When Travis talks about his love for cooking, his passion is palpable. A thoughtful chef, he readily acknowledges his appreciation for other chefs, most notably Gontran Cherrier who he currently works for and Matt Wilkinson who he counts as one of his greatest mentors and friends. He did say that I had to mention that, while Matt might consider himself the best-looking chef in Melbourne, it is important to note that Travis is the second-best looking…
Where were you before here, Travis?
I was at Pope Joan and Jack Horner with Matt Wilkinson.
That’s such good timing. I just spoke to Matt the other day! How long have you been a chef?
Since 1998. So what’s that? Nearly 20 years.
And did you always want to be a chef?
No not really. I think a lot of people in my generation, it was something you fell into. I started washing dishes in a French bakery at 14 and worked in a few restaurants out in the suburbs. I think I was more attracted to the kitchen than I was to cooking. I never had a major love for cooking. But I enjoyed working in kitchens. I loved all the chaos.
There must be a real buzz, but for some people that wouldn’t work, would it?
No. Especially when you’re young but it’s good fun.
I’ve talked about this with a few chefs but there seems to be a real lament that the young people coming through now see being a chef as stopping their social life and it’s a lot harder than they imagine but everyone that I’ve spoken to says that’s what they love about it and they find that it becomes their social life and their world as well.
To be honest I was a bit of an exception. One of my best mates and even my wife aren’t in industry but we’ve just made it work. I think you can make it work but it just takes a bit more effort. Sometimes when you’re younger you don’t get to the party until midnight but that’s a good thing.
Where did you start off? You were in a French bakery as a kitchen hand but where did you do your apprenticeship?
I did my apprenticeship at Caffe e Cucina in Chapel Street in Toorak. I was there for most of my apprenticeship and then I went off to England and spent three years in Brighton and worked in a 5 star hotel there. A little bit in Spain, back to Australia, did a few cafes and restaurants then ended up at Circa. That was a big turning point for me. That was when cooking for me became…until that point it had been a job I’d always enjoyed but I went there and I really fell in love with it and I took it a lot more seriously.
Were you the head chef there?
No Matt was the head chef.
Obviously you’ve worked with him quite a bit.
I went there because I was running a little café in Brighton and I was recovering from spinal injury and I felt like I didn’t know enough so I decided to go and work somewhere really good and start from the bottom again and that’s why I went to Circa and started right at the bottom.
And when you say Matt’s been one of your biggest mentors what did you learn from him?
Initially from him, I really liked his style of food and his approach. It’s top tier two hat food, the execution was impeccable but it was very relaxed. A lot of thought when into making it that relaxed, very simple. He always started with the ingredient first, not the dish, so a lot of people know that Matt is extremely produce driven, he’s got a lot of long term relationships with producers and growers that are organic, bio-dynamic, ethical in Victoria and he’s a big supporter of local farmers and I really liked that approach. I’d never seem that before.
I talked about that with Matt, that he knows where his food comes from and he’d like everyone to know where their food comes from. Are you able to cook that way here?
Yes definitely. Coming here, it was part of the interview process. It was a non-negotiable after working for Matt for so long and building my own relationships with these people he’s introduced me to. They’re now my suppliers and I use them here. They’re extended family. I couldn’t imagine not using them.
I was speaking to another chef and he said you don’t want to always choose the most popular cut of meat, but that you should have a good relationship with the butchers so he can tell you what you should be having right now.
Further on from that, you could be talking to the cattle raiser and asking him what’s not selling.
So in a place like Gontran Cherrier’s where he has 20 outlets around the world, how much of what you do here is yours?
I’ve been really fortunate and over the last six months I’ve been able to build a really good relationship with Gontran. Going into the job I was definitely apprehensive about who’s this French baker going to be and what’s it all about? This is the first, well the only, fully a la carte site he has, breakfast and lunch come from the kitchen and I was pleasantly surprised because he has a really similar approach to food to me. He really gets excited by food. So when we were going through the menu writing process, basically I got to write the menu from scratch, I took it to him, we tried it and discussed it and worked out how it would fit into the concept of the business, not just here but globally and we really bounced off each other well and every time he’s in town we do something and we have a lot of fun. We trust each other in our own areas.
