Nicky Riemer is in her element at Union Dining. Running her own kitchen allows her to bring together all the flavours she loves and memories of other great dining experiences she has had and share that with her diners.
Did you always know you wanted to be a chef?
Actually I was good at maths and science at school…I should have turned out like Heston Blumenthal…but I didn’t (laughs). I studied Chemical Engineering. I finished high school and went to Melbourne Uni, and was excited that I had got in. I did one year of the course and thought, I’m not sure about this; I’m not really enjoying it. I pushed on through and then halfway through my second year, I couldn’t see myself as an engineer in a mine or a lab and it was quite a sexist study group. Engineering was mainly men, we’re talking 1989 and ‘90, and it was a time where there were barely any women in the field and when I said to a lecturer that I was thinking about changing, he said to me “well, given you are a woman and you’re probably going to get married and have children anyway, it probably doesn’t really matter what you do.” And that was enough to make me think, I don’t actually want to be in this industry.
I’d grown up in hospitality. My dad was a general manager and mum worked with him. They ran little hotels from when I was a baby. At that time when I was in uni, I was working as a casual waiter but I used to get in trouble for talking to the chefs too much because I really liked the food. I said to my parents that I wanted to take some time off uni and work out what to do next. Mum and Dad told me to do whatever would make me happy. Dad asked me whether I’d thought about cooking, I had a chat to the head chef and before I knew it I’d tried out for an apprenticeship and loved it. I was 21 at the time, so I was considered an older apprentice. I’m 44 now and I haven’t looked back. I love it.
Do you think people have lost confidence in their own cooking these days?
I think so and the classic technique is getting lost a little bit. I see it in young chefs. They could have been working for three or four years somewhere that’s incredibly high level but were literally only in charge of picking the petals of a flower with tweezers to go on a garnish and then when you get them into your kitchen and ask them to debone a duck, they say, “How do I do that?”
I grew up with the classics. I learnt from Stephanie Alexander and people like Cath Claringbold and Karen Martini. We all learned the proper techniques. I love modern cooking, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great but I think it’s a bit of a shame when young people, whether they’re chefs or not, don’t understand how to do some classic things. That might just be learning how to chop an onion properly; not just putting it into a machine that blitzes it.
When did you get Union Dining?
Four years ago in April. Adam Cash runs front of house and I run the kitchen. That was a bit of a dream of ours. We’ve known each other for over 10 years now. When we met I was a head chef and he was the manager of a restaurant and we hit it off really well as friends. We often talked about owning a restaurant one day that was all about Victorian produce, but also the kind of place that felt as though it had always been there, so that when people came to it, there was classic food, cooked well (laughs). Well, hopefully…you’re always humble, thinking am I doing the right thing?
[quote]The first three years are like being a toddler and trying to find your feet. We’re feeling pretty good at the moment. We’ve got a good solid local trade and our regulars really support us, which is great.”[/quote]
I was just about to turn 40 and Adam was about 38 and I said, I want to do this before I hit 40, so let’s try it. We have backers and they helped us get it all set up and it was a dream-come-true. It’s not always easy making sure we have happy staff, balanced with happy customers. There’s quiet trade and busy trade. The first three years are like being a toddler and trying to find your feet. We’re feeling pretty good at the moment. We’ve got a good solid local trade and our regulars really support us, which is great. We only recently got a hat. We were incredibly proud and excited about that because we didn’t expect it. I was really happy about it. I had worked in restaurants with hats before but when it’s your own, it’s different. You don’t want it, you think it’s going to be too stressful, then when you get it, it’s pretty good.
How often do you change the menu?
We try to do it seasonally. Within the season, we have what we call our ‘Local’s Lunch’ and we have some special dishes that we change every month and then every Sunday we do a shared, long lunch experience. People have six courses. I might do abbacchio of goat as a main and I’ll do four little entrees, but I’ll change that every second week so it gives the chefs something new to do and we’ll play around with ingredients that might be better at that time of year.
Where do you get your ideas from?
I would say more often than not, from what’s in season. So, I’m in autumn, mushrooms will be in season soon, beautiful brassicas and braising. That’s my immediate thought. The inspiration is always from the ingredients. I like to make sure there are big flavours on the plate but not too many components. We’re like a classic bistro. Our service is fast-paced and we cook really simply but we’re using Hopkins River beef, Western Plains pork, vegetables grown in the Yarra Valley, as well as some in other parts of Victoria. We try to get the bulk of our seafood from Victoria; Portland snapper, Port Arlington mussels, but we’ll also get prawns from Queensland and barramundi from the Northern Territory. There’s no point constricting it too much. I have to be smart in a city-based restaurant without access to my own produce.
Do you have a favourite dish you like to cook?
When I’m at home, I love cooking risotto. I find it so relaxing. It’s one of those things you start and then stir the pot nice and gently, I’ve got a Le Creuset blue pot. On my days off I do cook at home and I love to cook from that. I’d probably say I’m a one-pot wonder. Anything I can braise or a risotto or pasta, soups. Slow cooked, nurturing food is probably my favourite cooking style. I’m probably not too modern.
270-272 Swan Street, Richmond
Lunch from 12pm Mon – Sun, Dinner from 6pm Mon – Sat