Melbourne loves Philippa Sibley. We follow her every move closely to see where next she will craft her delicious food. Having worked in Michelin starred restaurants in London and France, Philippa very happily calls Melbourne home and has carved her own ‘yummy’ niche here.
Did you always know you wanted to be a chef or was there a defining moment?
There were defining moments. I always loved cooking. Loved it. Mum used to have amazing dinner parties in the seventies and I used to eat the leftovers, but I used to watch and I was always fascinated. I didn’t think about it as a career officially until I was in my early twenties. I worked in bars. I wanted to do design. I’ve always been quite crafty. I went to a Rudolf Steiner School. So obviously there was lots of crochet and writing in wax and working with clay and possums in the classroom. Loved it. Then I went to Croyden High. It was the exact opposite. My first job was in the fish and chip shop. It was the first time I ever got fired. It was from throwing batter at somebody…so, you know, assault and battery.
But she had beaten me up on free dress day so she deserved it. I did HSC but didn’t get into the course I wanted to, thank goodness. It was Graphic Design. Then I started working in bars and absolutely loved it. But kept drifting to the kitchen. So I worked in loads of places where just I ended up in the kitchen. I cooked dinner for the family every night that I could. So, yeah.
It sounds to me as though you are really drawn to the hospitality aspect of it.
What is about cooking for people that you love?
Well, I must be honest, and say that it’s generosity, showing off. I like to entertain people and feed people and show off to people and I’d rather not sit down with them. So it’s kinda anti-social to me. I prefer to cater than to sit down and eat my own food. When I sit down…for example I do every Christmas and all that stuff, I just look around and make sure it’s all ok and I’ll scoff what I’ve just made, by myself. So it’s more about watching for me, it’s a spectator sport.
It’s weird. I’m quite anti-social.
I was just thinking about cooking in terms of mindfulness. Apparently a lot of AFL players feel the pressure of being in the spotlight, so they are never in the moment of their game. Beforehand they think about how they’re going to play. During the game they think about what the commentators are going to say about how hey played and after the game they rehash all their moves and wonder if they did ok. Is that the same for cooking or are you in the moment of it?
Not so much, because it’s not competitive. If you’re cooking in one restaurant, you’re not up against another team. You’re part of a team but it’s not competitive.
Cooking is more of a performance I think. Three hours before we start service, it’s all, “got to get ready, got to get ready.” Then when it’s service it’s all on and it’s a performance. It’s not monotonous; one thing I love about cooking is it’s not monotonous. I change the menu often; I put lots of specials on. I never get bored.
Where do you get your ideas?
I don’t know. No idea. Sometimes I have splurges. I go weeks without thinking of anything and then all of a sudden, I’ll be writing things down and people say, oh here she goes. I’ve been cooking for 33 years.
And you still love it?
I still love it. And despite the tininess of this kitchen…I’ve been cooking for 33 years and the kitchens just keep getting smaller. Hopefully I can turn around in the next one.
It’s great though; I’ve inherited an amazing team.
And it’s a beautiful building and dining room.
It is. It used to be the foyer of a hotel.
Is the style of food Italian, would you say?
Well, Syracuse is a port in Sicily, so there’s Spanish, Greek and French influence, and obviously Italian. It’s quite cosmopolitan. It suits me because I have a lot of Mediterranean ideas and dishes.
You’re mostly known for…(catches a warning look from Philippa)…well, I don’t want to say mostly known for your desserts, but you are often (nervous laughter)…
Well ok, pigeonholed as a pastry chef. But you’d prefer that not to be the case?
No, no. Well I only became a pastry chef because my ex-husband, Donovan, had no clue about pastry. He was Marco-Pierre White’s Head Chef when I first met him. And I consider myself crafty and there’s more craft in pastry. I don’t eat dessert, I’m allergic to flour. I’m not interested in eating desserts at all. But I like watching people eat them. It’s hilarious watching them. I’m a voyeur. When it comes to desserts, people do the funniest things. They’ll have a mouthful and then they’ll poke at it with their spoon. Or the air guitar face…hilarious. Desserts are fun.
Well that fits with the performance aspect. You could do art with savoury, but somehow desserts lend themselves more to that artistic presentation.
Yes and I put a lot of my dessert craftiness into my savoury dishes. I love doing filled pastas and pithivier puff pastry work, that sort of thing. Things that people generally don’t do any more. It’s old school what I do and I think it’s appreciated.
