Andy Hearnden is an ex-pat Kiwi who was in London at 20, head chef by 23 and is now juggling an executive chef role at St Ali with consulting overseas, dog-walking and keeping his finger on the fast-beating pulse that is Melbourne’s food scene.
I read that you were born with a knife in your hand, so clearly you always wanted to be a chef?
Yes. Mum was a good cook; a good home baker and I had a lot of plastic food I used to play with as a kid. That all got brought out at my 21st. I’ve always been surrounded by food; good food from family farms and so on.
Ok, so where was that?
Wellington and then we moved to Auckland when I was 12. Then I moved to London when I was 20 and lived there for seven years. I was in Sydney for a year and now I’ve been in Melbourne for three years.
You were at Entrecôte and Gill’s Diner?
I was at Gill’s Diner for two and a half years. It was good. It was loosely based around the restaurant, St John’s in London. It was a nose to tail philosophy, where you use the whole animal.
You were young when you went to London, so that would have been your formation as a chef?
I went to chef school in New Zealand. But when I went to London I learned to cook. Food in New Zealand at that time wasn’t very advanced so when I got to London, there were certain things I really needed to learn.
What style of food are you drawn to?
European, in loose terms. A lot more French than Italian. It’s a tricky question, that one. I get asked it a lot and I’m always…ah…? I hate the term fusion, but it’s modern. I’d say I’m a classically French trained chef.
Well most chefs are classically French trained here. Then from there that gives you a platform to decide where to go, I guess. Who were the people who influenced you the most along the way?
A pretty big collection of chefs. I worked for a guy when I first got there called Tom Aikens, a very good chef. He had two Michelin stars at 23. He was a big influence. And then the older French chefs, like Pierre Koffmann, the Roux brothers and guys like that who were always on my radar. The Gavroche is like a chef’s Holy Grail. It’s the only proper French restaurant left in London. You have to wear a jacket to dine there.
When you come to a new city do you feel any pressure to prove yourself?
Not really. I had my first Head Chef job at 23 in London.
Wow. That’s young.
It is young. I think the only pressure I feel these days is people’s access to information via the internet and reviewing restaurants is so easy now and it’s really easy to get a shit write up from someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about. I find that quite stressful. I think I’m pretty confident in my own food, but that’s probably the thing that I feel stressed about; how other people interpret it.
And coming to somewhere like St Ali that has such a following and has such a quirky menu, are there constraints on you?
Yes. So know I think about it, there was a lot of pressure coming here. We do massive numbers and we have a very high standard of food for a café. It’s more of a restaurant. The kitchen is run more like a restaurant kitchen. There are constraints. There are dishes I can’t touch. I can tweak them, but I can’t take them off the menu. It doesn’t help that the last Executive chef was also called Andy.
Yeah, it’s pretty confusing.
So really you’re doing restaurant food in a café slam kind of style. It’s not like in a restaurant where there are different sittings and they can stagger tables, but in a café it’s just full on all the time.
It is certainly full on all the time. They don’t stagger tables, they don’t try and put them in blocks. They just pull them in as fast as they can and turn tables.
How do you manage that?
I’m pretty lucky. My team is really strong in the kitchen. But it took a while to figure it out. How we manage it? I don’t know. I can’t really answer that. I don’t really know. It just happens. We are really fast. We get the food up pretty quickly; in 15 minutes most of the time, which enables us to handle the numbers and turn tables. It’s a high-pressure environment. We also have 50 or 60 guys who come every day, Monday to Friday, and they just want 2 poached eggs on toast.
The menu is quite big. We run five sections. I probably have 20 chefs on my books here. I’m Executive Chef for the group. We have 7 sites in Melbourne and then one in Jakarta and we’re opening one in Bali next year.
And you’re going to Singapore?
Yes, I’m going to Singapore on Tuesday. We do some consulting work in Singapore. Then I’m going down to Jakarta to the St Ali there just to check that they’re alright. Then I’m going to Bali to sign off the plans on the next one.
That’s a very involved chef job. That’s a lot more than just cooking. You’re doing marketing and consulting. How do you move from food which so hands on into that kind of role?
I think there are a lot of different chefs. Some people can do it and some people can’t. There’s not a huge amount of roles around like mine. I always envisaged my career going this way and eventually leading to ownership. I just kinda winged and it and worked it out along the way. It’s awesome. I love it. I probably only spend about 4 hours a week on the tools now. Sometimes I miss it. But it’s a young man’s game, cooking. It’s nice to get out before my body is ruined.
I think that’s what we often forget; it’s extremely physical and you’re often in cramped conditions, doing fiddly things. That must take its toll.
