Consumers have higher expectations of food offerings in pubs than in previous years, and it is thanks to the skills and experience of pub chefs that the sector is able to deliver on these expectations. Five chefs spoke to Australian Hotelier about the relationships and working environments that have supported them in growing their professional skills.

Building a diverse team

The makeup of a kitchen team is a key factor in a chef’s professional development. For Lee-anne Mohr, head chef at the Surfair Beach Hotel, the other chefs she surrounds herself with push her to be better at her job.

“I’m always surrounding myself with positive people, competitive people. I love competition, and you learn so much from other chefs around Australia, from how differently they cook and their different techniques.”

Diverse kitchen teams are important to help chefs develop their capabilities, with unique perspectives and a variety of skillsets all present in the one group. In Australia, we are lucky to have a wide array of chefs with expertise in a variety of cuisines, and Australian Venue Co. area chef, Evan Burrows, said that chefs can learn a diverse range of techniques and cuisines while staying in Australia.

“I don’t necessarily think that working in different countries is going to help your career, because being taught by chefs who know that cuisine while staying in one country is just as good. I could learn to make a really good Indian curry just as well if I was in the UK, or if I was here, or if I was studying in India,” he said.

Equally, local chefs also have things to teach chefs who have moved from overseas. Support from local chefs has been crucial for Tan Minh Tran, chef de partie at the George Hotel, Bathurst.

“I have a very good team by my side. They have many years of experience working in Australia, and have taught me a lot about Australian cuisine, and how a good restaurant in Australia serves the customer,” he said.

In addition, Mohr emphasised the contribution that women can make to a kitchen team, if properly encouraged.

“Most of my kitchen team are women. If you give them the opportunity to speak their mind, they will come up with dishes and they can do as well, if not better, than the male chefs. You just need to give them an opportunity,” she said.

Broader kitchen connections

For Ben Parkinson, head chef at Prince Dining Room in Melbourne, inspiration doesn’t just have to come from inside the kitchen, and he has benefited from strong working relationships with local farmers and growers.

“I see the relationship with growers as a symbiotic one. You can’t shut yourself off from them suggesting things. What excites them is generally going to excite me. If I have a grower that’s excited about a new seed or cross-pollination, I know the product is going to be phenomenal, and it’s just up to me to work out how I can utilise the ingredients to show off their work.

“In the past, I’ve had dishes inspired by a grower dropping something off and saying, ‘We cooked it on the weekend like this, and it was really delicious,’ and it was a way I would have never thought of using that ingredient. That influences how I look at food,” he said.

Encouraging professional growth

Chefs require support from both management and their kitchen team to help them develop their skills and confidence. Nicholas Liget, executive chef at Sydney’s Harbour View Hotel, said that support from his team was crucial in the leadup to the Australian Professional Chef of the Year competition, which he competed in in May.

“My boss from the Harbour View supports me by giving me free time to train, and money to purchase products that I want work with. I was able to be well-trained before the competition. The team around me are always happy to give me a hand. These competitions are difficult because we’re working with a mystery box, so it’s like a freestyle, but I know my team were going to be for me, there no matter what,” he said.

Tran highlighted the importance of constructive feedback for chefs who are trying new things.

“When I make a new dish or a new special, my boss always gives me feedback and lets me know what I am lacking. From there, I take it as a lesson to develop my skills, experience, and knowledge to become a better chef,” he said.

While providing support and guidance is important, Burrows has also discovered the importance of allowing junior chefs to learn from their own mistakes.

“There’s only so much handholding that mentoring chefs can give you. They sometimes have to say, ‘I’ll let you do this, because you’re never going to progress if I just do it for you.’ That’s something I’m still learning to do with my teams. I’m trying to hold their hand, but my boss reminds me to let them do things, and if they make mistakes, to help them with those mistakes,” he said.

Liget emphasised that chefs are able to build their skills and their career just as well in a pub kitchen as in any other establishment, and encouraged new chefs to seriously consider working in a pub.

“My advice to the younger generation is, don’t be scared to apply for a job in a pub. Especially in Sydney, you can get really nice food in a pub and you can learn from very good chefs who are working in the kitchens. For the younger generation, pub dining is a great career destination if you’re looking to learn.”

Junior chefs looking to to further their careers in pub kitchens are eligible for the Australian Hotelier Future Leaders scholarship. Apply before 15 July to be in the running to win a share of $18,000 in prizes designed to further your career in pubs.

Hear more from the chefs featured in this article in the Pub Dining section of the June/July edition of Australian Hotelier, below.

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