The last 30 days truly have been the month of food, with the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival being highlighted by last night’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards.The World’s best chefs have been visiting our country, and we have had the opportunity to see, hear and even ‘taste’ them as they have toured through Sydney and Melbourne.JRM had the pleasure to attend the 50 Best talks here in Sydney last week and get an insight into the lives of the World’s best chefs; Massimo Buttuora and Dominique Creen, as well as our very own Brett Graham (if we can still call him ours) and Peter Gilmore.
The 50 Best talks at the Opera House felt refreshingly spontaneous, and for industry geeks like us here at JRM, the conversation between the chefs and presenter Annabel Crab was gripping! The chefs talked about how they got where they are today and how Massimo Bottuora has had his restaurant for 22 years but only been on the World scene for the last decade. Throughout the talks, it soon became clear that throughout their careers, success and fame have never been the main goal. They all agreed that it’s nice to have the recognition and a full restaurant to rely on, as we all know that the biggest scare for a restaurant owner is that no one is going to show up. But the main lesson that we felt that we took away from the 50 Best talks was, that the road to success is through finding yourself. Now that might sound a bit airy fairy, but it makes a lot of sense.
You can compare chefs of this calibre, to artists, you might be more familiar with the fact that to be a painter, photographer, sculpture or designer, you need to find your own style, your own calling and influences. Yes, you will still need to learn the techniques and learn to understand your tools, but what you create needs to come from within.Massimo Buttuora told a great story of when his biggest influence and mentor Alain Ducasse invited him to come and work for Hotel’de Paris in 1993. Massimo put his head down and worked hard, making sure he was taking notes of flavours, impressions, textures and recipes, to soak up as much information as he could during his time with Ducasse.When his time at Hotel’de Paris was up, Ducasse asked him: “What did you think? Have you been taking notes? To which Massimo responded with profound respect, “Yes of course Chef”, and showed up his thick notepad, full of scraps, notes and recipes.Ducasse took the notebook and tore it into pieces, and as Massimo’s eyes widened in despair, Ducasse told him “Stand up on your feet and walk.”There was a shocking sound of inhalation in the audience when he told that story.I instantly thought of my bent and bruised notebooks piled up at home and the sadness and even emptiness I would feel if I were to lose them.But Massimo assured us that this is the best advice he had ever received. “You can learn techniques and learn from your mentors to help you understand the procedures and the temperament of different ingredients and cooking techniques. But the food must come within yourself. Your creativity must come from who you are.”Dominique also spoke of this, as she talked about how she found something in San Francisco that made her feel whole. Something there made her find herself as an individual yet still be able to recognise and let her childhood and travels influence her in her creativity.“It’s when you try to stop being something else that you find yourself.”But we also got to hear different stories of how you can find this connection. Brett Graham, for example, mentions the challenges of being creative when your day starts in busy rush hour traffic, manoeuvring through the streets of London before reaching his restaurant The Ledbury in Notting Hill and disappearing into the basement for the rest of the day.Brett means that in these instances you rely heavily on ingredients as your inspiration. Peter also mentions how he often starts with the ingredients and then gets his inspiration from there. He also told us how he discovered gardening and still today; years later is baffled by the transformation from seed to fruit.He mentions the challenges to highlight the delicate flavours that come with different kinds of produce. He also emphasises on how his childhood memories are imperative to him and how he loves to replicate and create flavour combinations through his food to awaken people’s memories.As the hour in the Opera House quickly went toward its end, there were a couple of subjects that got rushed through, but with the help of questions from the audience, they covered subjects like the importance of looking after your customers, your team members and the challenges of mentoring. There was even a very brief question about work moral, respect and the hard life in the kitchen, which made all the speakers shuffle nervously in their seats and avoiding eye contact.This is something that would have been nice to discuss a bit further as its such a hot topic for us here in Australia at the moment. We all know that Peter Gilmore, for example, has had a groundbreaking impact on the kitchen scene in the sense that he won’t tolerate shouting and abusive language in his kitchens. Whereas (without mentioning names) some of the other people in the panel might be more known for running a hardship.There was also an uncomfortable question from the audience (following a brief discussion on the lack of female chefs in the kitchen) aimed to Dominique Crenn, where she was asked “Who was her rock to fall back on and if she had ever regretted not having a family and having to choose her career instead?” This was a very brave question as anyone who is familiar with Dominique would know that she hates the term female chef.Dominique’s response was great. “We all have to make choices in our life. If I want to be a mother and maybe I am, and you don’t know that, and in fact I am, to twin daughters. This is again the same conversation about me being a woman, can we talk about something else?” (this created a loud cheer in the audience) she continues “I appreciate what you are asking, but where you are standing right now, I hope you can ask me another question right now?”This conversation went on to how important it is that the men in the industry help with the conversation and don’t stigmatise the female chef. We are all chefs and should be judged by what we create not what gender we are.There was also a brief discussion about sustainability and waste and how it is our responsibility to educate our staff and the consumers in how we can look after our planet and take responsibility for the waste that we create.The very last question that was highlighted and which actually made Massimo refuse to answer was the importance of front of house staff. It wasn’t that Massimo didn’t want to talk about it or found it insignificant, it was more that he said there is no way we can cover this subject in the 30 seconds that we have left.It highlighted something important though. Here we have a celebration of the World’s 50 Best restaurants, and it all is about the chefs, very little is being celebrated or spoken about the talented people that create the atmosphere, service and overall dining experience.Let’s hope that in the years to come, this is something that will attract more attention and be discussed at the same level. Everyone is talking about the lack of chefs, but the lack of front of house professionals is even bigger. To combat this, we think that it’s important to highlight the knowledge and skills that it takes to create that unforgettable dining experience. As Massimo said “you can go to a restaurant and have a great meal, but terrible service, and you most probably will never go back to that restaurant. But, if you go to a restaurant and have an okay meal, with excellent service, you are much more likely to come back”