Making waves: Six women carving up the Australian food scene

Chef Alanna Sapwell: 'It's always been very male-heavy in the kitchen, ego-driven, but we can all get further ...
Chef Alanna Sapwell: 'It's always been very male-heavy in the kitchen, ego-driven, but we can all get further collectively, instead of pulling each other down.' Photo: Paul Harris

Ahead of International Women's Day on Sunday, here are six stars you need to meet.

The baker: Kimmy Gastmeier

Cherry Moon General Store, Annandale, Sydney

Kimmy Gastmeier's first experience in a high-flying Sydney kitchen wasn't the greatest. "It was male-dominated and brutal. And when I left they told me I'd never work in a kitchen as good as that again."

Kimmy Gastmeier of Cherry Moon General Store.
Kimmy Gastmeier of Cherry Moon General Store. Photo: Supplied

The New Zealand native, 31, went on to work her way through the ranks of Rockpool Sydney and Tetsuya's. When former Rockpool head chef Mike McEnearney opened Kitchen By Mike he invited her to be his sous chef, and that's where she had her road to Damascus moment. "I was on pastry, wood-firing, and the day I touched the bread I was like, 'This is it, this is my thing'. It was like a living thing."

Anyone who has visited Cherry Moon General Store in Sydney's Annandale will have witnessed how she's honed her craft. A vision of rustic splendour opened eight months ago with Aimee Graham, Cherry Moon's artisan sourdough and pastries conjured from an Alan Scott-designed wood oven have critics reaching for their superlatives.

Gastmeier had been about to give up on her long-held dream of turning her Blue Mountains-based Cherry Moon pop-up into a bricks-and-mortar reality. "My first wages as a chef I'd started collecting bric-a-brac and crockery and cutlery. I was just about to sell it all and go travelling when we finally found a site in Annandale," she says. "Some people asked how I could have that Cherry Moon earthiness transplanted to Sydney, but I just trusted that it's possible."

Cherry Moon's signature fig leaf loaf.
Cherry Moon's signature fig leaf loaf. Photo: James Brickwood

Transplanting the earthiness of the Blue Mountains landscape, a major source of inspiration for her baking, to the western suburbs of Sydney was another concern. Yet Cherry Moon has triumphed with what food writer Jill Dupleix described as "a bakery lurking inside granny's parlour. Or maybe it's an Amish-style cult that worships artisanal crafts."

"We have local people coming in with native produce they grow in their backyard so I can continue my storytelling through food," says Gastmeier, referring, for example, to her speciality of sourdough loaf stamped with a native fig leaf.

Pay it back – name a woman who inspired, mentored or influenced you? My mother Gaynor was always an incredible support to me. She always encouraged me to be a chef.

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Pay it forward – who is an upcoming female talent you have your eye on? The girls who work with me at Cherry Moon, Liza Wayne my sous chef and Alyce Bennett. They've stuck with me through thick and thin.

Your best cooking tip in six words or less? Taste as you go.

Flinders Wharf is Flinder's Island new foodie hub

Flinders Wharf is Flinders Island's new foodie hub. Photo: Adam Gibson

The developer: Jo Youl

Flinders Island Wharf, Flinders Island

"If we build it, they will come", is a favourite adage for visionaries, but how many have set out to transform an entire island into a thriving tourism hub? David Walsh in Tasmania, perhaps. But also, Jo Youl.

After starting a family with husband Tom on Flinders Island off Tasmania's north-east, the former marketer recognised the richly resourced island's untapped potential for adventure-bound eaters. The island harvests wallaby and crayfish and produces beef for top restaurants. It's a remote hiking and diving haven. But a decade ago it only had two pubs slinging parmas.

In 2018, Youl helped spearhead a crayfish festival, bringing top chefs and diners to see the rugged beauty. In 2019, having secured government funding, she and Tom launched the incredibly ambitious Flinders Island Wharf, a restaurant, provedore, travel agent, distillery, day spa and community office space in one.

