Meet the chef: James Kidman
Executive chef James Kidman works in the iconic Customs House building looking over Sydney’s Circular Quay. He took on the role at Cafe Sydney in August 2015 after eight years at Otto restaurant.
We caught up with James for a morning coffee at Cafe Sydney, although the rain is pouring down outside, it doest effect the spectacular view over Circular Quay. The kitchen is buzzing, and in the middle of preparations for another busy lunch service, the dining room is being set up and perfected, and there is a tinkering and shuffling sound coming from the cocktail bar that is being topped up from the night before.
James tells us about the significant relationship between chef and supplier, a revelation that came to him several years ago when he one day found himself disconnected from his food and the people behind the produce. Although he has always prioritised quality in his kitchens, he hadn’t paid much attention to the stories behind the food; this initiated a new chapter in James’s career that he has enforced in his kitchens ever since. The connection with his suppliers is something that he especially got to explore during his time at Otto. Here, they would travel to Italy to attend local food festivals and visit producers.
James tells us of one particular astonishing moment when he was visiting a truffle farmer in Italy, and they invited him into their home, handed him a bunch of black and white truffles and asked him to prepare a 4-course meal for them. The meal was then enjoyed together as long lost friends, in a pure and natural setting with a copious amount of wine, a memory of a lifetime. This is what hospitality is all about for James. He loves people and loves being hospitable.
“There are so many small things that you can do in a restaurant to make people feel special and welcome.” Something that the whole team at Cafe Sydney, back and front-of-house has taken on as their philosophy.
Cafe Sydney has a great reputation for their workplace environment and has a very tight team running this very busy Sydney icon. James believes this is thanks to the fact that they strive to make their employees feel ownership over their work and they are exposed to all aspects of their role in the restaurant, something that is initiated and promoted by Operations Manager Jan McKenzie.
James Kidman started his career in his early 20’s, and although he has had a lifelong fascination with cooking and food, James was persuaded to pursue other educational paths rather than joining the industry. After dropping out of two university degrees, he eventually found his way into the kitchen, a place where he instantly felt at home.
James was lucky to be mentored by some of the great chefs of the time, like Richard Moyser, Anthony Mussara, Simonn Hawke and Christine Mansfield.
“I worked with some amazing people in a great environment, it was a tight industry, and we would all look after each other. The industry being much smaller back then meant that it was much harder to get a job, there weren’t as many restaurants around as there is today.”
The fight for that right job was something that James repeatedly experienced as he desperately wanted to get an apprenticeship at the acclaimed restaurant ‘Forty One’.
“Back then you had to wait for the weekly newspaper with the job ads to come out. Then you spend all morning on repeat dial to the restaurant, only for them to tell you that they had taken on enough applicants by the time you finally got through.”
James would eventually get to work for Forty One, but not until a couple of years later. In the meantime, he moved to Western Australia for a couple of years and worked under chef Neal Jackson at the multiple award-winning restaurants, Jackson’s.
“Neal was a great guy to work for, he was very generous with his experience and has fantastic butchery skills. It was a firm and strict kitchen, but I soon learnt where the line was and Neal was a great mentor. We remain good friends to this day.”
Once back in Sydney, James finally got his chance to work for Dietmar Sawyere at ‘Forty One’.
“Apart from being a Head Chef, this was probably the hardest time in my career; I don’t think there was a week where we didn’t work 70 hours, it was so exciting but so hard. Sawyer is a perfectionist; there were no grey areas, it was either good or bad.Sawyere being from Switzerland, made it a bit like a Swiss finishing school. However, I gained excellent skills and learnt how to work more efficiently and accurately.”
So what is that has been James’s drive throughout the years? What has kept him going, especially when going through hard kitchens like Forty-One?
“Learning new skills and passing them on to others! It is my job, and I enjoy training people.
“In some ways, I would say there is a brutality to it, but it’s a very transparent transaction and the skill set that you gain and pass on, is something that you hold onto and take away with you. Those skill sets are going to benefit you in your career, and they will reward you with a better job, a more exciting job, better pay and more confidence going into those roles. It takes time and patience to gain well-rounded experience, but no one can ever take that experience away from you.
“Look at chefs like Martin Benn, who I admire greatly from a skill set point of view, his levels of patience in what he does and the way he put ingredients together really amazes me; there are so many details and steps along the way.
“What I do now is much more upmarket brassiere style, where we rely on incredible produce, but there are not many places to hide.”
James points out that high-end cooking is not for everyone, but as he gets older, he finds himself admiring people who are working in those kinds of kitchens. However, you don’t see that many three hats chefs are staying at that level as it is so draining.
“You might start off working in very fine dining restaurants and then end up running a large scale catering company and be excellent at it. That in its self is interesting, but it might not be as glamorous, from a press point of view as an acclaimed three hat restaurant.”
When asking James the classic question, what characteristics he thinks are most crucial for a chef, Passion or Drive? He laughs and gently shakes his head as if there is no real answer to that.
“You always have to love what you do!
“As a child, your palette starts off liking sweet things, and as your palate develops, you might end up liking things like champagne, oysters and even livers. The same thing happens in your career; things change, you might start off single, working really hard, then you get into a relationship, and you need more balance. Then you might end up having kids, and you’ll need even more balance, this doesn’t change the premise of why you entered the industry or why you enjoy it, but other things become as important as your job.We need to find that balance, and the lack of it is why we lose so many good people in our industry.”
5th Floor, Customs House
31 Alfred Street, Circular Quay, NSW, 2000
Follow James Kidman on Instagram @jameskidman