That’s the thing though, there are so many trends around. Do you feel compelled to follow trends? There’s a pendulum swing back to old school traditional food, isn’t there?
The renaissance. For sure. I’ve been through it a couple of times. But I stick to what I do. No gels, no foams, no soils. I like things that are yummy. People don’t use the word yummy enough I don’t think.
So you’re not so much into eating dessert, what is the food or the dishes you are interested in?
One pot wonders. Which I’m making for the staff tonight. I’m making Irish stew for the staff today. We have a bit of fun with the staffies. We had banh mi on Saturday which was amazing. We do muck around and feed each other well and look after each other. The most important thing about a restaurant like this is generosity; making people feel welcome and nurtured and looked after. And I’ve inherited them and the sous chef is amazing. I was nervous because I was taking over something on my own. Normally I have my crew, but they’re all doing their own thing now. So to come in and be so well supported by the owners and the staff has been fantastic. And despite the tiny kitchen…have you seen it? The lights are out in there as well. It’s Shangri-La.
Melbourne is such a foodie city. Is it a hard city to cook in?
I don’t know. I’m a Melbourne girl. I’ve always been here. I did a year and a half in a three star Michelin in France and I did three years in London and worked in some really good places. Apart from that, I’ve just worked in Melbourne, so I don’t really know the difference.
It seems to me, and I’m from Christchurch, obviously with such a strong accent…
My dad was born in Christchurch and Mum grew up in Auckland.
Great! Good stock then.
And I love Wellington. I love the wind.
Well, you get it there for sure. What I was going to say is that you are a Melbourne darling. People love whatever you do. You’ve earned that.
I’ve got a following. It’s good. Alla Wolf-Tasker described me as a national treasure.
I know! I read that. I was a bit overwhelmed to be interviewing a national treasure.
I can’t reinvent the wheel now. I’m just doing what I’m good at. I’m not being sneaky or trying to invent new things. You know, I don’t make bread. I buy bread from people who are really good at baking bread. As a young chef starting out, I wanted to do everything. But let the people who are good at doing certain things do them. Don’t try and do sushi. Let the people who are good at doing sushi do it. Go to their restaurant and then they can come to yours. Don’t spread yourself too thin.
That was going to be my next question. What advice would you give to young chefs?
I spread myself thin by letting myself be half a couple. Despite the fact that I wrote all the menus and came up with all the dishes and he just basically put them out, to my instruction, I was the pastry chef and he was the chef. That took me a long time to shake off. But with Albert Park Food and Wine and then Prix Fixe and now here, I’m not just known as a pastry chef.
And pastry chefs these days…the things they’re doing are mental. Did you watch MasterChef? Smashed stuff and chocolate whatever. It’s all like building material to me. It’s not yummy or delicious to eat. It’s more construction and brouhaha.
Yes well don’t get me started on breakfasts these days. My Instagram feed is full of these rainbow coloured concoctions.
And those weird hot chocolates with doughnuts and stuff on top. It’s hilarious that I Quit Sugar is one of the biggest selling books and people don’t eat sugar and yet they go out and eat an ice cream in a cone made out of a doughnut. There’s no happy medium. It’s kooky.
I’m pleased to hear you say that.
It makes my teeth hurt just thinking about it.
It’s a funny relationship we have with food now. On one hand there’s paleo diets and quitting sugar and then there is complete decadence.
And the colours. I accidentally or secretly watched a couple of episodes of the new Just Desserts program. I seriously almost went into diabetic shock. The colours…that blue icing is not a colour. It does not occur naturally in anything. It’s awful.
Well. Ok. Thank you. I’m not sure where to go after that, unless there’s anything else you’d really like people to know.
As I said, coming here, I feel so lucky that I’ve inherited this staff. The front of house staff are world class. Amazing. Young and enthusiastic. And they’re putting up with me because I feed them well.
And Pacojet; I’m the ambassador for Pacojet in Australia which is really good so I have 30 canisters on the go constantly; ice creams and sorbets and stuff like that. I’m re-doing the cocktail list as well.
You’re taking over, world domination.
It’s perfect for me. Apart from the fact that I can’t even consider putting on weight because I won’t fit in the kitchen. It’s literally like tetris in there. Do you want to have a look?
Yes, show me the kitchen.
23 Bank Place, Melbourne