Passionate about French classical cuisine and cooking according to the seasons, Steven Rogers is inspired by his own abundant garden and by whatever other local, seasonal produce is available. Having cooked in kitchens in Paris, he is very happily part of the Kyneton scene and loves Sunday night dinner around the table with his family.
Hi Steven. I read that you developed you palate for fine food at the age of six. Is that the stuff of myth? When did you really start appreciating food?
I think that’s more when the interest in food began, maybe not so much fine food.
Well you were clearly interested in food from a young age. When did you know you wanted to become a chef?
I was probably in my early teens. I got a job as a kitchen hand when I was 14. Probably between 10 and 12 I was definitely keen on cooking and then getting a job in a kitchen and washing dishes was where it all started.
It’s interesting because a lot of the chefs I speak to say they did start young, in the same way as you did, doing the hard graft, and then they also say that nowadays it’s quite hard to keep young people interested in the industry because they get swayed by MasterChef versus reality…
What do you think it is about you that made you work through all the hard stuff to get to the glory of what you’re doing now?
I was always really driven to do what I wanted to do and that meant taking on jobs in really good kitchens where you didn’t get paid that well but you worked the extra hours and gained the extra experience and it was always about being really passionate and wanting to learn. It was more about wanting to learn than making money. I think a lot of the time these days with young people in the industry, they feel as though they are missing out on the social aspects of life. But always found as though our social life in the kitchen was pretty good. It wasn’t like we missed out, but it was all about work. It wasn’t about making money, it was about gaining experience and learning new things and being passionate.
You’ve followed quite a traditional path because you have really stuck with French cooking. What were some of the kitchens liked that you’ve worked in?
When I started at Jacques Reymond in 1999 and back then it was very French; incredibly French influences. It was very traditional. I did three years there before I went to Paris and within that time, his cuisine changed quite a bit and became a lot more contemporary, using Asian ingredients and so on and that was a really good experience for me. It was always technique driven. It was the classical French basis that made it possible to achieve different things. When I went to Paris, the first place I worked at, Michel Rostang, they were very classical and traditional; lots of game, lots of old school French cookery, which was something I really got into. After that I went to Pierre Gagnaire in Paris who was more modern but it was till based on those basic techniques. It’s all well and good these days to use thermal circulators and different machines and they are all great tools, but I think having that basis to start off with makes all the difference.
I’m fascinated by you saying that because I recently chatted to another chef who lamented the fact that what she learned during her course, brandy snap baskets and so on and she thought the methods could be more modernised. But I hear what you’re saying.
I think the reality is that if you have the technique you can really do anything. I don’t use brandy snap baskets myself now either but it’s all about methods and skills. Once you’ve got that basis you can adapt it to anything. If you don’t have the basics in the first place then the idea of cooking fusion food comes unstuck.
I guess you have to understand what different foods are going to do under certain temperatures and how far you can push things.
For sure. It’s great to try new things but you have to have an understanding of why they go wrong or why they are right; what’s actually happened during the process.
I lived in the south of France for a year and I feel as though the food they cook and eat there really reflects the psyche of the people and their personality, it’s a lot more rustic and seasonal than I imagine it is in Paris. Am I right in feeling as though Parisian food with all the game and fine sauces is perhaps more reflective of its origins in nobility?
I think it’s very true in Parisian cooking. I think a lot of that style of food is prevalent in Paris because it’s an enormous tourist destination and it has a population and a huge number of tourists willing to spend money on premium products and basically want to have that French experience, it’s high end food for high end customers. Paris also has great bistros that do very simple French food. It’s not all fine dining. There’s a pretty broad range of food. And it is, as you were saying, it’s very seasonal and I think there’s a huge importance placed on the meal and family sitting down and eating together. We worked very long hours when I was in Paris but we always sat down together for lunch and dinner and if you had lots of prep to do, you made time to eat and enjoy yourself and then got back to work.
Hospitality is different there, isn’t it? I think we really appreciate chefs here but the broader hospitality role of wait staff is perhaps a little more underappreciated here.
In France, it’s a career and they pride themselves on service.
And they’re respected for it as well.
So that whole hospitality scene is a very cultural one and I don’t know how we go about changing that here.
It’s a tough one. There’s just such an emphasis there on taking time, whereas we always seem to go at a million miles an hour and get something quick and then move on but over there you go to any park on a lovely sunny day at lunchtime and they are all sitting outside eating good food in season and it’s readily available and not that expensive.
Are you able to do that in Kyneton in your own place; create that atmosphere?
Not really, no. For my customers, yes. For myself, we have a staff meal and we enjoy it together but we are also, especially in the kitchen, very busy and unfortunately sometimes it gets lost. But I do try. We do lunch on a Sunday, go home in the evening and cook dinner for my family, sit down at the table and enjoy having something to eat. We don’t get to do it as much as I’d like, but it is important to me to have that time at the table without iPads and iPhones.
The food that you’re cooking at Midnight Starling, would you say it’s still classical French?
It’s classical French. There are probably a few bits and pieces that are a bit more modern, but it’s still pretty classical bistro food really.
How often do you change the menu?
Generally seasonally. We like to change it with the seasons. We have different specials that we do every week. We have a substantial vegetable garden at home that we get a lot of produce from and that will often determine what will go on the menu. Unfortunately we’ve had a relatively late spring here so everything is a bit behind.
Midnight Starling is more of a bistro and Ma Cave is more fine dining, is that right?
It is more fine dining downstairs, yes. We offer a 5 or 8 course degustation which changes monthly according to what’s available seasonally. It’s degustation only on Friday and Saturday nights. The room is more refined than the bistro; there’s white linen and very nice tables and chairs, good glassware, so it’s a different ballgame altogether.
Where do you get your inspiration? Is it from reading books or watching things or other chefs?
A little bit of all of those, I suppose. Reading books has a lot to do with it, I think. Seeing what other chefs are doing is always interesting. That is one benefit of Instagram, I guess. Basically what’s around u, what’s available at the time. The vegetables play a big part in it; the quality of what we grow. Basically the seasons and produce are the inspiration.
Do you find you have to buy into the whole social media thing, because you are further out, so you’re clearly a destination restaurant?
We do get a lot of locals as well as out-of-towners, and we do use social media a little bit. I’m not particularly good at it, but I think it’s a necessity these days. I think if you don’t have it, you get left behind. I didn’t have Instagram or Facebook until about two years ago.
What’s your favourite dish at the moment or one you’re enjoying seeing other people eat?
Always a tough one. We sell a lot of Duck à l’orange. It’s a good dish, but it does drive me a bit insane sometimes. We do a little dish with seared scallops and pickled mushrooms and sauce rouille that’s quite nice. I quite like that one.