Meet the chef: Scott Pickett
Scott Pickett is a man that operates at 150km/hour, he has so much going on, and he always has, that it’s hard to understand how he’s been able to stay on top for so long and still; this is only the beginning of the “Pickett Empire”.
Scott was exposed to a tremendous work ethic from a very young age, his parents always worked very hard, and as can be imagined, Scott was a very energetic young man. He probably needed the structure and high pressure of a kitchen to help channel all his energy.
In his teenage years, he and his family moved from Melbourne to a farm in Kangarilla, a small town just outside Adelaide. Scott sailed through his high school years and even managed to convince the headmaster of his new school to allow him to skip year nine as he transitioned from Melbourne to South Australia, this sort off gives you an idea of his eagerness. Consequently, this resulted in Scott completing year 11 at the tender age of 14. School ended in September and Scott managed to get work experience at a nearby winery, which then led to a part-time job as a kitchen hand. The winery was a multi-faceted venue, with a fine dining restaurant, a café, bakery and 30 room accommodation.
Scott would be dropped off in the afternoons by the school bus and often work until midnight. He recalls how he instantly fell in love with the kitchen environment and worked hard to soak up as much as possible. As a kitchen hand, he would come in in the afternoons, faced by a mountain of the day’s dishes (the deal was that the sooner he would get these done, the sooner he could join the other boys in the kitchen). So Scott worked hard to finish before service, only to then return to a new mountain of dishes once the last table had been sent. Some nights, if he weren’t done with the dishes by the time the bakers came in around 12-12.30am, he would often get roped into making pastry and baking bread until the early hours of the morning. It was through this unique experiences and his hunger to learn that the foundations of his career were set.
Through the owners at the winery, he was put in touch with the highly acclaimed Adelaide chef Peter Jamar, and it was through his apprenticeship with Peter that he was exposed to, and won a number of cooking competitions. It was also through participating in these events that he got acquainted with one of the judges, Melbourne-based chef Bruno Cerdan (another industry legend at the time). At the completion of his apprenticeship with Peter, Scott moved to Melbourne and got in contact with Bruno.
At this stage, Scott’s dream was to work for Philippe Mouchel at Paul Bocuse, but this kitchen was pretty much a closed kitchen, where one of the only ways in was to work for Bruno Cerdan, as he had a reputation of preparing chefs for the Paul Bocuse kitchen. Scott worked two and a half years for Cedan before his opportunity came up at Paul Bocuse. At the age of 20, Scott had already achieved his first career goal. He trained under Phillippe Mouchel for 18 months before the urge and curiosity of what it was like working in a “real” Michelin star kitchen got too strong. Back then before the internet, the only way you could learn was through books or to experience the kitchens first hand, so Scott packed up his bag, left his fiancée behind and promised to be back in 12 months, in time for their planned wedding. With a letter of recommendation from Phillippe himself, Scott set off to London. Little did he know that he wouldn’t return to Melbourne for another three and a half years.
London in the late 90’s was absolutely pumping, and the restaurant scene was bigger than ever before. Marco Pierre White had kicked off the rock star chef profile, and through his book White Heat, he had given people an insight into the extreme chef world that Scott was now facing.
Once settled in the big city, Scott managed to organise three trials in some of London’s most sought after kitchens, Royal Hospital Road with Gordon Ramsay (2 Michelin Stars), The Square with Phil Howard (2 Michelin Stars) and The Oak Room with Marco Pierre White (3 Michelin Stars).
At this stage, Scott had had three months out of the kitchen, travelling and partying around London and needless to say, he was slightly nervous as he showed up at 6 am on a Monday morning at Royal Hospital Road. Once his shift was over, he recalls sitting down for a beer with Gordon who asked him what his plan was and if he wanted a job. Scott told him about his upcoming trials for that week, to which Gordon responded; “If there were one other kitchen in London that I would work in, it would be The Square. If you don’t come and work here, you should go there.”
Scott went on to finish his week of stages and ended up taking Gordon’s advice and accepting a position at The Square.
“It was love at first sight! To be honest, I have never been a very disciplined guy, and Gordon Ramsey scared the shit out of me.
“During my stage at the Oak Room, I was sent to the function rooms and was left feeling like just another number in the kitchen. I wanted to be more hands-on and learn.
“I still remember that first day at The Square, I worked all morning next to Phil, I will never forget how he taught me how to make what he would call the ‘Bin Terrine’, which was made of the left over ‘scraps’ of Foie gras and truffles.“
Although the Melbourne kitchens that Scott has worked in back home had been tough, it was nothing in comparison to the London kitchens, yet Scott took to the fray like a fish to water, and soon took on the nickname “The Digger”.
