Australia’s best young chefs to watch

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Australia’s rising stars of the food scene have found their voice, and it’s funky, smoky, pickled and grilled

Australia is a country of travellers, people who have been constantly looking abroad for inspiration. But things are changing. We’ve begun to reflect and look inward. Chefs are spending more time referencing what’s around them, rediscovering native Australian products and executing dishes with skill, sensitivity and finesse.  Australia’s rising stars may still look to Spain, France, America and Italy for inspiration but there’s no need to slavishly copy what they do anymore. They have found their voice, and it’s funky, smoky, pickled and grilled. Here are some leading lights of Australia’s new kitchen brigade.

Bernd Brademann, A Baker, ACT

Bernd Brademann, chef, A Baker, Canberra, ACT

The newest feather in Canberra’s cap, A Baker is both café and restaurant, wine bar and bakery, offering a chilled out approach to fine dining in our nation’s capital. Brademann, fresh from working at Mocan and Green Grout, writes a menu that jumps from crisp-shelled, custardy cannelés to strozzapretti with shallots and goat’s cheese, all made with a commitment to local product on the plate and in the glass. 

Ben Sears and Eun Hee An, Moon Park, NSW

The co-owners and co-head chefs at new modern Korean restaurant, Moon Park, met whilst working together at the late, great Sydney restaurant Claude’s. They’re turning heads in this sparsely furnished and minimally decorated space with a menu of lightness and funk. It’s a place where fermented vegetables and piquant chilli sauces go hand in hand with icy cold beers and French natural wine, and moon pie translates as torn ginger jelly amid soft peaks of meringue. 

Mike Eggert and Jemma Whiteman, Pinbone, NSW

Food inspired by 1980s children’s birthday parties such as sticky, almond-dusted lamb sold by the rib is just a tiny taste of Pinbone - a restaurant created by Mike Eggert and Jemma Whiteman (both ex-Billy Kwong chefs).  They’re doing what they like, when they like and how they like to eat it, but doing so with enough charm that the site’s neighbourhood-hero status remains intact. 

Joshua Niland, Fish Face, NSW

Joshua Niland, chef, Fish Face, Sydney, NSW

Josh Niland’s passion for seafood is only barely eclipsed by that of his executive chef and mentor Steve Hodges. Not only has he succeeded in transforming the original Fish Face into the best fish and chippa Sydney has ever seen he’s currently hard at work with Hodges on opening a new fine-dining seafood restaurant in Double Bay. 

Mat Lindsay, Ester, NSW

It’s a restaurant and bar from the same crew that opened Italian favourites Vini, Berta and 121BC, but here the wood-fired oven rules over the spaghetti and, yes, even over the wine. At Ester run by young-gun chef Mat Lindsay, the emphasis is on smoke, herbs and vegetables. True to its botanical-leaning name, meat is often an accent rather than a major player here.

Daniel Pepperell, 10 William St, NSW

This red-hot young chef is all about baseball caps, sleeve tattoos and punked-up Italian bar food. His menus at 10 William St, his smart-and-small Italian wine bar in the heart of Paddington focus on small plates, and cured things. It could be as simple as spaghetti and clams with dehydrated olive dust, or maybe it’ll be his riff on a bacon and egg McMuffin, Italian style, but a finely tuned palate and a light touch keep the results fresh and tasty regardless. 

Karl Firla, Oscillate Wildly, NSW

The young chef/owner of Oscillate Wildly, an inner-western Sydney landmark, has completely reinvigorated the menu, shooting it to the top of the gotta-eat-there-now lists of food fanatics nation-wide. It’s his approach to fine dining, using modern ideas without becoming bogged down by technique over flavour, bringing freshness, lightness and brightness to the fore without sacrificing heft and guts when they’re needed.

Ben Devlin, Esquire, QLD

Ben Devlin, chef, Esquire, Brisbane, QLD

There’s a thing head chef Ben Devlin and his chefs do at Esquire, and it’s confronting. They personally show each table that orders the fish an iPad video of their course being brain-spiked. It’s not a peaceful way to go for a coral trout, but it certainly makes for a more delicious lunch. This is a menu of fun, envelope-pushing food like Korean fermented pickles sandwiched by pieces of beef jerky  or, just to break up the madness, a simple side of crusty bread spread with roast duck fat.

Ben Williamson, Gerard’s Bistro, QLD

Hailing originally from Western Australia, this deft young chef swung in wide circles including, , designing aeroplane menus, before eventually settling down to open Gerard’s. Here, he’s doing his own style of bistro menu, which translates as Moroccan and Middle Eastern-style small plates like coal-grilled boer goat or kibbeh nayeh (aka Lebanese-style lamb tartare). Perfect props for wine and cocktails. 

