Joel and I sat down to tea from silver pots in the large and very fancy dining room at The Hotel Windsor in the city. It is a very different environment to other restaurants Joel has cooked in, but he continues to bring his care for ingredients and flavour to every dish and has changed the offering, while still respecting the history of this grand old venue.
Let’s start with how long you’ve been at The Windsor.
Ah, almost four and a half years; originally as a consultant for about two years and then I took on the Executive role post that.
Where were you before that?
So you’ve been cooking for a while?
It must be about 12 years now.
Were you doing something before that?
I went to University straight after school but then I realised that wasn’t what I really wanted to do. I always had a passion for cooking. I’d done that through College and I’d had a bit of work experience since. So I went back to that and found it was something I really enjoyed and was probably more suited to.
Did you do your apprenticeship here?
No, I did my apprenticeship in Tasmania because I lived there originally. Then moved to Canberra quite early on for more opportunities. I got into a really good restaurant there that had two chefs’ hats at the time. That really opened my eyes to what was possible. From there I moved to Sydney and branched out more into the level of cooking I wanted to get into.
I imagine that the whole pride in produce that exists in Tasmania, that real passion for the wild and the sense of connection to food and produce there would be quite different to the food culture in Canberra.
Yes, I guess there was a small scene when I was in Canberra. I probably didn’t really notice or appreciate as much the sense of area and pride in produce when I was in Tasmania when I was young. I guess that movement has really progressed a lot in the last ten years through cooking around the world. But more so now, because Tasmania, like New Zealand, has a lot more to offer because of that. They have always had that connection with the land and with produce and they have the space to be able to do it, but it’s only something that is growing now in Tasmania and I’m proud of that.
It feels as though you’ve had quite a few fine dining experiences. Was The Brix also fine dining?
It probably was at that point. But it was more looking at the Parisian wine bar. Chateaubriand had just become popular and we offered a similar five-course degustation that was changing all the time. The people who were working there had all come from good restaurants, so naturally that was the path we took. We tried to make the environment less stuffy than what you’d find in fine dining at that time, and really make it about produce, ingredients, food and drink offer rather than white tablecloths.
Sure. I haven’t eaten at Attica, but that seems to have a mixture of the two. It has the whole foraging and using what’s there culture and then it has an aspect of fine dining too.
Fine dining is a funny term these days. Attica has that tag sometimes, I guess, because it’s a special occasion restaurant because of the price point. Ben’s food is, again very proud of his heritage from New Zealand, so it has always been about nature and a real connection with the produce and ingredients he’s using. I wouldn’t say Attica is fine dining, it has an execution in it from the kitchen side and obviously from service as well, but I think Ben would like it to be a restaurant that anyone can go and approach and use it however they want to use it. It is an experience and I’d describe the level of execution to be at the pinnacle of restaurants, but I certainly wouldn’t call it stuffy. I relax when I’m there and I’m sure most diners do. You get taken on a real journey.
I always relax when I allow the chef to decide for me. I’m sure the chef knows what he wants to cook, so I like to let that happen.
It’s lovely when you have that freedom as a chef.
Is that the way you like to cook?
Yeah, if I could, that would be amazing. I guess you build up a confidence with the clientele over a period of time and you get to a point where you have enough of a reputation so that people will trust you. So that’s the challenge for chefs to get to that point. People like Ben at Attica and Dan at Brae have that and they worked really hard for that. I guess for young chefs, that’s the goal; to get to that point so that people trust what you can do and your direction with food.
I’ve been hearing a lot that it’s hard to get young chefs into the industry and keep them because it has that glamour idea to it from all the reality shows but the reality is hard work and intensity and it’s hard to keep them.
They need really good mentors, don’t they, to encourage them and show them the goodness of a career as a chef?
Yes, I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head there. People see one side of cooking. That’s probably a small percentage of what we do. We usually work eight or ten hours before we get to that point where we get to make something look beautiful and plate it and send it to a guest, so there’s a lot of work that goes into it beforehand. The further you go up into those higher restaurants with those celebrity chefs, you’re doing a lot more hours before you get to that point as well. Then you’re probably only getting your hands on two or three dishes of that as well. So it’s quite different for a young person. I guess they have an idea when they come into a kitchen and then when they see that it’s not that, they get disheartened. I think it’s important for us to make it really transparent for them. I feel I was fortunate because I started in kitchens that were a bit more old school than the glamour kitchens. I started with the basic skills of cooking first. And then went out into areas where they were fine tuning hat I had already learned, rather than going in somewhere and expecting to be doing something beautiful to start with. The reality is you’re picking herbs for 6 hours of the day and so forth.
