Resident of St Kilda, Head Chef at Copper Pot Seddon
I am a first generation Australian, of German descent. My grandparents grew up on sensitive ground, with the paternal side from Prussia, and the maternal side from West Germany, skirting the Nazi rule. They met in Germany, and things were deteriorating then. Regardless of the comforts and careers they had, they had to move. As people tend to do in a global crisis, they started looking as far away from Germany as they could and sighted New Zealand with a business opportunity in hand.
This was in the 1970s, and shortly after the opportunity quickly fell through and they were forced to look elsewhere, with the same goal – a quieter life. They finally settled in Townsville in far North Queensland, with my parents following shortly after.
As you can imagine back then, Townsville was an army base town, had not much going on. My Granddad was a trained pastry chef and decided to open a bakery; he was well ahead of his time. His breads were phenomenal, dark beautiful ryes and cakes made for corporates and celebrities, but ultimately few people had a taste for it back then.
That’s where the food in the family came from. My Mum learnt from my Granddad, and she shared her love of food with me. I remember always being surrounded by food and food being treated as special. The property we lived in had a small farm and an orchard. There were fruit and poultry, and we were connected to the produce. Whether or not I was destined to be in the food industry, I don’t know, but it had an effect on me for sure.
The family moved South to Brisbane when I was quite young, and it was in Brisbane where I spent the bulk of my life. I studied there, with a Bachelor of International Hotel and Tourism Management and also did my apprenticeship as a chef. I was doing about 80 hours a week in the kitchen, then studying at night and going to class on my days off. I had a social life, but it existed between 1am – 4am.
I think it’s the German in me. I’ve always pushed my body to do what I need to achieve. I’ve always told myself to get it done, regardless of the challenge.
I moved to Melbourne for a job and to grow my horizons. Melbourne is a food city and has been that way for a long time. Back then one of the most written about restaurants was Gingerboy. It was a phenomenon that pre-dated Chin Chin and I wanted to be part of that. I was successful in getting a job there thanks to a good friend and found myself in my first real high-pressure kitchen environment. It was 8am starts and 1am finishes; I just went for it. It was sink or swim.
Working there opened my eyes to a whole new world of cooking, not only because of the Asian flavours but also the environment. Unfortunately, it also crushed a bit of passion. The job was grindy, and everyone in the restaurant was overworked. It was a classic example of the hardcore kitchen lifestyle.
It was also probably the first time I saw first-hand and clearly realised that the lifestyle wasn’t sustainable. I thought to myself ‘You know what, there’s something wrong with the kitchens around the world.’ There had to be a better way.
I started moving around restaurants to get my love back, but this still didn’t give me the feeling I wanted to get out of food. I didn’t feel like just doing technique itself was good enough for me, and I wanted to learn more about the produce, the story of food and the lifestyle of food.
I found myself travelling back to Europe in my early 20s on a few occasions. In my mind then, Europe was the epitome of the food culture I knew. Chefs I knew and respected were always talking about Europe and its techniques. The only difference for me was I didn’t just want to work in a Michelin star restaurant. I wanted to learn about the produce and the human story.
I worked with Kate Hill, an American writer and gastronomic mind who had put the southwestern part of France (Gascony) on my gastronomical world map. She’s kind of like the French-American version of Stephanie Alexander. It was with Kate that I began learning about the history and produce that is the epitome of French cuisine. France is often heralded as where modern cuisine was defined, and it felt so natural there.
I was immersed in rural European food and became friends with the Chapolard Family, a French pig farming family that produces their own charcuterie. They raise their own pigs, cure and butcher their own meat and sell it on in the market, a model that is still very young in Australia but ancient there. It’s how they’ve been doing it for generations – just salt and pepper for seasoning to highlight the high-quality pork.
It was living truly by the land. Each little town has their own market, and they only sold what was exactly in season and from there. You could only buy limited fruits and vegetables, but there would be so many individual varieties of them. It changed my understanding of seasonality, locality and varietals forever.
