CHEFS USED to stick to the gritty, greasy realm of the room out back, never to be seen but via the plates they sent out to tables. But somewhere along the way, as food became the subject of our conversations (and TV shows), chefs became cool.
You are what you eat, as a concept, has never been truer. But the adage once reserved for health preachers now extends to our personal style. Food has become the great identifier, providing a glimpse into who we are and a means of self-expression.
There’s weight in crafting one’s image by choosing Prada’s minimalist chic, just as there is in opting for a meal at a new restaurant cooking food over fire.
Not only is where you eat a status symbol, but a growing number of us are as likely to seek out the new cheese being produced by a Tasmanian artisan as we are a new Céline bag. We’re following chefs on social media and even on fashion magazines’ Instagram accounts; images of desserts get as many likes as the new season’s sartorial whimsy.
We asked some of our top chefs to shed light on the growing number of discerning epicureans who care about what they eat and where it comes from, and explain how what they themselves do with food and ingredients reflects their personal style.
Executive chef, Bennelong and Quay
The way to the heart may indeed be through the stomach, but more and more it is the heart – and passions – of the chef that appear on our plates. “The food on the plate is like couture,” says Peter Gilmore. “It’s very personal, what you’re eating. All those colours and shapes, the ingredients and their history, they tell a story.”
His passions lie in seasonality: “For me, elegance is about harmony and textures, the vegetables being presented in their respective seasons.”
The creativity of the menus at both his establishments is inspired by what is available through the year, “the raw materials”, as Gilmore puts it. But where he stands out among his peers is his unfailing dedication to sourcing new ingredients.
Gilmore’s food is inspired by nature, and he has produced dishes resembling the Great Barrier Reef, gardens, forests, the sea and snow, but it is also to nature that he turns for diversity on the menu. Gilmore works closely with farmers to grow bespoke produce exclusively for his restaurants and, depending on what is available, he plans his menus, literally, from the ground up.
“I plan my food a couple of seasons in advance so I have the ingredients I need. It’s very specialised.”
Good chefs are true to themselves, says Gilmore. “They cook from the heart and try not to be influenced by what’s trendy. Nobody lives in a bubble and everyone is influenced by what others are doing. Personal style is important for a chef, and that takes a long time to develop.” For Gilmore, quality of produce is everything.
The celebrated chef points to the fashion industry to explain the appeal of certain restaurants – the rise and fall of our epicurean favourites. “Top fashion designers do what they do and certain things get latched on to. It’s like that for chefs.”
However, fashion should not lead what you do, he stresses: “This is true with how you dress, as well as what you put on a plate.”
Chef and owner, Aria, Chiswick, Chiswick at the Gallery, Opera Bar, North Bondi Fish, Riverbar & Kitchen
“Twenty years ago you’d find one, maybe two types of lettuce at a decent grocer. Now you’ll find 20,” says chef and restaurateur Matt Moran. “Australians travel, they’ve seen food overseas, and they come home and want it here as well.” This, he says, has powered a renewed interest in the produce-driven food he has always served at his restaurants, as well as Australians’ appetite for information about provenance, sustainability and seasonality.
“People want to know what they’re eating,” he says. “Kids press up against the windows at Chiswick and see the [kitchen] garden, realising that’s where their food has come from. The ingredient is the hero.”
Moran’s menus are like a carefully curated market of what’s in season, and reflect this moment of chefs devoting themselves to sourcing quality ingredients. Right now, Jerusalem artichokes, sorrel, walnut and other winter vegies feature.
Moran is a celebrity chef, a TV host and household name, and his clientele often have Instagram at the ready should he grace his various restaurants. But he sees the role of the chef as an educator, showing us how seasonality impacts flavour, and handing praise to the farmers and producers he uses. At Chiswick, Moran the celebrity is upstaged by Moran the producer – the menu lists Cone Bay barramundi, Palmers Island mulloway, Chiswick garden salad and, notably, Moran Family lamb.
The chef, a judge for delicious. magazine’s Produce Awards, has worked tirelessly to drive the interest in where our food comes from. His Paddock to Plate series on the LifeStyle Channel enlivened the fashion of seasonality and locavorism. “It’s a fragile world. It’s important to me, and to chefs who know that local food in season tastes best. Gone are the days when conscious cooks use cherries from California and asparagus from Peru.”
