Turning tables: top chefs anoint the hottest new culinary stars
They’re the rock stars of today’s food-mad world, with a string of greatest hits to their names. Mention ‘Neil’, ‘Pete’ or ‘Christine’ and most serious gourmands will know exactly which kitchen gods you’re talking about.
But who will be the first-name-only stars of the future? In an Australian-first iteration of Robb Report US’s annual Culinary Masters celebration, we reveal the ones to watch, as chosen by those who would know – Neil Perry, Peter Gilmore, Christine Manfield, Andrew McConnell, Philip Johnson and Duncan Welgemoed.
- Want to join the stars of the present and the stars of the future for dinner as part of our exclusive Culinary Masters series during October? Seats are strictly limited for seatings in Melbourne, Hobart, Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney. Click here to book and for more information.
Chef, restaurateur and now chief brand and culinary officer with Rockpool Dining Group
Neil Perry has been in the business since the ’80s. He can pick great talent when he sees it, with alumni including Kylie Kwong, Mike McEnearney (Kitchen by Mike, No. 1 Bent Street), Mat Lindsay at Sydney fave Ester, and more.
“We have a responsibility to turn people into great cooks,” says Perry. “We need to help grow them in their career and as people.”
So who does Perry pick as one to watch? He nominates 32-year-old Analiese Gregory, co-owner of a slip of a Darlinghurst wine bar in Sydney called Bar Brose (where her chicken in vin jaunewith foie gras butter is the stuff of dreams), but now also head chef at Hobart’s most acclaimed restaurant, Franklin.
“Her food is delicious, unique and quirky,” says Perry. “She has also worked with a lot of people with their heads screwed on. And she has great opportunities and a great career ahead of her. There’s no substitute for putting focus and energy into something if you want to succeed. And Analiese is doing just that.”
Co-owner, Bar Brose, SydneyHead chef, Franklin, Hobart
“I went to an all-girls school [in New Zealand] and the only way I was allowed to leave, at 16, was to do a two-year diploma in professional cookery. I was in my delinquent teenage phase. Restaurant kitchens were like a family and you were allowed to smoke and drink and stay up late. I just loved it.”
And so began Analiese Gregory’s cooking career. (Her father, it must be said, is also a chef.) That was a whole 16 years ago. Since then she has worked with and for some of the world’s best – from the stellar Logan Brown in Wellington to the (now defunct) two-Michelin-starred The Capital in London, Quay in Sydney, then a stint in France with the much-revered Michel Bras (an icon for most contemporary chefs) and the equally acclaimed Mugaritz in Spain’s Basque Country.
Lessons along the way were many: “Logan Brown really cared about produce. But going to London really caned me every day and taught me how to cook. It was the first place I was told, ‘No, this isn’t okay. And you are doing it again, right now.’
“Quay with Pete [Gilmore] was definitely one of the first places that I worked where there was an emphasis on gardens, growing and vegetables. Always searching for new and different things. It was also where I learned to run a kitchen, basically.”
Gilmore has been a great mentor. But Gregory’s time in France added a whole new dimension and perspective. Chef Michel Bras is known for his almost Zen-like approach to ingredients. But the Zen extends to every aspect of working life. “He taught me about the way to live and work. To create a little mental space to go to. He would send us once a week into the woods to go foraging. Or to make wine. Or go hiking. I learned a lot about life there.”
Now on the brink of a new chapter, Gregory is still pondering her direction for Franklin, a wide-open, modern space with a huge wood-fired oven and wonderful use of sometimes unusual produce. “I will drive around, go to suppliers, and kind of base it off that. I’m also super-excited about the oven. And going out to collect wild produce. That makes me feel like a human.”
Cumulus Inc., Cutler & Co., Supernormal, Ricky & Pinky (Builders Arms), Melbourne
With a portfolio that includes some of Melbourne’s best restaurants and with 330 employees across the group, Andrew McConnell has a strong sense of the importance of mentoring and training his staff and seeing those qualities come out in those who work for him. Like his senior sous and soon to be head chef, Tim Goegan.