And it’s stressful. You have high concentration levels and long hours.
Good on you. Food is your passion and you’re still working with food and helping others to do that.
You just see so many chefs burning out before they’re 40. Or they have drug problems. Anything to take the pain away. But you have to plan for the future, as sportsmen do. You have to realise that one day you’re not going to do it any more. In ten years time I don’t want to be in the kitchen any more. Ever really. It’s been fun, but…
Well you started young. Just going back to the fact that you were 23 when you were a Head Chef in London. What kind of restaurant was that?
It was Pan-Asian, which is a London term. It’s Asian food for western palates. It was a restaurant called Great Eastern Dining Room, a group of about 5 restaurants that an Australian guy owned. That was my first exposure to a medium to large hospitality company. I was 23 but I had a lot of support. I had an Executive Chef who looked over me and helped with menus. It’s the way a lot of places are structuring their brigades now.
To get someone in who is so young, what do you reckon they were looking for? What is it that you’ve got or that you would perhaps look for in young chefs?
Energy, passion and you’re still mouldable. I can still beat out the bad habits before it’s too late. And also they can pay young chefs a lot less. That’s the reality of it.
So now that you’re spending less time in the kitchen, although you’re still very busy, do you get out and about to other restaurants?
I try to. It’s pretty important to keep your figure on the pulse. I try to eat out a lot. I don’t eat out as much as I should. Twice a week, maybe. I don’t have the time. My partner works in PR and she’s really busy and we have dogs.
That’s busy. So there is that desire and maybe even obligation to have your finger on the pulse and know what people are eating and what they are into?
Definitely. There’s a big obligation to do that. But if you don’t love this job, you don’t feel that. I love this job and I also love eating out. It’s not a chore.
And what about the whole Instagram thing?
Do you know Sal, the owner? He’s a pretty big coffee gangster and owns all these places. He’s always telling me to make sure it looks good on the plate for Instagram. I’m not into flowers and stuff like that. But he’s right. The reality is that people come here to take photos of the food, not to eat it.
It does seem strange when you stop and think about it, taking photos of food, but it’s been happening for a long time now.
The whole industry is in a bit of a funny spot now. It’s hard to get right. There are a lot of people coming into the industry now who probably shouldn’t, as far as owners who have no idea what they’re doing.
What about young chefs?
That’s the biggest single issue we have. It’s worldwide, but it’s very common in Melbourne. Cooking was cool for about 3 years and all the kids thought it was cool then they tried doing it and realised it’s hard work and no one wants to do it. No one wants to do the hours that you ask. All my guys are mid-thirties, so I have to pay them because they’re older but it’s the only way I can do it. To get young chefs in, especially young Aussie or Kiwi chefs, it’s pretty much impossible.
Where do you think the food industry is going to go here? Can you predict that?
Not really. It’s heading towards wellness at the moment. Which is everything I’m against. I like lots of butter, fatty meat, but anyway, that’s where it’s heading and that’s fine. So now when I plan menus I have to think that at least fifty per cent needs to be wellness orientated. I’ve got four vegan dishes on my menu, whereas 2 or 3 years ago, I wouldn’t even have even considered having a vegan dish. But now you have to or you’re causing a headache for yourself.
If it’s something you’re not really into, how do you make that tasty?
There’s an obligation to make it tasty. But once you get to a certain point, you know flavour and textures and how stuff goes together; savoury, salty, your acid component. It’s actually kinda good to have constraints put on you every now and then, because it makes you think outside what you normally do. It’s very easy just to do the same food all the time. It’s challenging and at first I fought it a little bit but you’re really just fighting yourself so it’s better to embrace it.
How does St Ali work in Jakarta and Bali with a completely different culture?
Well because St Ali is such an institution as a café with such a large international following, I think people go there because it’s just the same as here. But it is hard, especially in Jakarta because it’s half Muslim. You have to put lamb bacon on there as well as pork bacon. It’s received pretty well over there but I think that’s because there’s nothing else like that in Jakarta. So I think that’s the trick, to go to places like that.
And are the staff there receptive to your instruction?
It’s a lot trickier. The staff issues over there are a lot harder. No one wants to be a chef there because they’re passionate, they just want a job. Employment regulations are a nightmare. You have to employ locals but none of the locals want to cook. You end up adding locals to the payroll so that you can have foreign chefs.
That’s a bit complicated.
Yeah, it’s bizarre. The other issue you have over there is getting products. There’s stuff you just can’t get. Fresh beef is hard, for example.
And yet they have to make it look and taste as it does here.
Yes. It’s challenging.
It’s a beast to manage.
It is a beast. It’s good fun though. Sal is good. He looks after me.