Executive chef and co-owner, Four in Hand and 4Fourteen
Diners recoiled when Colin Fassnidge put pigs’ ears on the menu years ago. “We were told to take it off. They wouldn’t eat it; that’s what they fed their dogs,” he recalls. But fashion came around. Now the pinnacle of nose-to-tail dining in Australia, Four in Hand, with Fassnidge at the helm, has proved that delicious comes in many forms.
Fassnidge has extinguished the image of a classic style of cooking using seasoning ingredients as fusty. “Food lost its way for a while,” he says, pointing to molecular gastronomy. “I called it ‘the emperor’s new clothes’; suddenly everyone wanted it.”
Four in Hand’s honest, classic food, where produce was allowed to shine, had only a small following. Fassnidge resisted the molecular trend, telling his team, “Number one, I don’t know how to do it, and number two, I don’t like it.” Then, the 2007 financial crisis hit, “and people didn’t want to pay $35 for carrot foam”. Real food was back on the menu, chefs started using nose-to-tail, and Fassnidge’s refusal to be lured by a fad paid off.
“Have the balls to follow your own style,” he says. “If you chop and change with what’s popular, people will think it’s too faddy. We’re busy and fashionable now, but we’ve been out of fashion as well.”
He shrugs at the popularity of chefs, which he says “goes in waves. When I said I wanted to be a chef, everyone thought I was crazy. Computer jobs were hitting the scene and being a chef was like being a council worker. Now we rule the world.”
Head chef, Firedoor
Marco Pierre White, Britain’s top celebrity chef of the ’90s, started it all, says Lennox Hastie. “After him, chefs were happy to reveal the real grittiness of kitchen life, and the world embraced it.” But the real rock stars of the culinary world are the ones espousing their own personal style, he says. “Those chefs who are upping the game in whatever they do.”
Hastie’s game is honesty – with the ingredient and with his open kitchen. His cooking involves more than flicking the switch on an oven or stove. It goes beyond relying on exact temperatures and timing to prioritising the cook’s instinct.
To see him grill his O’Connor grass-fed Angus-Hereford-cross steak is to see a chef work magic with patience and exactitude. Fire is central to his craft, a skill he picked up cooking with Victor Arguinzoniz, the chef at Spain’s Etxebarri who’s been dubbed the Ferran Adrià of the hearth.
There’s something about the way Hastie cooks – the meticulous movements of raising and lowering grills above the coals; pulling ropes to open giant doors to two cavernous, glowing fire ovens; the gentle swiping and turning of steak on the bone, quails in wire baskets – this is a chef in his element.
He says there’s a move towards modern cooking. “Particularly the stuff we don’t see behind the scenes, the machinery and equipment chefs use, from Pacojets to sous vide. Labour costs have changed the shape of the industry; chefs have been forced to use machinery to speed up the process. Many chefs want to go back to basics.”
Personal style has become more important in restaurants, Hastie adds, and chefs are more transparent than ever. He wants to take the mystery out of cooking, to treat produce with respect via the mastery of the most mercurial element of all, fire. “You order the ingredient, then I bare my soul when I cook it.”
Chef and restaurateur, Vue du Monde, Piggery Cafe, Bistro Vue and more
“As they do with fashion, people will go looking for the most genuine experience with food. Eating out is now intrinsic to personal style,” says chef Shannon Bennett, the man behind the 11 venues of the Vue de Monde empire, MasterChef mentor and cookbook author. “Choosing where to eat is about ego, yeah, but it’s also about quality and authenticity.”
The art, fashion and food worlds are merging, believes Bennett, whose Piggery Cafe in the Dandenong Ranges is about to witness the expansion of a neglected Art Deco mansion on the same property into a luxury hotel. His flagship venue, Vue de Monde, is all about drama, with its floor-to-ceiling windows perched 55 floors above Melbourne, chic dark-hued dining room with kangaroo-hide chairs and sleek open kitchen.
“People want the food they eat and the places where they dine to be less mainstream. It’s the same with the clothes they wear,” says the chef. “They want bespoke experiences. When people go out to eat, they want a story on a plate.”
