sydney Morning Herald Josephine Pignolet Award for the state's most talented young chef did it. Speaking about her experience for the first time since her return, she tells the SMH of a formative few months.

In the course of seven weeks working as a stagier (that's work experience for the hospitality uninitiated) at Osteria Francescana, Eldridge saw the daring Italian Modenese restaurant rise to No. 1 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list. An industry nominated list chaired by an international panel of food professionals, it was something Eldridge had never taken seriously until she was surrounded by a bunch of Italians going absolutely crazy. "You know, people say it's a popularity contest but it doesn't matter to those people in that room at that time."

Internationally acclaimed chefs including #1 Massimo Bottura
head Down Under.
Internationally acclaimed chefs including #1 Massimo Bottura head Down Under. Photo: Paolo Terzi

She also happened to be there when the restaurant's head chef, Massimo Bottura was awarded the key to the city of Modena. "We all walked through the city in our uniforms and they had this ceremony in the town hall and I kept thinking 'is this actually happening?'."

And there was that sock in the kisser, after being thrown fully dressed into a swimming pool in Rimini. "I think that's where Massimo Bottura and I had our bonding moment. After I got thrown into the pool, one of the guys accidentally hit me in the face and my nose started bleeding, which I didn't realise. I was standing up on the edge of the pool next to Massimo and he was like 'your nose is bleeding' and I was like 'yeah, I got punched in the face'. He thought it was the funniest thing ever."

The young pastry chef continued to get noticed during her time in the kitchen of the rule-breaking Italian restaurant, including cooking for Bottura several times over the course of her stage. "I was freaking out because he'd said 'make something that represents you'. I did a Jerusalem artichoke, served with cream that's been cooked down in a local Modenese beer. I did that because we always played this game at Marque where we'd say 'if you were a vegetable what would you be?' And I was a Jerusalem artichoke because it was confusing and delicious."

Impressed, Bottura asked Eldridge to cook a few dishes a week, pushing her to dig deeper, drawing on her culture and history to create dishes that told a story. This was a challenge for Eldridge. "It wasn't a method I'd used before and it can push your creativity. If you have a story or a theme, it allows you to think of components which suit the story – the technique comes afterward."

So the Modenese have the best balsamic vinegar in the world. What do we have in Australia? Honeycomb and fairy bread. Two things Bottura had never seen or heard of. The honeycomb and cultured cream, an old favourite of Eldridge's from her days at Marque, was a safe bet. But the fairy bread was a bit more of a risk. Plus, where do you get Tip Top, margarine and hundreds and thousands in northern Italy? The answer, of course, was to make her own version using dehydrated vegetables. "Massimo wanted to try the original dish, but there was no way on earth I was going to serve him that. Plus, I hate it."

Young Chef's Lunch

Lauren Eldridge will be cooking alongside four of Sydney's brightest rising stars at a very special Sunday lunch at Automata. The line-up includes this year's Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide Josephine Pignolet Award winner, Noel Jelfs (Eleven Bridge); Jouri Timmermans (Automata); Lillia McCabe (ACME) and Jemma Whiteman (Pinbone). Sun Oct 9, 12:30pm. Automata; 5 Kensington St, Chippendale. $190 a person; includes five welcome snacks and five courses plus matched wines.

Good Food Month presented by Citi is filled with events during the month of October. Head to goodfoodmonth.com for more.