“Tim is a ripper young guy,” says McConnell. “He’s a country boy with a great nature and a great work ethic. He’s also a natural leader, which is really important. And he’s a good cook, which goes without saying.
“I was always self-motivated,” McConnell continues. “Looking for that next thing. But I’ve stayed in this business for the pleasure of cooking and working with good people. And Tim shares that. He doesn’t want to be a head chef rock star, just a good cook. He knows what he knows and that he has a lot more to learn.”
Such is McConnell’s confidence in Goegan that he has just named him as head chef for a second opening of his super-popular Supernormal modern Asian diner.
Head chef, Supernormal, St Kilda, Melbourne
It was 150 reheated casseroles that sent Tim Goegan into the kitchen at an early age. His mother, a nurse on night shift, had little time for cooking and, after one casserole dinner too many, Goegan decided to take on family-feeding duties. “The family loved it, so it went from there,” he relates. “I finished high school and pondered university but then settled on a life in the kitchen. Best decision yet!”
Working with chef-owner and “larger-than-life character” Steve Snow at the seafood-focused Fins, north of Byron, set Goegan on his professional path. “Steve would use predominantly local fruit and vegetables and had a personal relationship with the local fishermen in the area – guaranteeing us first rights to fresh line-caught, sustainably sourced fish, some of which would arrive just an hour before service! It was a humbling experience.”
He also has huge respect for his current employer. “Andrew always has time to ask how someone is, from kitchen hands to managers. The way he can create an extraordinary dish in the most simplistic way, then pass on his knowledge and share information with staff is amazing. Andrew is definitely someone I want to mould myself on.”
Excited by the new venture ahead – running a second Supernormal on the old Luxembourg restaurant site in St Kilda – Goegan often ponders where he will end up. So we’ll put him on the spot: what is the dream?
“I probably answer this question differently every time, depending on my mood,” he muses, “but I would love to have a self-contained, fully sustainable farm one day, where I can have my own livestock, bees, make my own cured meats and cheese, as well as growing my own fruit and vegetables. Between now and then, however, I’m just excited to be on this food journey and to see where it takes me, hopefully continuing to learn, grow and be respected among my peers.”
Chef, traveller, author, consultant and industry godmother
Christine Manfield has a clear view on what it takes to achieve success in the restaurant business. “Staying true to your own vision and not being compromised. That’s the advice I used to share with my team. And they have all gone on to do great things.”
Among the team at Universal, Manfield’s former two-hat restaurant in Sydney’s Darlinghurst, was a young Vietnamese-Australian trainee called Thi Le who came to Manfield’s kitchen through an industry mentoring program for young female chefs.
Le is now a rising star with her tiny Anchovy restaurant in Melbourne’s Richmond. “She’s definitely a talent,” says Manfield. “A fantastic cook and very inventive. She’s doing interesting, experimental, modern Asian stuff and it works.”
For Manfield, ultimate success comes with resilience and a clever business head. “Of all the people that I have employed over the years, only a small percentage stands apart from the pack. Good cooks and born leaders. You need to be both.”
Chef and co-owner, Anchovy, Richmond, Melbourne
Despite being a keen cook, Thi Le’s mum never wanted her daughter to be a chef. And when the-then interior design student suddenly set her sights on a culinary career, her mother was worried. “Why would you want to be a chef? There’s no career, no life prospects for a girl.”
Luckily, Thi’s training put her in touch with Christine Manfield. “And suddenly Mum thought, ‘Wow, here’s a lady who’s done well on her own and made a success’. And she backed off a lot.”
