Steve Hogan oversees something of a cafe empire. He is Executive Chef to Addict Food and Coffee, Prospect Hill Espresso, Liar Liar and AU79, to name a few. Combining imagination, creativity, a sense of calm and a desire to help his team grow as chefs, the name of the latest cafe under his belt is apt; AU79 combines the periodic and atomic symbols for gold. This chef certainly goes for gold.
Hi Steve. Let’s start with how long have you been a chef?
I started cooking when I was still at school. I worked as a kitchen hand doing platters and working lunches, things like that in the school holidays and Christmas.
So you always wanted to be a chef?
It was something I fell into. I enjoyed hospitality at school then I got a job in the kitchen. When I left school I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do so I joined the Army in New Zealand. I joined up as a chef and they gave me really good training with London City Guilds, all internationally recognised. It was a good learning environment. I really enjoyed the structure.
What kind of food do you cook in the Army? Is it food for the troops or fancy food?
The food isn’t really too fancy but it’s about learning the basics really well. Everything we were taught was from the French culinary arts, so soups and sauces and cuts of vegetables and meat, all the techniques and processes you need. I’ve found that some of the New Zealand chefs who go to Polytechnics all try to run before they can walk. They want to do molecular gastronomy and foams but they can’t make a hollandaise or a proper jus or they don’t know how to fillet a fish properly. They skip the groundwork and go to the fancy stuff.
I guess it’s that old chestnut that you have to know the rule to break the rule. So if you have a really good base you can build on that. But there must be people that go through the Army course but aren’t able to be creative or do you think it still lends itself to creativity?
There is still an issue with that. When I was in the army anybody who was doing well and working hard was pushed to do competition cooking, so I was excelling…without sounding arrogant or anything…I was doing well, so I did a couple of regional competitions within New Zealand and did fairly well. There’s a competition called Toque d’Or, which means golden hat. In Australia they call it the Nestle competition. It’s a training establishment based competition. People like Jamie Oliver won in the UK and a few other fancy pants chefs. I competed in that and won for the Defence Force in New Zealand. So that’s fairly prestigious. We won that and as part of that I was selected as a junior member of the New Zealand culinary team. I went to Wales and competed in the individual event and the national team competed in an invitation only cook off against two other international teams. The following year I was promoted to a full member of the team. Being in the army was really good because they would support national representation so I could have every weekend off for training, whereas when I left the army and was still in the team, it was a push to organise to have a weekend off because the weekends are always the busiest times. So being in the Army was really good because I could cook Monday to Friday, go away for the weekends and cook and train for International competitions.
Do you have to do all the other Army stuff as well?
Yes. You learn to be a soldier first. You learn the logistics of the army and then you learn how to be a chef after.
I feel as though there would be lots of aspects to that which would be really helpful, like discipline and even the level of fitness would be helpful for the kitchen.
When I was in the senior team we went to Singapore to compete and were one of the three teams who got gold medals out of twelve international teams.
Is it judged on creativity or technique?
There are two sides to the competition. One part is a traditional cold display. You have to do four entrées, four mains and four desserts, a lunch platter for three, a sugar work showpiece and five canapés, five petit fours. You make all the dishes then you dip them in a gelatine solution so it’s coated in aspic. You get marked on glazing; there can’t be any air bubbles in it. It’s like play food but it’s marked as though it’s a real dish.
How long were you in the Army?
Seven years. I was in the national culinary team for four years.
When did you come to Melbourne?
2013. As I got near the end of my military career, I got to a point where I stopped learning and I was only staying in the army for the situation; the freedom and the travelling, the financial support. So I left the Army, worked in a few restaurants in New Zealand, one in particular called Clooney in Auckland city. We won the Metro Best Fine Dining Restaurant in New Zealand. After that there wasn’t much more to grow towards or learn in New Zealand because it’s so small. So I came over here and worked at Bistro Guillaume for a while. It was good to see a different type of business and to see the volume of customers there is over here. It was a busy place and I took on more responsibility and more leadership in the kitchen. Then I moved on to Chin Chin and worked with Benjamin Cooper and liked the atmosphere. The vibe was really enticing, especially as a young chef. It was fun. I liked it. It was different to the traditional French food from my training and from Bistro Guillaume.