He admits to burning the candle at both ends and living a very hard lifestyle at the time, working crazy hours and partying until early mornings often waking up at the most random of places. But he loved it, the banter, the pressure, the team, it was pure adrenaline and passion.
“London kitchens opened my eyes, and my focus and changed the way I thought about food and the way to cook. Most of all, it was f****ing fun, by far the best time of my life.“
As his first 12 months was coming to an end, his fiancée back in Melbourne nervously called to find out if Scott would make it home in time for their wedding. Briefly coming out of his bubble, Scott tried to explain to his wife-to-be, that he had only made it to the fish section and that game season was coming up and he couldn’t possibly leave now. “I just have to work the sauce and meat before I leave, could we postpone the wedding for another 12 months?” Needless to say, that response did not go down well, and that was the end of that.
Scott would end up staying at the Square for another two years before deciding to go back to Melbourne.
His first job back was for Donovan Cooke at the three-hatted restaurant Odine in Melbourne, but Scott felt a bit lost and confused and was missing London. His old mentor Philippe Mouchel had just taken over Bocuse d’Or (a worldwide chef competition started by Paul Bocuse), and Phillipe asked Scott to apply. For the next nine months Scott would work hard to prepare for the contest, and as he qualified in both the state and national selection, he ended up representing Australia at the world finals in France and came 14th, (which was the best result for an Australian up until that date).
It was a year or so later, after being headhunted to work on a luxury yacht in Europe, that he returned to Melbourne and took on the role as Head Chef at The Point in Albert Park. During his time here he successfully pushed the venue to two hats in The Age Good Food Guide. “Working at the Point was really hard work, it’s a massive operation, and you cater for almost 1000 people a day, including functions, restaurant and the café. At this point, I was still very much ‘The Digger’, and I was pushing myself really hard and drinking way too much. But it was a great operation, and I learnt a lot about running a business, which eventually set me up for opening Estelle.”
Estelle would be the saviour for Scott, he originally bought the place just a couple of streets from his house, to get something going on the side, as he was still working at The Point. But he fell in love with the project and soon decided to go full time. “We were struggling to get the spend per head up at the start so decided to introduce set menus. We did three courses for $30, five courses for $50 and seven courses for $70″.
But there was nothing except the number of dishes that was ‘set’ on the menu. Scott who worked on a tight budget and with a minimum amount of wastage, would completely improvise the menus on a daily basis, sometimes even table by table. This must have been a real headache for the rest of the staff, as no one except Scott would know what was on the menu. “It was organised chaos,” Scott tells us with a cheeky smile on his face.
It was around this time that it really hit home for Scott, he had to shake off “The Digger” once and for all.
“You can’t treat people like you did back in London anymore, you can’t grab, burn and punch people in the kitchen.
“I never wanted to be a dinosaur. How I now manage and look at people in my business is very different from what it was. But when that is all you know and that has been part of your training and life, it’s very hard to shake it off. But I knew I had to, to survive and succeed“.
It was also around this time that Scott went into rehab and by doing so found a new source of energy and empowerment to push his business to the next level. “I thought to myself, ‘If I can control this, I can do anything'”.
Located in Smith Street, Collingwood, Scott’s second venue Saint Crispin was awarded best new restaurant in 2014 and gained one hat within its first year and two the year after, as well as Scott, being nominated for chef of the year in 2014.
12 months later Scott secured the venue next door to Estelle in Northcote and opened up his dream kitchen ESP (Estelle by Scott Pickett). ESP is now the more high-end dining restaurant out of the group, and the original Estelle has been relaunched as the more casual neighbourhood restaurant as it was first intended to be.
As Scott’s empire is rapidly growing, with his latest addition, “Pickett’s Deli and Rotisserie” at the Queen Victoria Markets, he is still very much in tune with all his venues and still works most nights in one if the kitchens. “I like to spend my days working on the business and the nights in the kitchen with my team.”
“When you create great foundations, everything else will follow.”
Scott explains how he has learnt to delegate and trust the people around him, and how important it is that the whole team has the same vision of hospitality, customer care and produce, in order for the team to succeed. Today he looks for and surrounds himself with eager and passionate people like himself.
In his kitchens, they very much work with the seasonal produce and the moods that come naturally with the season changes.
“It’s all about doing all the basics really well, keeping things as simple as possible in a very complex world.
“All the simple things like smiling, welcoming people, thanking people, being hospitable, bending over backwards for customers and offering the right portion sizes. And most importantly, to make sure, just as I was taught throughout my training, that the dishes are built on a marriage of flavours.”