It’s amazing how many times I hear that. I just want to talk more about the idea that the public has of cooking. I have just written about a new site that has launched in Melbourne that was launched in Sydney in September. It’s a website called FoodByUs and it’s another sharing economy business like Uber and Airbnb where it encourages people at home who like to cook and have a particular thing they are good at to sell their food online. How does that make chefs feel?
Good question. It makes our environment a little more competitive. But there are some really good cooks out there and I enjoy and probably got my passion from people like that, like my grandma and my mother, because surely that passion has to come from somewhere. I can’t really remember one point, but seeing them enjoying the eating side of what they did and then looking at the process of it, which is cooking. Food is one side of it, I guess, but the going to a restaurant is more about the whole passage and hopefully that is still enough of a draw card for people to step out of their normal zone and into an environment where they can forget what’s going on outside for a couple of hours, that’s where the kitchen, floor staff and environment all come together to make a memorable experience.
I agree. And what’s it like for you working at The Windsor? I feel as though it must be quite different to other situations you have been in.
It had a number of challenges to start with, certainly. I’ll admit I thought it would be easier to make a change and shift direction. It was hard, one because of clientele and the sense of history, so you can’t just go in and change things. I discovered early on that I really had to take people along with me and hopefully shift the direction a little bit. That was easier for things like breakfast, afternoon tea. Dinner I found really hard. We tried to modernize the offering and bring a sense of respect to the ingredient and cooking. I think it has always been seen as a special event or occasion to come to The Windsor, so it wasn’t seen as somewhere you would go for a great meal. Even now in conversation, people will ask, oh do they good food here? I still have that constant battle because it’s not really seen as a dinner destination for contemporary food.
I came for afternoon tea and really wished I had also come for breakfast because I saw such beautiful photos on Instagram of the breakfast.
I’ve always seen breakfast as really important, especially when we were at The Royal Mail. We had a small number of rooms there and the issue we had there was that people would have an amazing meal for dinner with 10 or 12 courses. They would pay well and stay in the room and then they’d come and have a not so great breakfast the next day. That’s their last memory as they drive back three hours to Melbourne, so we really focused on making that last memory just as good as they’d had the night before. And it’s the same here. If we really want to show that we do everything, everything we touch has to be at that level. So I use the same philosophy of ingredients; freshness and different flavours as well. We looked at what we could do with the breakfast menu and took away the breakfast buffet, which most hotels do in Melbourne. We wanted to offer that level of service that they pride themselves on in the rest of the hotel. We didn’t want to have people getting up and toasting their own toast, we wanted to do that for them. We didn’t want them going around the buffet with food that might have been sitting there for a while. We wanted to cook it to order and present it in a way that’s aesthetic and beautiful.
Absolutely. How many people do you have in your team?
We could always have more. I think now we have 22 chefs. It can fluctuate between 25 and 30 usually. Again, there’s always a turnover in kitchens, it’s one of the issues of the industry, so there’s never a constant team to build around.
I wonder whether that’s more the case with larger teams and in hotel situations, rather than in smaller local venues where you might be more able to build good little teams.
I guess there are advantages and disadvantages.
It’s true. In bigger teams you see many more personalities with different goals and motivations for doing the career they’re doing whereas when I was at Attica or Royal Mail, they had smallish teams but all those people had gone to those places for one common goal. And there was one thing I had to learn as well, when I came into the hotel environment, and that was when you have such a big team, you have to look at each individual and put them into a position that will suit them as well as the business. That’s a constant evaluation.
Are you still on the tools?
Yeah. It’s amazing often people ask that actually. It’s something I always want to do and be. I never planned to be in a big operation like this or with this title. I enjoy cooking. I like to be in there. I’m sure management would like me to be doing other things but I just see that right now the priority is to build the product to a level we can really be proud of. Then I can probably step back a bit more. But I always believe you lead by example. I enjoy cooking so I’m going to continue to do that.
111 Spring Street, Melbourne