Lachlan Colwill, Hentley Farm, SA

Having spent four years at the burners at Adelaide institution The Manse, this young chef is now farming, foraging and getting a little experimental with tasting menus at Hentley Farm, and winning plenty of plaudits along the way.

Emma McCaskill, Magill Estate, SA

Emma McCaskill, chef, Magill Estate, Magill, SA

The young Tetsuya’s graduate and St John alumna has taken a vine change, swapping skyscrapers and smog for the gnarly city-fringe vineyards of Penfolds Magill Estate. Her menu is a reflection of the surrounding area, utilising farmed and foraged products.

Duncan Welgemoed, Bistro Dom, SA

A chef’s chef, Welgemoed has created a menu centred around fire, smoke, and nose-to-tail eating at Bistro Dom. Dinner might start with a tiny snack of crisp Berkshire pork with fermented kohlrabi, then move on to slices of smoked hanger steak and end with a chocolate egg with sea-salt caramel.

David Moyle, The Stackings, TAS

Sad as it is that Byron Bay lost both the Pacific Dining Room and David Moyle in one fell swoop, it was a windfall for Peppermint Bay. His clean-lined, seemingly easy-going approach to food is underpinned by rigour in the kitchen, with locally sourced produce cooked with care and imagination. That might mean confit lamb belly with anchovies and radicchio or it might be a brilliant piece of poached fish served with dried olive and miner’s lettuce.

Victor Liong, Lee Ho Fook, VIC

Victor Liong, chef, Lee Ho Fook, Melbourne, VIC

Running a restaurant named after a Chinese restaurant in a Warren Zevon song is the first time in the driver’s seat for this young ex-Sydneysider. After doing time at the top-flight likes of Marque and Mr Wong, Liong set sail for Melbourne. Lee Ho Fuk is owned by the same people as Pei Modern and Rosa’s Kitchen, and they’ve pretty much left Liong to pound out his style of modern Chinese food (updated prawn toasts, sang choi bau, white cut chicken) to a soundtrack of hip pop and electro.

Alex Drobysz, Bar Nacional, VIC

Young chef Alex Drobysz has made an impressive Melbourne debut heading the kitchen of Bar Nacional, a clever San Sebastian-inspired tapas bar. As per the Spanish tradition it’s an all-day affair, serving bocadillos, little cakes and coffee before turning to Spanish wines, plates of jamon and larger dishes like fried wagyu and pickles after dark.

Dave Verheul, the Town Mouse, VIC

Aussies love to claim Kiwi success stories as their own, and the new kid on that block right now is Dave Verheul. After spending time cooking at the Bentley Bar in Sydney, the talented chef took his skills back to Wellington to take over the kitchen at Matterhorn. He’s now got his own place in Carlton called the Town Mouse on the old Embrasse site, a very polished operation where he cooks the likes of kipflers in toasted hay with buttermilk, crisp sage and almond brown butter. 

Oliver Gould, Stokehouse, VIC

Oliver Gould, chef, Stokehouse, Melbourne, VIC

Melbourne born and raised Oliver Gould, head chef of St Kilda’s landmark restaurant Stokehouse, was recently named Young Chef of the Year at The Age Good Food Guide 2014 Awards. Oliver has been cooking in the kitchens at St Kilda’s landmark restaurant, Stokehouse for eight years starting as chef de partie until he was appointed head chef in 2010.

Despite the devastating fire that destroyed the Stokehouse earlier this year Oliver bounced back with a pop up restaurant where he donated his time stewing soup for the poor and opening the reincarnation of the famed restaurant in Melbourne’s city centre in May.

Clearly cementing his position as an up and coming influential Australian chef, Oliver debuted on series 6 of MasterChef in 2014 and has been invited to represent the Stokehouse in several internationally recognized Australian food festivals, such as Melbourne Food & Wine Festival and the Noosa International Food and Wine Festival.

Oliver’s signature style is centered around using the highest quality produce to create uncomplicated, seasonal-driven dishes that appeal to both the gourmet and casual diner.

Sam Ward, El Pùblico, WA

The Christchurch-born Perth chef has cooked alongside Mexican food legend Diana Kennedy, likes to deep fry grasshoppers, and makes his own hot sauce. His menu at El Pùblico is all about uncovering a world of Mexican food beyond tacos. There’s an emphasis on raw and cured fish, legumes and street food here, with a rollicking adjoining bar that offers house-brewed soft drinks and excellent tequila cocktails.