Bennett believes in the theatre of dining out, but says it’s becoming less about the decor and more about the food and the chef in the kitchen. “Whether a chef is a symbol for paddock-to-plate, nose-to-tail or caters a unique food experience, that’s what diners want.”
Bennett is all about the ingredient. His menus are often seasonal produce in point form. Vue de Monde’s menu currently lists truffle marshmallow, cucumber, wood sorrel and Grey Ghost and pine mushrooms.
He says being a foodie in the know is fashionable, “knowing a good place for Ethiopian in Footscray or where to get an authentic curry. And nobody wants where they eat to be driven by the masses or the critics. We all want to be doing something different. Being original says more about who you are.”
More and more people are interested in and informed about food, says Bennett. “You can hold a conversation with a bricklayer about some amazing meal. So, really, food has moved beyond fashion.”
Butcher and owner, Vic’s Premium Quality Meat and Victor Churchill
“It’s cool to walk down the street with a Victor Churchill bag now – it’s crazy,” says Anthony Puharich, owner of the design-led meat providore. “Food is art in its most accessible form. It’s like fashion; one you wear and one you consume.”
The marble-floored shop’s elaborate window display could put Hermès’ sartorial offerings to shame. The door handle at the entry is a string of bronze sausages. The open-plan butcher, with its floor-to-ceiling Himalayan salt-brick walled cool room and wooden-pedestal work stations set in a glass-clad space, has elevated the humble butcher from hidden-away tradesman to semi-rock star.
But if Victor Churchill were only a great fit-out, people would tire of it, says Puharich. “People can see through the bells and whistles. The reason they come back is because it’s honest and true to its purpose: to sell the best meat in Australia, to take people on a journey and to educate them about meat.”
Braised beef cheeks on a menu hardly raises an eyebrow now, but the public and many chefs were not always open to the nose-to-tail philosophy that has epicurean fashionistas chasing pig-tail croquettes. “Nose-to-tail is imperative to the viability of the meat industry,” says Puharich, who started working to drive a change in eating habits as far back as 15 years ago.
“I worked bloody hard, pounding the pavement and knocking on doors, begging people to look at these other cuts. I was selling them below market price just to get them out there.”
Chefs deserve the spotlight, he says. “For too long we’ve taken for granted what talented chefs were able to produce on a plate. There’s huge pressure on them. What was in last year isn’t in this year and chefs, like me, have to remain current yet true to their own sense of style.”
Executive chef, Guillaume
As the rest of the world discusses paddock-to-plate, fermentation and other gastronomic buzzwords, a kitchen in urban Sydney is bringing a rendition of France’s unique and classic cooking to Australia. It just so happens that Guillaume Brahimi’s charmingly apologetic ‘we do what we do’ attitude produces exactly what everyone is getting excited about now.
There are no shared plates and nothing is presented on a board, and you sit in upholstered chairs at tables double-draped in linen. Guillaume presents Brahimi’s vision of France and the French way of eating in an enchanting way. It focuses not on pomp, conservatism and food overburdened with rich sauces, but on France’s love of food eaten in season.
“Being from French heritage, where what you eat has always been a reflection of your personal style, I think food is a way of life,” says Brahimi. “It is typical for French people to buy their goat’s cheese from one fromagerie and camembert from another. It can take people two hours to buy cheese in Paris.”
The chef, also a judge in the delicious. Produce Awards, likens our burgeoning interest in ingredients to sartorial style. “In Australia we get our shirt from one designer and our suit from another. Now we are using this thinking with food. We want to find the guy who sells the best tomatoes, or the baker doing the best bread.”
Though aware of trends, Brahimi has a refreshing motto for his kitchen team: “Let’s not hide who we are and what we’re trying to achieve.” He doesn’t set out to be a “rock-star chef”, but admits the rise of chefs’ popularity is “colourful for the industry”.
“I have not seen a chef perform in front of 70,000 people like Mick Jagger, and we don’t have millions of followers on Instagram like Jay Z or Coldplay,” says Brahimi. “We are very small rock stars. We’re the supporting act, perhaps. Let us not forget that we come from the kitchen.”