Lasse GD Povlsen trained in Denmark and worked in Michelin star restaurants there before coming to Melbourne and working for Andrew McConnell’s restaurants, as well as Attica and, most recently, Three Bags Full in Abbotsford. He has happily made the switch to cafes and is especially loving the paddock to plate concept at Mr and Mrs Anderson. Reading back the conversation, it seems a little stilted, but that’s because a lot of people stopped to say hello to GD while we were talking, testament, perhaps, to how much he is part of the community and how many friends he has made.
How long have you been in Melbourne, GD?
A total of five and a half years. I was here for two years and then my partner and I went traveling and we moved back to Copenhagen for a couple of years and now we’ve been back here for about three and a half years.
How different is the food scene in Melbourne compared to Copenhagen?
Day and night really. Melbourne is about multi-cultural, cafes, and cheap eats. These dominate the culture. The fine dining culture, in my opinion, is actually quite small. Whereas, if you take Copenhagen, it’s all about fine dining, there are hardly any cafes and there is very little cultural influence.
In terms of chef training, how did that work in Denmark?
I’m a classical Danish-trained chef. It takes four years and there’s a pretty tough exam. When you’re a qualified chef in Denmark, you’re ready to step into a kitchen, whereas in a lot of other countries, once you’ve done your training, you start out as a ‘young chef’; you’re qualified but you’re not a fully-fledged chef. In Denmark there’s a lot more focus on the national culinary team and competitive cooking. There are still a lot of cooking competitions here but in Denmark it can really structure your career.
Were you part of that?
I have never been into competitive cooking. I’ve worked in places where we had five or six people on the culinary national tea so when they went away, I was the senior who had to stay behind at look after the kitchen. You still need those people. It has never really enticed me to do those competitions because it’s a very different form. You can’t really do comfort food; relaxed meals.
I’ve helped develop some of the desserts for the national culinary team because one of the guys I worked with, a few years ago, the head chef was the dessert chef for the culinary team. When they were going into competition, we would put the dish on the menu so I got to work with extremely high levels of techniques, which was interesting.
How does the “paddock to plate” concept work at Mr and Mrs Anderson?
We have a farm in Gippsland, in Moe. Whatever is in season there we’ll get in and develop dishes from it. You need to be running a farm for quite a few years before it becomes really efficient in terms of what you need.
How long has this farm been running?
It has been going a while. One of the owners has a farm out there.
Do you have a say in what is planted on the farm or is it like a surprise box when the vegetables arrive?
Being the first year of the café, it’s still very much a surprise box but it’s something we are developing and we’ll get better at. Getting the garden you want takes a good couple of seasons.
As much as possible comes from the farm, but there are some things that Melbourne café goers demand on a year round basis, like avo smash, so the paddock to plate concept must go out the window a bit.
You have to play to your strengths. To have a sustainable business, it’s hard to have a full focus on doing everything yourselves because that would make a lot of things really expensive. A café has to accommodate a wide clientele. Fortunately I was given free range in developing the menu here. In terms of the avo smash and the meats and things, we buy in. We still have a basic supplier we use to supplement and we get a good balance. In regards to what we do ourselves, we will get better as we go along.
You’ve worked in a lot of fine dining restaurants, it must be quite a transition to think about café style food.
You have the luxury in Melbourne, as opposed to Denmark, where you can work in cafes but still make nice food. It’s attractive because you have your nights off, and you can have a life.
The café scene has evolved a lot in the last couple of years and it has also become very competitive. Melbourne’s café culture has exploded because it’s so desirable. There are a couple of things that are really beneficial; a ten hour working day is considered pretty short for a chef, but you can’t really make it any longer in a café. You see a lot of talented chefs switch to cafes. You can’t cook all the food that you’re super passionate about, but you can get pretty close. Obviously you can’t put a dish on that costs $45, that’s a night time thing only but you can get pretty creative; there are a lot of ways around it.
What kind of food are you passionate about?