So the concept is the boulangerie, but it’s his own take on traditional bakery style?
Yeah, he’s a fourth generation Parisian baker, and artisanally trained which gives him that real classical background of sheer technique but being a younger bloke who has travelled a fair bit of the world and as I said, gets excited about food, when he sees new tastes or new things he gets excited about it. Having that classical background gives him the techniques to incorporate that into something.
And that would work for you, being able to bring in your relationship with local producers?
He’s extremely locally oriented. I was a bit confused at the start as to why we were flying in all our flour from France and I know understand having watched the bread being made that to make French bread you have to use French flour and he has a strong relationship with the people at the mills, the growers, similar to Matt. There are a few more food miles on it, but it’s about knowing where your food comes from and knowing the raw ingredients so well that you know how to make something out of it.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, because I read about that and having lived in France and it’s very hard to find a real baguette anywhere else.
It’s the terroir. I was talking about it with him at the pub the other night actually and he said it was the terroir of the flour. Same as the terroir of a vineyard. It’s more than the sun of all its parts that makes it what it is.
I like hearing about the conversations you have with Gontran and with Matt and I just wonder amongst chefs, do you get to talk to your peers?
Yeah I do.
What do you talk about?
Quite a bit. Food and cycling. Quite a few of us ride bikes. And that’s where the producers come into it. Talking about this new producer or an old producer or what they’re doing or how the seasons actually panned out in relation to different things. Like the short stone season last year. A really short spring this year and what effect that will have on growers.
You were saying that you’ve managed to make a really good lifestyle even though friends and your wife aren’t part of the cooking industry, and that’s so great, is your life still imbued with food outside the kitchen?
Totally. Most social gatherings are around food. My family home is in Mt Macedon and we have a big outdoor fire pit in the veggie patch and we quite regularly though wood in that and have about 20 people around for food and lots of wine.
The French have such an appreciation for life and they like to take time over food and enjoy their friends and family, so it sounds as though you naturally fit into this kind of atmosphere because you have that appreciation as well.
I grew up with it, yes.
And what are you enjoying here at the moment.
I’m really enjoying, and it’s going to sound like the obvious answer, the bread, all the different breads. The miso and rye bread is something I’ve just fallen in love with. I keep wanting to put every dish on it. People are getting sick of it. I’ve always liked rye bread but the miso gives it this really depth to it, that miso gives to everything. It’s that full umami fermented thing. It’s amazing.
I’m really enjoying doing tartines, or open sandwiches. Just a piece of that bread and thinking of all the different things that can go on that. It’s fun.
Do you reckon that you are a mentor now for younger chefs?
I hope so. I’ve got a couple of younger chefs at the moment. I’ve taken a lot of things from Matt, like producers and cooking seasonally and applied that here with some staff who haven’t had it at a full on level. They still want to order tomatoes and eggplants when they’re not in season and I’ve really had to stop them. Every time they come to me excited about an idea, I say, that’s great, but you’ll have to wait four months until you an do that.
At first it was frustrating for them and I think now they are finally embracing it. Another thing I learned from Matt, especially climbing the ranks was a level of calmness and patience you need in the kitchen, especially when you are leading a team. Not just with the kitchen but with front of house. Really figuring out how to empower people and get the most out of them that way.
I guess there must be lots of times in in the kitchen when it’s really frustrating; hot and intense.
It has to be under your breath.
You must have to adopt strategies.
Totally. Long hours, exhaustion and in this day and age, we’re dealing with less staff, less chefs and less training, I think. There are not a lot of people my age still doing it, so figuring out different ways to get the most out of different people.
But you’d still recommend it as a career.
I love it. I’m more in love with cooking and restaurants than ever and I’ve been doing this a while. It’s good.
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