Another kiwi making his mark on the Melbourne food scene, Daniel Wilson earned his stripes in the States and then reached for the stars in Melbourne. He was rewarded early on, jointly winning The Age 2003 Good Food Guide Young Chef of the Year and then continued his trajectory gaining hats at now closed Huxtable, the restaurant he co-owned and cooked for, and being at the forefront of the Melbourne gourmet burger wave with Huxtaburger.
Hi Daniel. When I first moved to Melbourne I went to Huxtable and your book had just come out and I felt so happy to get a copy signed by you. And now you’re doing something completely different. Anyway I read that you were one of those chefs who always knew you wanted to be a chef from the age of 12. Is that true?
Do you remember What Now?
Well my favourite part of What Now was the Let’s Cook part at the end. I wrote in for some of the recipes and one of them was a sweet and sour chicken or something, but one of them was a thing where you get a piece of toast and separate the eggs, whip the egg whites, make a round of them, put the yolk in the middle and put them under the grill. I saw it on Good Food a couple of months ago (Cloud Eggs) and I thought, what? I made that 30 years ago.
I was always interested in cooking and my grandma was a pretty good cook and so I’d always be asking her about it and I just think food, family gatherings, celebrations; there was always lots of food and I associated happiness with food and eating.
You went to the States to do your training, which feels like a different path to those who might train at home and then go overseas or go to England or Europe.
I was in high school and my dad was transferred to America for his job and so I stayed in New Zealand with mum and finished the last couple of years of high school. I knew what I wanted to do and there was a good culinary school where dad lived so I had the choice of staying in New Zealand and going to AUT or go over there. So I went over there.
So did you stay there a while and work there as well?
It was two years full time to do the Associates Degree in Culinary Arts which was the full name at Grand Ridge Community College and worked at a Country Club full time as well. It wasn’t the apprenticeship system like here. You did five days a week, about 35 hours contact hours at the college and I was working about 35 hours as well.
You would’ve been quite a novelty too being a New Zealander.
Yes and when I moved there I was 17 so I couldn’t go out and party and drink because you’ve got to be 21, so it was actually a really good environment to learn in. And I was living with my dad and stepmother and two little brothers. I was all about work, study, work, study.
Then you went back to Auckland and worked for a while.
I went to Auckland for a year and worked at Tribeca in Parnell for about 6 months in Front of House actually because I needed a break from the kitchen. Then I worked at Paramount on Lorne Street with Paul Jobin for about six months then I moved to Melbourne.
I actually just came here to visit three friends here who were working at Stokehouse over summer. I just came over for a week and thought the place was insane and so I moved here two weeks later.
Do you think doing a stint front of house gave you an appreciation of that part of things?
When I was still in high school, a new restaurant opened up down the road from us and I got a job there as a kitchen hand on Friday and Saturday nights and after a few moths they asked whether I’d like to do some shifts on the floor and on the bar. I was only 15 or 16. I started working on the floor and worked there for another eight months before I moved to America and was pretty much full time on the floor. I love people and I love interacting with people. So when I came back from America I just wanted to do a little bit of that.
It sounds as though you really embrace the totality of hospitality.
Absolutely. I love the spirit of it. That’s what was so nice about Huxtable to be able to see all of the punters and converse with them instead of being locked way in another room. In that case the food goes out and that’s that. To be able to see them enjoying the food is the epitome of being a chef.
It was cool because people would say the kitchen staff would barely even speak and it was precision, it’s like a dance.
How do you create a team and a vibe like that?
I guess it’s just…I don’t know. Luck, in a way, that we got the right people together who clicked. I guess knowing how to get the best out of people as well. I’ve never been a screamer or a yeller. If people know what you expect and you give them all the tools to get there, then there shouldn’t be any reason that they can’t. There was no room to swing a cat in that kitchen. Jenny, my sous chef and Christa, my pastry chef, the three of us were together for the first three years. Jenny is German and she was a machine and Christa had already worked with me for a couple of years so we had that real synergy between the three of us. We knew each other’s dance steps after a while.
I feel as though you were on a real trajectory with Young Chef of the Year, your own restaurant, all those things seemed to happen really fast. Is that what you were aiming for, that stellar pathway?
I’ve always tried to do the best I can and I’m a firm believer you get out what you put in. I guess I always tried to work for well-respected people and that always gives you more opportunities but I’ve always tried to go over and above. It’s not like I sought out those things but it’s nice to get recognition.
It’s funny that you say that actually because I just recently put the Young Chef award up in my kitchen and I had dinner with Emma who I won it with and there was a trajectory and then petered out again, then off it went again when we opened Huxtable and now it’s down again.
We decided to open the Huxtaburger in Collingwood and it went ballistic, then we opened another one in the city and then Prahran, we weren’t giving the restaurant the love it deserved. We had to make the tough decision to put the old girl to bed.
Do you miss it?
I do miss cooking terribly but I don’t miss working nights. The first few months there I was working 90-hour weeks and then I got shingles.
But now I get to have friends over for dinner and I can cook. That makes me happy. I need to do it. Cooking for other people makes me happy.
* What Now is a long-running New Zealand children’s television program that premiered in 1981.