I really really enjoy old school cooking. My training is Danish French cuisine and I love slow cooking, terrines, braising, all that. Old techniques that make the whole house smell nice. I also love going out foraging, which is actually really hard around here because it’s a wealthy area so everything is trimmed. It’s a shame.
There are places around Melbourne, though where people forage.
Yes, Attica does a lot of foraging and an hour and half out of Melbourne, there’s a lot of foraging to be done. Australia compared to Denmark, though, does not offer the same foraging opportunities. It’s a lot more lush there; green and wild. That’s due to the climate as well.
The dream would be to have a place in the country where you can do that.
What made you become a chef?
I sort of fell into it when I was in my late teens. It appealed to me and I was good at it. It wasn’t a dream or anything, I liked the kitchen.
Do you think anyone can be a chef?
Absolutely. Anyone can be a chef but most people are not going to be great chefs.
What makes a great chef?
A variety of things. Everyone can learn how to cook and to cook really well but to be a good chef at the same time…Multi-tasking definitely comes into place. The desire to get a high skill level and master the techniques. Also a desire for knowledge. Not just food related, but about the world. The more things you know, the more you can implement into your food. A good head chef has to be as financially savvy as he is good at cooking. The biggest mistake chefs make is to think they are great at cooking, open a business and go bankrupt in a year because they completely forget financial management.
There are a lot of aspects to becoming a really good chef. A lot of the good chefs found a partner early on who looked after the finances and marketing so they really only had to focus on the food.
Discipline is important. As much as I hate – I think that’s the proper word – the old way of being pushed really hard, a bit of verbal abuse that as a small portion very often teaches you valuable lessons further down the track. I’ve never seen a lot of people excel from being yelled at but it does help you form that discipline. I experienced it and that’s why I know I don’t want to be like that with my staff but it has given me tools I can utilise.
So if you’re not using the yelling method but you still want to grow your staff, I guess you have to put things in place and teach discipline in other ways.
Systems and lead by example. Never ask them to do something that you’re not willing to do yourself and show them that you are also willing to do it is a better way. It may take a little bit longer but it tends to make staff stay around a little longer as well which is important. Getting and retaining staff are the biggest hurdles.
I hear that a lot.
It is. For a lot of people, it’s not an attractive industry to get into, unfortunately.
How do you come up with your ideas? From your head, or do you like to see what other people are doing?
It’s a good mix. Instagram is great for chefs because you can keep an eye on everything out there. I get inspired by the visual only. So I combine seasonality with what other guys are doing, but very often, as you’ll see on the menu, I’ll have two or three ingredients on the menu and (clicks fingers) this is what we’re going to do. Which obviously requires quite a lot and having a lot of experience helps and makes it easier. I’ve never worked in a vegan kitchen but there are four vegan dishes on the menu. It just makes sense. I get inspired by my surroundings.
Do you hang out with other chefs?
Not really. I have a big group of friends here. There are about 20 of us in total and we get together about once a month as a big group and I’m the only chef and I really like not hanging out with chefs. I did it for the first ten years of my career. It’s extremely one-sided and not very educational. I get more inspiration from my friends who don’t know what I’m doing from a professional perspective. A lot of my friends are foodies and home cooks. We hang out with them and do home style cooking. A couple of times a year we do what we call a kitchen collective, so we all come together at a house which can accommodate us all and we work out a dinner and spread out into groups. Generally I’m the one jumping around the groups and suggesting stuff but not more than that and I’m not viewed as the chef or anything. I’m just one of the group. That’s super motivating.
That’s what it’s all about. Back to basics. Food should be about coming together and sharing with friends and family.
It’s a great social thing. I grew up with a single mum and four kids so we were introduced to cooking very early on. That didn’t inspire me to become a chef but it definitely taught me some base values. If I could I’d get a massive kitchen with a big dining table at home and have people come over and I’d cook for them instead of all this career stuff.
I’m trying to persuade my partner to be very very successful so that we can afford for me to stay at home. That would be great.
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