Luke Stepsys became the owner and executive chef of Smith Street icon, Panama Dining Room, in 2014. A chef for 25 years, he has worked in hatted restaurants in Tasmania, Adelaide, Sydney and Queensland. His Panama Dining room menus tend to European-style, steeped in traditional flavours but with a twist that befits the Northside.
How did you get into cooking?
My grandmother was a commercial cook. She cooked in Tasmania for about 25 years. She was a Lithuanian immigrant who fled Lithuania during the war. Her family were shipped off everywhere; part of the family to America, part of the family to Australia. Twenty five years; most amazing cook ever. I grew up eating Nan’s food.
When I was 13 and in first year high school, my parents asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I said I wanted to be a chef and the next week I was working in a hotel because they had a friend who owned a hotel, so they literally sent me off to do work experience. I loved it. He gave me a job washing dishes several nights a week after school.
Then when I was 14, I changed to a better restaurant and started doing a tiny bit of kitchen work. Then there was another restaurant by the age of 15 and I was wagging school to go to work. I’d go to school until lunchtime and then I’d just get a bus and go to work. I did a pre-vocational cooking course because I was too young to start an apprenticeship. It’s a three-month crash course in cookery skills. As soon as I turned 16, I started my apprenticeship.
I was qualified by the age of 20, spent years in Tasmania and by the age of 27, I had two restaurants that both had three hats in the state food guide. From there I got poached to run Magill Estate in Adelaide, went over there for two years and then had a bad break up. I was disheartened with everything and disenchanted with the industry. I’d work from 7am until midnight. Sometimes I’d sleep overnight in the office and then get up and keep working. When things fall apart in your personal life, you think, “For what? I’m on television shows and in the newspapers and I think I’m a hot shot chef, but I can’t get my act together outside of work. I forgot birthdays and anniversaries, people died and I didn’t attend funerals.”
I made some really incorrect decisions. So I made some changes and went to Wildfire in Sydney as Culinary Director. Then there was the QT boutique brand of hotels in a role that was about coming up with concepts and making money. I loved it. I got to work with designers and stylists. Things I’d never done before. But after two years of that, I realised I wasn’t cooking any more, I was in a corporate structure and no matter how much I got paid, I was always answerable to someone. I never had creative freedom. I would get told what sort of concept I had to come up. I was just a fix-it man. I thought there is no substance to it. I started wondering where I had gone in life. I decided I just wanted to get back to basics. So I talked to my wife and we decided to invest every cent we had to buy ourselves a better situation. I looked for months. Places like the Panama Dining Room don’t come up for sale. Ever. But through a whole range of circumstances, I stumbled across it.
Why the Panama Dining Room?
I purchased Panama because I loved the place and could see untapped potential in this business – plus I wanted to get back to basics and remove my corporate chef attire. I do not plan to be in the kitchen full time, however. I am currently working on a vastly improved restaurant menu to help take my business to the next level. I see our potential as a one hat restaurant, without the ‘bells & whistles’ and high price tag of some CBD restaurants. Smith Street has this uniqueness about it and I want the food to reflect the surrounds.
We want to produce good people. No arrogance, no pompousness about it, it has to be in keeping with the vibe. The service still has to be casual, plating style has to be quite rustic, but it has to be underpinned by some really smart flavours. I see a trend across restaurants now. Whoever the market leader is, everyone copies. I was once like that. These days I’ve matured a lot. I’ve had a lot of years to sit back and eat and think, without being the chef cooking. I’m much more sensible about things now. It’s not about impressing the reviewers; it’s not about being written up in magazines, it’s about knowing what tastes good and delivering. You want people to eat and just go, “wow”.
Where do you get your ideas?
I copy them! (laughs) All chefs do. You do your research. But when I think back over all the years that I’ve eaten, it always comes back to those classical combinations that work. And now it’s about being able to refine those in a restaurant format, add a bit of intrigue, but still deliver those flavours. And I know that once we do it here, 95% of the regulars will love it. There’ll be 5% who say “hey, why have you taken off whatever it is”, but I can guarantee that there are more than 5% of the market out there who haven’t come here yet who will love it. I’m here mentoring a bunch of shit-hot young chefs. They’ll learn the basics, they’ll do them well. For us the future is bright, very, very bright.