After completing her apprenticeship, Le moved south to work under McConnell, before opening Anchovy, which she describes as “modern Asian, modern Australian and a little bit in-between”. She laughs. “I grew up in [Sydney’s] Blacktown, which was just a mishmash of different cultures. My partner was working in the corporate world and wanted a cafe. But I didn’t want to do bacon and eggs!”
With Anchovy co-owner Jia-yen Lee running the floor, accolades for their original yet easily appealing style are pouring in. “I think when I was doing my apprenticeship, I knew I wanted to open something eventually. I think it’s just the mindset of having Asian parents, to do something for yourself.”
Manfield’s words also rang in her head. “I asked [Christine] once what made her just jump into something of her own? And she said there was a point when she realised she could cook and make food that’s more delicious than the other restaurants out there and she took the dive.”
Le’s dream was her own place by the time she hit 35. She’s 32 this year. “I beat my goal by five years! And it’s going great. I feel really blessed.”
e’cco bistro and Madame Rouge, Brisbane
A true veteran and well-respected chef across Australia, Phil Johnson has been a leading light on the Brisbane fine-dining scene for the best part of 30 years. Firstly with his fine-diner, e’cco, and now also with the classic French bistro, Madame Rouge.
When asked to choose someone he believes has a bright future ahead, Johnson immediately thought of his current head chef, Simon Palmer. “He’s gifted way beyond his years. At 26, he’s doing way more than I was at that age. In just a couple of years with us, he’s grown and grown and he is clever at what he does. And always looking to improve.”
Johnson has seen a lot of good chefs come through his doors. And he is philosophical about their need to move on in their careers. “It’s nice that they have had a start with you but that they are able to go on.” But with this one, you get the feeling he’d rather like him to stay. “For most young chefs, the big drama is doing their own thing. So you have to give them enough rope. And that’s what I do with Simon. He pretty much leads the menu.” Time to pass on the baton, perhaps?
Head chef, e’cco bistro, Brisbane
Ask Simon Palmer to describe one of his dishes and you’ll get every detail. “We wanted a simple pork and apple dish,” he begins. “So we bone out a suckling pig from a great local producer, Schultz Family Farms in Ipswich. And cook it really slowly. Then we compress some apples in advieh – it’s a Persian spice mix with things like rose, black lime, cinnamon and nutmeg – and fry them. We make a potato foam with lots of butter. Nice and aerated. And a black lime ash with the apple skins – nice apple flavour, but with floral notes. More like a perfume. And then we do an apple gastrique ...”
Work at some big name Brisbane restaurants – contemporary fine-dining restaurant Urbane and the hugely popular, modern Middle-Eastern influenced Gerards – has given Palmer a firm philosophy. “Keep the key flavours,” he says. “Don’t over-complicate everything. But look for layers, don’t be one-dimensional. And get the customer thinking a bit.”
A Newcastle, NSW boy originally, Palmer’s early years were at an inventive, modern restaurant called Bacchus, set in an old theatre, where the food was as dramatic as the setting. Alongside him in the kitchen were two other gifted young beginners, Aaron Ward and Rhys Connell. Both are now head chefs at two of Sydney’s top restaurants, Sixpenny and Sepia, respectively. An impressive trio.
Palmer says his focus now is “to do the right thing by Phil and [his partner] Mary and really build and make e’cco successful. They’ve given me the reins, which has been great. It’s about making something your own. And I’m hoping to do that here.”
He’s the life and soul of Adelaide’s colourful, lively and downright delicious Africa-inspired Africola. That’s when he’s not running festivals and travelling for dinners and charity events. So Duncan Welgemoed needs a reliable hand in the kitchen. “It frees me up to gallivant,” he grins.
Enter Imogen Czulowski. The young South Australian with an impressive pedigree – Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in London, Seppeltsfield in the Barossa – joined Welgemoed’s team at a crucial time, right on the brink of Australia’s hosting of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards in April. Within minutes she was on the road with Welgemoed for a series of star chef collaborations around the country.