That was the turning point for me. I began to frame cooking differently, as everything I saw in France was a product that had been done by a person, and to that person, that product is their life. There’s a personal connection and I found that magical.
In 2014, I was in Australia needing something to do and a previous colleague of mine, Nick Stevens got in touch with me. At the time, he was working with my now business partner Ashley Davis who at the time was the chef at Pure South. Nick got me a job to help them out and they were just rockstar shifts.
After months of alluding to a conversation he needed to have with me, I received a call out of the blue from Ash. He wanted to know if I would join him and his wife Janine to open something. I have never asked him why he asked me, but hearing his explanations to other people, I understand we both care about bringing change to the industry. We have similarities and differences, but just bounce off each other remarkably well.
Not everyone in the cooking world loves food, and I am not saying we are special, but we both live and breathe it. We talk about it excessively (to the pain of our partners), eat it on our days off, go to farms and are always looking to find out more.
When Ash first asked me to join him, I said, ‘Tell me more’. I was living in Footscray at the time, and the site was in Seddon, a place that I had long thought would be perfect. It was an obvious answer.
Copper Pot Seddon has always been about Ash’s dream to create a European dining experience and to translate a continent’s cuisine, to Australia. My role is to bring that to life.
People who live in Seddon may know the tenancy of Copper Pot, Mozzarella Bar and Meat the Greek Souvlaki Bar as one tenancy originally. These three shops used to be a baby retail shop, but the landlord decided to separate it. Where Copper Pot stands now, it used to be an office space and was empty for awhile. The first thing we did when we moved in was smash a giant pane of glass in an office wall.
The shop was entirely built by us. We’ve been under the rafters, 1.5 meters under the restaurant in the soil, we built the tables, painted the walls and bled and sweated for it. We had no money to build it, and we worked for three months as labourers to make it come together.
The restaurant has become like a child, and it’s amazing to make it so far. People in SKY have kept us going, we have been lucky to have their support. In the dead of winter, we count on them to pay our bills. Yes we may own a restaurant business, but anyone in hospitality will tell you the same, it’s the wrong business to get rich in.
I think it is fair to say we are obsessed with this place. We write our menus after a 15-hour day over a bottle of wine and change our minds 100 times as we don’t think it’s good enough. It has always been about people enjoying the food, so we want to make it the best we can.
I have a long-term partner, Caitlin who has stuck with me all these years. We met while I was still an apprentice in QLD. She’s dealt with my long and ridiculous hours, weird jobs but somehow, it’s still working, which I think makes me pretty lucky. To be fair though, I did warn her what it was all about.
Despite all of this self-sacrifice, balance is very important to me, and the goal is to perfect the recipe so to speak for restaurant success and life balance. This is a hard task though, as traditionally chefs are pretty competitive and are always trying to outdo each other with mutual respect.
Running a restaurant is a marginal business and we make little profit. We drive ourselves to be better and better, and customers’ expectations get naturally higher and higher because of this. But getting better doesn’t necessarily mean we make more money, and customers often don’t have more money to spend, but you can guarantee that the margins are slimmer.
Restaurants are human labours’ of love, and for a long time have not been sustainable in a human sense. We all read the stories of suicide and depression as chefs try to win awards, maintain standards and generally live on the fringes of society. I know I am not alone in this thinking.
A lot of chefs out there are looking at the industry and thinking about how we can we start to bring back some balance while allowing the love to flourish. The easy answer may be to just shorten the hours, but who maintains the standard? Will the customer accept a less polished product? And will they continue to pay the same for it?
Food takes time and talent, and that costs a lot of money. I am talking about protecting an industry for the future, one of high standards and sustainable creativity for young chefs moving forward. I am definitely a long way from the solution, and there is not enough time or words to find it now, but I am definitely trying to do my part.
Copper Pot is growing, and 2018 is going to be big for us. We have an opportunity to allow our team to embrace their roles and grow with us, while we continue to improve Copper Pot and each other’s lives as best we can. We are always here for the local people of SKY, and the community and support shown here has been incredible.