Doing all this with three kids? Fine. Shaking the status quo in a small community? That's the challenge, but it's working. The crayfish festival now has its own organisers and boosts the economy in April. The distillery is in full swing and a brewery could follow. New flight charters are under consideration and eco-cabins are on their way. It seems they will come if you build it. Better still, others will start building too.

Pay it back – Kath McCann and and Liz Frankham who are so influential in Tasmania's tourism industry.

Pay it forward – Amanda Vallis, our PR, who can calmly talk me through any situation clear-headed. And chef Jo Barrett from Oakridge Wines who has the best attitude with everything she approaches.

Your best cooking tip Keep it simple.

The owner and chef: Almay Jordaan

Old Palm Liquor, Brunswick & Neighbourhood Wine, Fitzroy North, Melbourne

Almay Jordaan is at Coburg Market in Melbourne hunting for fresh nuts. "Green hazelnuts, green pistachios, still milky, so we can shave them or preserve them in honey." She'll take them back to Old Palm Liquor, her new wine bar, to serve on black figs with elderflower vinegar and goat's curd.

"We have a strict policy that there are only four elements on a dish" is the heart of her unfussy cooking style after she "fell out of love with fine dining", disgruntled with the Instagram effect of good-looking dishes with no flavour.

From a farming family, Jordaan grew up in the Western Cape of South Africa on a diet of meat and carbs. "Not even meat and three veg! My dad still won't eat a meal if there's no meat involved." Like many working mothers, Jordaan has struggled to raise a family and continue at full tilt. "That's been the hardest part, trying to balance spending time with my daughter while running two kitchens."

She and her partner Simon Denman (pictured) also own Neighbourhood Wine. She champions plant-based eating at OPL, though there's ethically raised meat too. "I'm acutely aware of what's happening with the future of food and farming. We're going to have to balance a lot more of what we get from the land. It can't just be cattle, it can't just be one thing, like mass chickens or monocultures," she says. "And not only from an ethical point of view. If you don't cook like that [plant-based], you're not keeping up with the times."

Pay it back – Brigitte Hafner for her simple, spot-on food that's "not fiddled about with too much", and Stephanie Alexander.

Pay it forward – Courtney Websdale, my sous chef at Neighbourhood Wine, for her innate understanding of flavours, and Shannon Martinez, for changing how people think about vegan food – that's huge.

Your best cooking tip – Read Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat.

The regional chef: Brigitte Hafner

Tedesca Osteria, Red Hill

"I cook very intuitively and very emotionally. I see it and I cook it and I have to feel it," says chef Brigitte Hafner who has recently opened Tedesca Osteria, a farmhouse restaurant in a 1920s building (revamped by her architect husband) with an attached gallery, and a woodfired oven, its hearth front and centre in the dining room. "This is a dream. I wrote it all down 10 years ago … a farm restaurant, connected to the land, where I could cook over fire, with art." The name "Tedesca" comes from Stefano's Restaurants in Mildura when the Italian chefs would rib Hafner about her German heritage.

"I'm cooking a lot more with vegetables because it feels better," she says, regularly visiting growers, secateurs in hand, to wander their gardens. "I need to visually see what's growing. That's when the dishes come to me." She has her own orchard and sheep, and lives from rainwater collected in tanks. Connection and respect are at the heart of Hafner's philosophy in the kitchen, where she works alongside two female chefs. "It's a very gentle kitchen, and we do put that ego aside. It's important to listen and learn from other people and be deeply respectful of people. And deeply respectful of animals."

She spends hours researching ethical producers, rare breeds and whole-animal cooking and all the meat used is ethically raised and pasture reared. "I'm confident and comfortable with how I'm cooking now. I used to think I wasn't doing enough to food, and that's a really masculine approach, but there's skill in not doing too much to food."

Pay it back – My first kitchen led by a woman was with Kylie Kwong. It was very respectful and calm, completely opposite to the yellers and screamers where everyone's a bully. She cooked with heart and soul and I saw a different way of being under pressure, but being cool.

