They may not be household names just yet, but these young chefs and restaurateurs are well on their way to the big time after being recognized in the Appetite for Excellence awards. We spoke to them to find out where they came from and what inspires them to do better.
Cameron O’Keefe – Australian Young Restaurateur 2018 winner
Growing up in a hospitality family has given Cameron O’Keefe strong foundations in the industry. The 33-year-old, who runs Italian pub and restaurant Centra Hotel in Geelong, says his parents have owned and managed hospitality venues from well before he was born. While he was at university studying commerce, majoring in management and marketing, he got his first job in a small fine dining restaurant in Geelong.
After travelling and working around Australia and overseas for a few years he returned home to find the hospitality scene in Geelong had changed. “People were excited about good hospitality experiences and I felt like I now wanted to be part of this,” he says. “Owning a pub wasn’t always on the agenda, but there was an historic, well-situated one in the Geelong CBD that showed incredible potential. I realised we could open a restaurant in here, as well as having a large north-facing courtyard area for more casual food and bar trade as well.”
The venue opened in 2015 and has been a huge success – something O’Keefe largely attributes to his staff. “It’s all well and good for people to have a vision, but without every single member of a team able to communicate that vision, the message gets lost,” he says.
When it comes to technology, O’Keefe chooses to leave social media to one of the younger “more hip” team members to manage. “Obviously, I keep an eye on the content they’re posting, but they’re the ones certainly more in the known about how to get the best results from these things than me!” he says.
O’Keefe says his biggest inspiration often comes from failure. “It makes me sit back, take a moment, and realise that we’re not a perfect venue and how could we have avoided that failure to begin with,” he says.
“Whatever the style of your restaurant/venue might be – fine dining, casual dining, wine bar – make sure you develop a clear vision of what you want this place to be and don’t let your standards drop, not one single service.”
Max Sharrad – Australian Young Chef 2018 Winner
Max Sharrad has come a long way since he started his first job in the industry as a dishwasher when he was just 19 or 20-years-old. He did his apprenticeship at The Lion Hotel in North Adelaide and studied a certificate 3 in commercial cookery. Now head chef at Shobosho in Adelaide, the 27-year-old was honoured to be named Australian Young Chef 2018 winner.
As well as taste being important and avoiding waste, Sharrad believes his dishes should have a story. “I love cooking for purpose,” he says. “It adds a layer to an experience that I find necessary in creating those meals that stick in your mind. What makes Shobosho successful is a constantly evolving menu with a few staples. Some people enjoy something new whilst others enjoy things that they know and love.”
He says his inspiration to achieve comes from those around him. “I am very competitive and watching others succeed enhances my drive,” he says. “I love everything about the industry. The ups and downs, the burns, the cuts, the scars. The camaraderie, the failures and success. The feeling after a well-executed busy night. It’s what I am very good at and it also happens to be what I love to do.”
Jessi McEwan – Australian Young Chef 2018 One to watch
Considering herself a country girl through and through, Jessi McEwan was left speechless to be recognised as a young chef to watch in this year’s awards. The 24-year-old loves her job at Hogget Kitchen at Warrugal in Victoria’s Gippsland region. She believes passion is the key to success in the industry. “You won’t find me without a smile on my face,” she says. “I truly and passionately have fun in any kitchen. A bad service, a rude customer or an intense prep session won’t deter me from still enjoying what I do. I think it’s important to create a good work space for both colleagues and customers.”
McEwan, who has a certificate 3 in kitchen operations and commercial cookery, was the only girl among four apprentices when she started out – one of seven chefs in a tiny kitchen. “I pushed myself the hardest I’ve ever pushed,” she says. “Once I turned 18, things became a little different. I was missing out on more than I thought I ever would at this stage in my life. Every day I pushed until I couldn’t push anymore. It was then I realised I had to move on and explore my options within the industry. I knew that cooking was in my roots and with such a great start into the industry I got my second job at an established winery restaurant where I finished the next few years as an apprentice.”
She believes good character and attitude are extremely important in who you are or become as chef. “I have an appreciation for even the smallest things within a culinary environment, and if you’re switched on, calm, and passionate with a little crazy on the side you can really enjoy your time both in and outside a kitchen,” she says.
Richard Gan – Australian Young Chef 2018 finalist
Richard Gan, from Stokehouse in St Kilda, began his life in the hospitality industry helping out at his parents’ Chinese restaurant in his early teens. His first professional kitchen job was at Marea – a two-Michelin restaurant in New York for an extern placement. After finishing his education at The Culinary Institute of America, he worked at a small restaurant Sconset Cafe on Nantucket Island and helped open the French brasserie Vaucluse back in New York City. After his time in the US he moved to Melbourne and landed a job at Stokehouse in time for its grand reopening in late 2016.
The 26-year-old is keen to educate himself about the sustainability and carbon footprint of the produce used in the Stokehouse kitchen pertaining to the use of more local ingredients. “This has been spurred on by our ‘What Grows Together Goes Together’ dinner series that focused on creating a drinks and food menu around different regions in Victoria that started with Gippsland, followed by Mornington Peninsular, and finishing with the Otways region,” he says.
He believes loves the camaraderie in the kitchen, the hands on nature of work, and the availability of a creative outlet. He believes work life balance is crucial in the industry. “Head chef Ollie Hansford and the team make Stokehouse a very positive and encouraging kitchen to work in, with a strong focus on healthy work/life balance,” he says. “It leads to a more motivated and passionate team that takes more care about the food they put on the plate, and in the end makes for a higher quality dining experience. I believe Stokehouse has set the standard on employee conditions, and that other restaurants will be looking to emulate.”
Jake Paterson – Australian Young Chef 2018 finalist
Jake Paterson fell in love with cooking at a young age and has always being surrounded by food, wine and agriculture. “I spent a lot of time on my grandparent’s farm, growing produce and milking cows which really opened my eyes in terms of understanding where food comes from,” he says.
He started my apprenticeship in 2007 at Majors Lane Restaurant in Lovedale after leaving high school at the age of 15. He then went on to work at Restaurant Botanica and Wine House and Kitchen before moving onto the Cellar Restaurant. He’s now sous chef at Muse Restaurant at Hungerford Hill Wines in Pokolbin, and loves working with Hunter Valley produce.
“It’s about embracing the season’s best, and more importantly championing the ingredients that best showcases the region I love and its climate,” he says. “You can source some amazing locally-grown produce in the Hunter Valley such as pumpkins, figs and olives and many others that are grown by local suppliers such as Dylan and Elle from Newcastle greens. The Hunter River itself has great loam soil for growing cabbages, sweetcorn, and potatoes. It’s about supporting local growers and farmers. Building a community to showcase what the Hunter Valley has to offer and to give back in a way to the region that I love.”
Paterson believes restaurants like Muse are successful because of the passion of their owners and chefs. “They care about their staff and build strong relationships with our suppliers helping them through the good and the bad times, so we get the incredible produce that we serve to our guests every day,” he says. “I believe that you’re always inspired by the people you surround yourself with. For me, it’s all the staff at Muse and our local farmers and suppliers who inspire me every day to do better. Whether its front or back of house, they’re always pushing me to get out of my comfort zone and to go further than what I thought was possible for myself. To think on my feet and to always striving for continuous learning.”
He hopes to one day own his own restaurant.