I eventually got to a point where my partner wasn’t happy with my working hours. We were on opposite schedules. So I went towards working in cafes. I took a job as a sous chef at St Ali. I ran their restaurant in North Melbourne for a little while when someone went away. Then I moved on from St Ali to Addict Food and Coffee in Johnston Street. I pretty much took that over from the early days and built it up to the popular place it is now.
I had a chat to Andy Hearnden, the Executive Chef at St Ali. He’s a New Zealander too. We are pretty much taking over.
I think we have a slightly different work ethic. We Kiwis don’t really say too much we just put our heads down and get it done without complaining too much.
Just going back to your move from restaurants to cafes. I was talking to someone the other day about how it used to be that movie stars were seen as better than TV stars but now TV shows have become so slick and have big names in them. It’s like that with restaurants and cafes now. Cafes get a lot of glory these days too.
That’s right. Now you have people like myself and Eddie and Ryan in the kitchen who have come from a fine dining ethos or experience and try and put it into the café food and make it as beautiful as some restaurant food; as tasty or creative or interesting.
How do you manage the role of Executive Chef?
After Addict Food and Coffee I went to Sir Charles and became a financial partner, so I’m a chef and part-owner there and my business partner also owns AU79, Addict Food and Coffee, Liar Liar, St Edmonds and Prospect Hill Espresso. When I went from Addict to Sir Charles and became a financial partner, they saw me as someone with potential. Ryan was my sous chef so I trained him up and moved him to Head Chef at Addict and then did the same thing with Eddie at Sir Charles so I was able to step up to being Executive Chef. That’s been my role for the last twelve months.
Are you still on the tools? Is that the term?
Yes I’m still on the tools. I was here (AU79) working for the first five or six days but now things have settled I’ve taken a bit of a step back. When we start a new venue or if any of the cafes have an issue I spend a couple of days in the kitchen with the guys and show them how to go through costings of their menus, how to order and plan and stock rotate.
Just to explain it to non-chefs, how do you train someone up for the role of head chef? What makes a good head chef?
Being a head chef is more about having the plan and having the answers. So if anybody else in the kitchen doesn’t know what to do, even if you’re a young head chef and not too sure yourself, you have to be sure for their sake. It’s about how you cost out the menu so it’s cost effective. You need to have a balance between being firm and strict with someone and also nurturing them and teaching them and guiding them to become a really good chef. That’s been the best thing about my job; seeing Eddie and Ryan in the roles they are now in.
What would be your advice to young chefs coming through?
One of the biggest things is being able to take notes, listen and remember and recall what you’ve been told or shown. Part of my job is to be able to convey what I want effectively. For some people it’s a physical thing. Some head chefs will say you’re doing something wrong and they’ll take the knife off the chef and do it for them. But if you always step in when they are making a mistake, they’ll never be able to work through the issue for themselves.
A young chef just out of training should take photos, have a notepad to take notes on what they’re taught or shown throughout the day so they can look back at the steps and if they’re not too sure they can ask a specific question and it’s easier for a head chef to help them. Being calm as well. Communication is a big one as well, especially in busy kitchen, both the giving a clear directive as well as listening and receiving the instructions. We have to work together otherwise it makes for a really tough day in the kitchen.
Where do you get your ideas from?
My menus are pretty imaginative and creative. I don’t have an extensive recipe book or catalogue of photos. I’m very much about taking something I know, like pure cooking skills and techniques, having an idea and working my way through to achieving it. It’s usually very visual. It starts with a thought, then I think about how I could achieve that. It sounds like a simple concept but that’s pretty much it.