Meet the Chef: Rob Cockerill
There is something very special about an early morning walk from Circular Quay station to the Sydney Opera House.
The sun glittering in the water, which is carrying the local ferries in and out of the harbour, creating soft ripples on the surface. Seagulls, shouting and flapping around, looking for their first victim to rob of their breakfast.
It’s easy to forget when you live in Sydney how spectacular our world famous Quay is, with the Grand Harbour Bridge towering from the historic Rocks to the business district on the northern side. The white sails of the Opera House, almost blinding you in the morning sun and that first busload of tourists, with their selfie sticks and cameras admiring the heart of our great city. This is the walk that Rob Cockerill has made most mornings for the past two years, and previous to that, he made that same walk on the other side of the harbour towards Quay Restaurant for eight years, and still, this is what he describes as a very special part of his day.
There must be so much pride in working not only in Australia’s most iconic building but for one of Australia’s hands down best chefs, Peter Gilmore. We were intrigued to find out how Rob got to where he is today and what the philosophy is behind the menu at Bennelong.
Rob grew up in Newcastle and has fond memories of his mother cooking away in the kitchen.
“My mum is an excellent cook and her, and her friends often held pretty special dinner parties. I remember how much I loved being a part of that, and learning how to create things in the kitchen from an early age. That’s what made me want to get into the hospitality industry.”
After completing school, Rob got a job at a local café. What started off with washing dishes and cleaning kitchen floors soon developed into an apprentice role,
“I had a great Head Chef that was a very patient and keen to teach me as much as possible. We made everything in-house, and he would show me how to break down meat and make homemade pasta.”
On his break, Rob would run across the street, into the water and go spearfishing, a hobby that he still keeps close to his heart, “I love the ocean! And spearfishing has become a part of who I am and what I do, which I think can be reflected in what I put on the plate.”
After a year or so as an apprentice in Newcastle, Rob jumped on the train to Sydney where he completed his qualifications in high-end Sydney kitchens. Through industry contacts, he was fortunate to be offered a job in London, for the hospitality group Soho House. Rob jumped on the opportunity and accepted a role as a Commis chef for the very hip and popular ‘Electric Diner’ on London’s Portobello Road.
“It was very different from anything that I had experienced before in Australia; I certainly learnt a lot about discipline while working in London.”
Rob ended up doing three years for Soho House Group, moving around their many venues, while taking advantage of Europe and travelling to gain new inspirations for his cooking. But as the buzz about Australian chefs and restaurants back home reached London, Rob felt it was time to go back.
“I missed Australia and the climate and produce that we have here. Rob had been following the kitchen scene in Sydney from a distance and was very keen to work for Peter Gilmore. “I really respected the way he was working with nature and following seasons, using flowers and heirloom products.”
Upon his return to Sydney, Rob was determined to get a job for Peter and knocked on the back door of Quay Restaurant, to personally ask the chef for a spot in his kitchen. Not in his wildest dreams could Rob have anticipated the long a prosperous mentorship that laid before him.
When starting working at Quay, Rob was positively surprised by the work ethic and culture that faced him. “I was used to a lot more anger in the kitchen, which I didn’t necessarily agree with but that I understood and respected. When I started working for Peter, I got to experience, what I felt, was a much better way to channel all that frustration.
“Here we work with respect, and if someone does something wrong, it’s our fault as managers for not teaching them properly.”
This philosophy is something that Rob has taken with him into the Bennelong kitchen, and strive to uphold, even though he admits that can be challenging at times; “It’s easier to scream at someone when they do something wrong. But at the end of the day, you have to get the best out of your staff, and as a trainer and a chef, it’s my responsibility to pass that knowledge on and to make sure that the other chefs do what I want them to do.”
“Throughout my years with Peter, I have found a real kinship and shared a passion in what he does, and I have learnt to explore the different seasons, making sure that we are using the right produce at the right time.
“For example, we will look at what produce is in its prime and not just vegetables and fruits, we ask ourselves; What fish and seafood are swimming off the coast at the moment? What meat are at the peak of their seasons?”
Working closely as Peter’s Sous Chef for years at Quay, Rob and Peter had often discussed on how they could expand and reach more people with their food.
“Quay is incredibly fine dining, where we have had the ability to get produce from all over the world. But at Bennelong, we wanted to keep it a bit more casual, and by casual I mean still using the best produce and the same methods as we do at Quay, but in more of a brassiere style way. For example, we love the idea of cooking and serving meat and fish on the bone and the great flavours and textures you can create by doing so.”
“Being in the Opera House, we cater for a range of different clientele and guests from all over the world as well as locals and being part of a public house is great, as it allows us to welcome anyone to enjoy what we do and this beautiful building and city. That’s also why we have made sure to embrace our Australian produce and strive to keep as much possible local and Australian on our menu.”
Bennelong’s multi-level layout presents a number of different options, including The Restaurant, The Cured & Cultured mezzanine level and The Bar. This means that you can visit Bennelong for anything from a quick cocktail to some nibbles and a glass of champagne with your friends or a pre-show sit-down meal looking out through the panoramic windows of the Opera House watching the lights of the city reflecting in the spectacular Sydney Harbour, right outside.
Friday to Sunday 12pm – 2pm
Daily 5.30pm & 6pm
Daily 6.30pm – 10pm
Friday & Saturday, 10pm – 11pm, Cured & Cultured only
Image source: Fink Group/Bennelong
Written by: Kristin Jonasson