With a background working at the top European restaurants in Israel, Rotem Papo started at L’Hôtel Gitan as senior chef de partie before becoming sous chef. He stepped up into the Head Chef role in November and hasn’t looked back. What excites him the most is his Specials board and when you see it, you’ll understand why. Seasonal creativity at it’s finest; “always changing, never boring.” For my part, I was particularly impressed that Rotem had come in on his day off to chat with me and that he offered me a glass of wine. All the best conversations happen with a glass in hand.
Hi Rotem. How’s it all going as head chef? You’ve been in that role a few months now?
Yes, about 5 months. Since November. I’ve been working here for two years now. I started as a chef de partie and then became sous chef after two or three months and now I’m head chef.
Was that always your plan, to work your way up?
No, it just happened. I just love this place and I stayed and stayed and just moved it up. There’s a really good working atmosphere, there’s a nice menu, it’s such a great neighbourhood. It’s a nice walk to work and the family who run it are a really nice family and very appreciative and very respectful.
Is it more stressful being the head chef or just different?
I was kinda in the role when I was sous chef for a while because we didn’t have a head chef, but not officially. So when I did become head chef, it was like getting the title but still doing the same thing. Being a chef is stressful anyway. It’s not an easy job, but that’s why I love it. Thee is always something else, something new, something challenging.
Did you always want to be a chef?
I never really thought about it until I was 20 or 21. I’m from Israel and so I did my military service. I was in the navy and I was on a huge ship. There was a kitchen on board where we could cook for ourselves on the weekends when the rest of the team had gone home and there was just a small group left. I think then I started to think that maybe cooking could be something I started to do as a career.
My life already revolved around food with my family. I come from a very big family and everything involved food.
That’s a very cultural thing, isn’t it? All the discussions happen around the table, all the celebrations and get togethers.
Exactly. Every time someone comes to the house my mum would cook and it would never be something small. It has to always be big.
And I bet your family have the best recipe for hummus and falafel.
Not necessarily that. One part of my family are Moroccan and one part are Bulgarian. My grandparents are from both sides. My parents wanted to live I Israel but the two cuisines I grew up with were Bulgarian and Moroccan, as well as Middle Eastern. We didn’t really make hummus and falafel at home. There are so many places to eat hummus outside of home that are very good. We were more about the Bulgarian and Moroccan home cooking. My mum also lies experimenting and doing other things. She started cooking Asian when it wasn’t really a thing in Israel, maybe twenty years ago, which is pretty cool. So that’s something I got from her as well and from my grandparents. Both of my grandmothers were great cooks.
That’s wonderful. It’s nice when you inherit that love of food and cooking from your family. It is about hospitality, so you want to be cooking with that love, rather than it just being a job.
I seriously don’t think you can do it just as a job and I don’t want to work with chefs who are like that, who see it just as a job.
It’s not really possible, is it?
It is possible, but you don’t just get as much from them.
Did you do your training in Israel?
Yes. I did a cooking course and before that I was cooking in a bistro. As I said, when I was in the navy, it started a fire in me, as funny as that sounds, and I knew that was what I wanted to do, although I didn’t necessarily know it was going to be a career. I started looking to go and study overseas, in Australia or Paris, at the Cordon Bleu, all of those schools, but unfortunately financially I couldn’t really afford them, so then I went and worked in a bistro to see whether I did want to pursue it as a career and study it. I worked there for about 10 months and got to know the basic skills and the understanding of what it could eventually involve. After that I thought, I have to go to school. I needed more knowledge and I wanted it fast. I finished the military when I was 23, so I started late as a chef. I’m really jealous of chefs who knew what they wanted to do from the age of 17 and started then. I needed to speed up the process and get all the knowledge I needed as fast as I could. After that I worked in a fine dining restaurant in Israel.
Is the training similar to here? As in French classic cuisine?
Yes, pretty much. I was lucky to have a teacher who was a bit more modern, who knew about molecular gastronomy even, so it was cool to learn about that.
So now that you’re the head chef, do you have an input into the menu?
The menu started with Jacques Reymond. When I stepped into the role, they only wanted to change a few dishes, so those dishes are actually mine. It’s probably 60/40 his. The thing I’m mostly proud of is the Specials menu that changes every week, sometimes even twice a week.
What kinds of things do you like to do? Does it have to be in keeping with the French bistro idea?
Yeah. Well, a Gitan is a gypsy, so I keep the French style at the base of everything but then I take a little bit of Italian and Spanish as well.
You could have a little bit of Bulgarian in there too.
Sometimes I do my own thing, which is good. We don’t want to be like other classic French restaurants. I think we are modern and when I do the classics, I like to add a little something new to them. So I can bring my Israeli background to it as well, and the home cooking from my mum as well, which I love.
Melbourne has a reputation as a gastronomic city, is there a pressure as a chef to produce a certain level of food? How does that sit for you?
I just try to do the best that I can and produce food that is delicious. That’s why I do it. I just make sure that it’s delicious. I go out and keep an eye on what’s out there and what everybody else is doing and what the trend is. I have a good supplier who tells me what’s good and if there’s something new. I always try to find something new, something that will go with what I’m doing and be awesome. I want to make things that the customer will enjoy and come back for. That’s what’s so great about the specials board. I always want to find that something great.
What’s on the specials board this week that you’re excited about?
I just put on a baby octopus chowder. I basically took a classic chowder and added baby octopus, smoked prawns. It a creamy, rich soupy thing; there’s coriander in there as well and garlic and chilli. It turned our really well which I’m very happy about.
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