“She’s had that baptism by fire,” he says admiringly. “Meeting all the global and national chefs. She had to learn not to be overwhelmed by all that and just get straight in and do the job.”
Welgemoed has firm views about what it takes to make it. “Generosity and hospitality is first and foremost. You need to be humble. I think it’s always having in your mind’s eye that this is about something bigger. In the end it’s all about building and maintaining community.”
Head chef, Africola, Adelaide
Described by Duncan Welgemoed as “very ambitious, very driven and very methodical but with an exceptional lightness of touch”, Czulowski knew she wanted to be a chef the moment she realised her education wouldn’t qualify her to be a brain surgeon. “So I did the next best thing,” she says, only half joking.
From an apprenticeship in her native McLaren Vale, she learned a humble approach to food. “From there,” she continues, “I did what every young, hungry chef does: I travelled, and in that travel I staged at [former world number one restaurant] Noma [in Copenhagen]. It was an ethos I was familiar with, but a style that gave me another perspective to the way we approach produce.”
London came next. “It was fast, it was fun and it was gritty. I learned how to move quickly and drink tequila to the wee hours. Then I worked at Dinner by Heston, where I gained a completely new set of skills.”
Her working life is guided by some firm mottos. “Always take orders with a smile. There is a reason for tradition. Leave your tears at the door, no one has time to mop that up. Never compromise – either your food, yourself or your values.”
And challenges? “The biggest is the constant struggle to stay on top of your game. There is always someone younger, faster, better, stronger, but this breeds innovation and drive into the industry and chefs feed off this. In fact, I think Daft Punk wrote a song about it!”
His spectacular restaurant overlooking Sydney Opera House is the epitome of destination dining. His delicate, textured, postcard-pretty dishes have won him the country’s top accolades. But as Gilmore himself will tell you, “Success as a chef is more than food. It’s how you deal with people.”
As his former sous chef Analiese Gregory will attest, Gilmore is a modest and generous leader. And supportive of talents like Sarah Knights – formerly of Quay, but now head chef at cult favourite, Automata, part of the Old Clare Hotel complex in Sydney’s Chippendale.
Quay is a busy and complex working environment where precision and calm are crucial. As head sous chef, Knights was responsible for up to 20 chefs at a time, says Gilmore.
“Sarah led by example,” he says. “She’s a hard worker. Very calm and confident. And she’s just a really good natural teacher, passing information to younger chefs in such a supportive way. It’s hard when you lose someone like this, but you can’t hold people back. She has a great future.”
Head chef, Automata, Chippendale, Sydney
“I started my apprenticeship at the age of 15 and the minute I turned 18, I packed my things and made the journey to Sydney,” says Jervis Bay (NSW) girl Sarah Knights. “So that makes it 17, nearly 18 years of hanging out in kitchens.”
It was working under Peter Doyle at Est. that Sarah realised this would be her career. “I decided to throw myself hard and fast into one of Sydney’s best restaurants, and it wasn’t easy. But it gave me a purpose and a place to express my passion for perfection.”
From private chef on superyachts to overseeing all those chefs at Quay, Sarah has had several career highlights under some inspiring mentors – Gilmore, Doyle and Bennelong head chef Rob Kabboord among them.
“But worth more than any award or accolade,” she says, “is the respect that you earn in a kitchen from working hard.”
The head chef at Automata will change things up yet again. “I really like the style of the food, the style of the kitchen and how it is run. I feel that I’ve been really honoured to have this incredible opportunity.”
There are hurdles ahead, of course. “One of the biggest I believe I will personally face is finding the perfect work-life balance when and if I decide to have a family,” she says candidly. “But I do believe I can find it.” Knights also worries about the industry’s future. “It is very hard to find dedicated, hard-working, professional chefs,” she says. “It’s up to people like me to be nurturing the chefs we have and helping them sustain careers.”
Meeting this next generation of kitchen leaders, however, it’s probably safe to say the future is in very good hands.