Poached Aussie is the hot dish

Energetic, tantrum-free and raised on fusion. No wonder Aussie chefs are in demand. By Sarah Turnbull and Hester Lacey
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Spend hours holding on the phone, book weeks in advance at one of London's most up-to-the-second restaurants, dress in your best for the occasion, travel miles into town... It's still more than likely that the artistes in the kitchen knocking up your coconut chicken with chilli and pickled green mango or shichimi- spiced duck in ginger vinaigrette will have gone through even more for the experience than you have. For the capital's smartest kitchens are packed with chefs from down under, who have travelled half way round the world to practise their art.

The down-under contingent are in great demand - employers prefer cheerful, well-trained antipodeans. By the end of last year, employment agencies were estimating that as many as half the staff they were placing were not British, while employers such as Bluebird, Sir Terence Conran's latest venture, have deliberately set out to recruit the cream of the Pacific Rim.

It's easy to see the advantages from the restaurateur's point of view. Young Australians and New Zealanders arrive well-trained and ready to work hard. "The Australian team here have a busy, realistic approach, and a happy manner," says Bluebird's head chef Michael Moore.

But what is drawing these young hopefuls here? It isn't money - wages in Australia and New Zealand are significantly higher. And kitchen work is still widely seen as low-prestige in this country, while cooks are well respected down under. "For a long time I found working here really scary," admits Peter Gordon, 34, a New Zealander and head chef at the Sugar Club, who decided that the best way to get away from London's tantrum- prone, ego-ridden kitchen hierarchy was to open his own restaurant in 1995. "In Australia and New Zealand you're allowed to call the chefs by their first names, and waiters aren't treated like scum."

However, it seems a breath of fresh air is blowing through British eateries, too. At Bluebird on the King's Road, the state-of-the-art, stainless- steel kitchen is already humming by nine in the morning. Moore, handsome, clean-cut and only 33, with trendily pierced ear (though no earring when working with food, of course) is the complete antithesis of the traditional, grouchy, old French chef whose main disciplinary method is hurling ladles across the kitchen.

Although, strictly speaking, Moore is not Australian himself, he spent the past 10 years there, had a very successful restaurant of his own in Sydney, and calls himself Australia's adopted son. "I have got two passports, and until I was offered Bluebird I had no plans to come back," he says.

Moore recruited 17 of his adopted countrymen to come over with him. He believes that free and easy antipodeans have taken the "ego and attitude" out of London kitchens, and boasts that he runs the happiest kitchen in the city. "The question of wages still needs to be addressed, but they are going up all the time. Fifteen or 16 years ago I could barely afford to get the bus to work," he adds.

These days pounds 160 a week is considered a reasonable starting wage at the lowest level, although employers will also offer sweeteners in the form of help with travel arrangements and accommodation to entice workers from far away. Stuart Wallace, 31, crop-haired and twinkly eyed, was so eager to come over that he gave up his own restaurant, the Grand National in Sydney, to work as a sous-chef at Bluebird. One of the greatest draws for him was the chance to get coveted European experience onto his CV. "It was a chance to get that while I'm still relatively young," he says. "We just don't have big kitchens like this in Australia - you simply can't try out this way of working."

But he also wanted to experience British foodie culture, which has lived up to expectations. "It's amazing. You look around you in Chelsea and just in this one little area there are probably as many good restaurants as in the whole of Sydney. And all the cooking shows on TV! Every second person here has a real passion for food."

Bluebird's Aussie contingent works hard and plays hard. "Socially, it's fantastic. We have great parties," says Stuart. However, he swiftly adds that you have to maintain a balance between having a good time and working. The sous-chefs put in a 15-hour day. "But it's happy and congenial."

Wallace's colleague Tony Worland, 23, with long hair pulled neatly inside his chef's cap, is on his first trip from Australia. "We all have a beer after work, but I try not to hang too much with all the other Australians in London," he says. "I want to meet people from different backgrounds, although it is nice to have people around to relate to. The pay isn't as good as it is in Australia, but I came here to see how the other side lives. It's brilliant - I'm not nearly ready to go back."

Cait Mitchelhill, 28 and head chef at the Oxo Tower Brasserie, is a five- year veteran of the London scene. She believes that working over here is a rite of passage for young Australians. "It's romantic coming over to the other side of the world, you experience something completely different. And we have so much influence still from Britain. When I first came over, it was the first time in my life someone had called me a convict - I've had some ribbing. But once you break the ice and start getting to know British people, the social scene is pretty good. Lots of Australians work in the Brasserie and I know they have a brilliant social life. They're not here forever, so they make the most of it."

The Aussie invaders have yet to rack up a Michelin-type accolade, but they pride themselves on being less impressed by such baubles than their European counterparts. "We're not aiming for Michelin stars, and that's a bit of a kick in the teeth for the British restaurant establishment," says John Torode, head chef at Mezzo. "They think we're too brash and in-your-face. We still get comments like, 'You Aussies can't cook because you haven't got any stars.'"

Such sour grapes must be a sure sign of just how much native feathers are ruffled.

You know there's an Aussie about when they serve...

Exotic types of fish, such as orange roughy (misleading name, it's white) or paua (abalone) or tuna (seared, natch) or spiny lobster (crayfish). Green mussels - a Kiwi speciality. Anything with "Pacific Rim"-type seasoning, which has a strong Asian bias. Look out for mooli (Japanese radish), hijiki (seaweed), lemon grass, galangal (gingery root), black beans, soy and tons of coriander. Kumera or kabocha, aka sweet potato and butternut squash, as vegetables. Mango, banana and coconut in savoury dishes. Passion fruit creme brulee, hotly tipped as the pudding of the year. Pavlova, for that retro feel (yes, it comes from Australia).

Comments