Pay it forward – Analiese Gregory, formerly of Franklin in Hobart.

Your best cooking tip Cook with your heart.

Alanna Sapwell, head chef of Arc Dining, Brisbane.
Photo credit Paul Harris

Alanna Sapwell, head chef of Arc Dining, Brisbane. Photo: Paul Harris

The chef: Alanna Sapwell

Arc Dining, Brisbane

Pay your dues, learn the trade, there's no quick climb – that's Alanna Sapwell's philosophy. "Everyone wants to rush to the top and not put the solid framework in," says Arc Dining's head chef, whose first job was at the River House in Noosa (she asked owner David Rayner three times before he gave her a shot) where, as a young apprentice, she'd come home and study The Cook's Companion by Stephanie Alexander.

Since then, she's cooked in Italy, Japan and Arnhem Land, "but it just got too hot," she says. "I'd throw my food scraps in the ocean and I'd catch enough fish for 30 people but then the sharks would come, and the crocodiles and scare the s—t out of me!"

She ended up at Saint Peter, working with Josh Niland, who also taught her back-of-house – business skills she now teaches her apprentices at Arc Dining. "It's such a tough game," she says, "and there's too big a gap between being a good chef and opening up your own restaurant." Her staff is 50 per cent female. "It's always been very male-heavy in the kitchen, ego-driven, but we can all get further collectively, instead of pulling each other down."

Having grown up in Gympie, she's loving living near her family again. "My parents' Saturday night out is 'the old buggers pub' [the RSL]," and they always tell her the truth about her dishes. "Especially my dad. He's like, 'Nup, go again.' If I can make myself happy, and make my dad happy, then I have succeeded."

Pay it back – It made a big impact on me as a young chef to see pastry-chef Katrina Kanetani had her own recipe section in the Pier cookbook. I thought, "She must be so well respected", and it really encouraged me.

Pay it forward Emma McCaskill (Sparkke, Adelaide) has big plans afoot this year.

Your best cooking tip Don't be afraid to mess up.

Lauren Eldridge - Stokehouse

Lauren Eldridge's striking Neapolitan dessert at Stokehouse. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen (portrait below: Nic Walker)

The pastry chef: Lauren Eldridge

The Stokehouse, St Kilda, Melbourne

It was an assignment on procrastination for her psychology degree that convinced Lauren Eldridge to become a pastry chef. "The irony wasn't lost on me that I had to pull an all-nighter to finish the assignment. It was kind of a moment where I thought, if I'm going to do this for my career, shouldn't I be enjoying it a bit more?"

Armed with the bulletproof convictions of a 21-year-old and a love of baking – "that was always how I procrastinated, by getting in the kitchen and baking something" – Eldridge has gone on to make waves. Training under Mark Best at his acclaimed Sydney restaurant Marque, she worked her way up from apprentice to head pastry chef, and in 2015 was awarded both the Good Food Guide's Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year and the Gault & Millau Potentialist of the Year.

Now 29 and the group pastry chef for the Van Haandel Group, which includes Stokehouse in Melbourne and Brisbane, Eldridge has witnessed the change in the industry first-hand.

"A lot of the time at Marque I was the only woman in the kitchen. I can look down the hot line at Stokehouse now and three out of four people working there are women."

As for her own ambitions, don't expect to see her open a dessert bar any time soon. "I'm happy just riding the wave. When I started in kitchens my only real objective was to justify leaving uni. I just thought, I'd better be damned good at this. I'm happy with where I'm at."

Pay it back I'm inspired by hardworking women who push themselves to learn more and do more. Jo Barrett (Oakridge Wines) and Danielle Gjestland (Wasabi) are two who are always raising the bar.

Pay it forward – Claire Ellis, junior sous chef at Attica. Not only is she cooking the food, but she also learnt how to make the plates and tends the restaurant's garden.

Your best cooking tip Trust your instincts. Add more salt.