David is softly spoken and seems as though he would be completely unflappable in any situation, which is a good thing, considering he oversees the execution of fine dining meals for up to 600 guests at one time. Before we sat down to chat, he showed me the ballroom, an exquisite heritage listed venue in the heart of Melbourne. I am now trying desperately to come up with an event so that I can eat there; for David’s food and for the theatrical elegance of the venue.
David, you were saying that you’ve been at the Plaza for two years?
Yes, two years in April.
Oh, you’ve just had your anniversary! I’ll come back to the Plaza, but let’s talk about you first of all. I read that you’ve been a chef for about 18 years.
Yes. I started in ’99 or ’98, so it’s about 18 years now.
And you did your training in Melbourne?
Yes. I was studying to be a stockbroker. I was doing a double degree in banking finance and computing.
Wow. How many years in were you?
Two…two and a bit. I’d done some interning at stockbroking firms and so forth. I didn’t like the people. I got a little side-tracked and didn’t know what to do. A friend suggested I become a chef because I’d always liked cooking. Three days later, I’d started and just loved it. That was in a little café in Prahran called Spargo’s. There’s another one in Richmond, so I was between those two for about a year. After that I followed one of the chefs to an Italian place called Strega, one of the original restaurants at the new casino site. Then I went down to the London in Port Melbourne and I was cooking in the upstairs restaurant. After that was a little café called Biscotti on Little Collins Street. From there I started at Pearl, which was 2002. I absolutely loved fine dining so I stayed at Pearl, all up with the group, for at least 10 or 12 years.
What is it about fine dining that you like? Is it the technique or the challenge?
The technique, the intensity. I don’t get stressed at all and that was always beneficial. My role within Pearl just kept changing over the years. I opened and ran Pearl on the Peak in Hong Kong, so I lived there for 15 months.
Did you have to learn Cantonese?
No. English is fluent everywhere. That was a great experience. Hog Kong is an amazing city. I came back to Pearl in Melbourne and helped them set up the event side of the business. Then Chris Lucas bought is and I came back to the restaurant and ended up being the Executive chef because he expanded so I was Executive chef for the group and set up a big production factory down in Moorabbin and kept changing roles and then I came here.
So now that you’re in this role, are you hands on or is it more of an overseeing role?
A bit of both. I work with Gareth, the Head Chef here, to develop all the dishes and do all the testing and training. As for day to day prep, not so much, unless it’s something different. It’s much more of an overseeing role.
You mentioned that you could be cooking for 600 here. How does that work?
It’s all by numbers. We have precise calculations, whether we’re cooking for ten people or 100 people. It’s just multiplying, with a little give and take. With functions, you know your numbers beforehand so it’s pretty straightforward.
I was reading about the even Truly, Madly, Deeply that you did during the Melbourne Wine and Food Festival and that the lamb was consistently and perfectly pink. How many were you cooking for?
258, from memory.
How many sheep is that? Is that a very New Zealander question?
[laughs] We were using lamb rump and it was one and a half serves per rump. It was a four course dinner with canapés and so on. There was a lot of food. But we weigh it all and we work very closely with suppliers. The lamb was from Flinders Island meat, their saltbush lamb. They do all the grading for us and we are very specific with what we want. We’d tasted the dish multiple times.
But even the timing of it all…your kitchen isn’t that big.
No. We prep everything during the day and then either hold it or time it perfectly to coincide with when we’re pushing the food. We do a lot of sous-vide cooking here. It’s more consistent and reliable. It just kinda works.
Do things ever go wrong?
I hate to be flippant about it, but no.
It’s a well-oiled machine, I guess.
It’s a well-oiled machine but also the pressure is that if we get it wrong, it’s not just wrong for one person or one dish, it’s wrong for 500 and that would be disastrous. A lot of effort and planning and research goes into perfecting it. We will evolve a dish as it goes through its cycle, but the technique will stay much the same because we know it works.
It’s amazing to mass produce fine dining food.
That was one of the things when I came on board. I’m restaurant trained and had never worked in functions before in my life, aside from a few charity events, and it was trying to bring restaurant food into that scene. We’ve all been to functions where the food has been disappointing; meat and three vege or beef and chicken. I didn’t want to have anything to do with that whatsoever. Gareth shares that vision with me, and the owners wanted to modernise it as well, so it just worked. Using my background in fine dining and my team’s background in bringing 600 meals together, we were a good match.
How many in your team?
There are 14 chefs and up to about six kitchen hands and they help in general prep as well. It’s a sizeable crew.
I was going to ask whether there’s room for creativity, but clearly there is.
Definitely. Part of being a chef is that you have to have that creative outlet and so we go through lulls in the business with how busy we are so we encourage people to experiment with new dishes and new ideas and see how they go. I’ve been cooking for 19 years but I don’t know everything and it would be silly of me not to listen to some of my staff when they come up with things.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Books, the internet, past experience, dining out, everywhere. You start with one ingredient and build around that.
Tell me about the Peaches and Cream dessert that took five days to make. Peaches and Cream sounds pretty simple, but it must have been sensational; a white chocolate latticed cage, which cracked open to reveal a radiant glazed mascarpone mousse with a liquid peach centre, preserved peach pieces with blood peach gel beneath.
Stefan, my pastry chef wanted to make a showpiece so we started playing around with ideas. I think the hardest bit was the cage itself, which was hand formed all on acetate, using white chocolate which had to be warmed to be molded around. One of the most time consuming parts was decorating the cage with flower petals and silver leaf and so two of the crew were literally sitting there day after day attaching these tiny decorations.
Were people suitably impressed?
Yes. It hit the target.
Lots of Instagramming.
Oh yes. You can’t eat your food until someone has taken a photo of it.
It’s the modern version of grace.
When you’re out, where do you like to go and can you stop being a chef while you’re there?
Yes. You can switch off. You’re mindful and you will notice things that only a chef would notice. It’s like any professional. But no, you’re out for a good time, to enjoy and relax. It’s like going to someone else’s place for dinner. People are scared to cook for chefs, whereas most of the time, chefs just really appreciate other people cooking for them. It might just be a toasted sandwich, but it’ll be the best thing in the world because someone else has done it.
As for going out, well…anywhere. It’s harder and harder these days because I have three young kids so it makes it a little more challenging. I’d love to go to Chris Lucas’ new place, Kisumé.
I’ve heard great things about it.
I walk past it very day. I have to go in. Anywhere along Flinders Lane at the moment is brilliant.
There are more and more places to go in Melbourne. What’s the limit?
Melbourne is the culinary capital of Australia. I don’t think the level and saturation of the market has been hit yet. But the competition is certainly lifting the whole scene. The dining public is getting more savvy, whether that’s due to cooking reality shows or not, we’re dealing with a more educated public. People won’t put up with bad food.
Would you recommend being a chef as a career or are there things people should consider?
I think it has been overdone by the media; I mean, you go on a tv show and then you get a restaurant and a book. There’s a false expectation among young chefs, whereas I think they need to be taught that it’s not glamorous, it’s hard work. There’s a 20 – 30% pass rate through the apprenticeship program which puts a massive stress on the industry. People don’t realize that it is highly unregulated hours – it has been in the media lately – but that doesn’t reflect the full story by any means. I went through my career doing 80 – 100 hours a week and you have to be tough to get through it. It will change and get easier but people have to go into it with their eyes wide open. You can’t be a chef if it’s just a job, you have to have a passion and those with the passion will ride it out and make it work.
Are you happy to have made that decision to walk away from the stock market to become a chef?
There have been moments, but I’m much happier for it.