Australia's Top Chefs
A true expression of our young, free-spirited and uninhibited culture, our food and wine has become a great way to get to know us
Tetsuya Wakuda, Margaret River Gourmet Escape, Margaret River, WA
Australia has never been a more exciting or rewarding place to eat. Australian chefs are taking our tastebuds into uncharted territory, providing the talent and inspiration to revolutionise the kitchens of Australian restaurants. Unconstrained by notions of what is right or wrong, they have embraced our multicultural heritage, been experimenting and breaking most of the rules along the way, all the while bringing a genuine passion to what they do.
Melbourne chef Ben Shewry’s restaurant Attica climbed to No. 21 on the San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurant list in 2013. It now sits at No. 32 (2014 List), continuing its place as the top restaurant in Australasia. Shewry is passionate about creating culinary delights, but he also likes grabbing his board and going surfing.
This is typical of the down-to-earth style that characterises so many chefs in Australia’s food and wine scene.
For Peter Gilmore, one of Australia’s great chefs, with the highly awarded Quay restaurant also featuring in the San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants, the remarkable skill he shows in the kitchen – focusing on the texture, harmony and balance of Japanese, Korean and Chinese cuisines - was partly shaped by his early years. “I rely on my own set of sensibilities and experiences of growing up in a multicultural society,” he says.
“We are generally very relaxed and easy-going characters,” says Chinese Australian chef Kylie Kwong. “Our food reflects this – it’s fresh, light and flavoursome. It’s a generous culture, a ‘feel-good’ culture, based on a natural openness and honesty.”
Neil Perry, one of Australia’s best known-chefs whose 25-year career has seen him earn numerous accolades and the deep respect of the industry, works around the clock at his Rockpool empire and as executive chef for Qantas. But you’ll also see him at a humble Chinatown hole in the wall downing a bowl of noodles.
Karen Martini, chef, Melbourne, VIC
Australia is a wonderful mix of migrants and cultures from all over the world, a melting pot of traditions that lives on strongly in many communities.
Industry icons Cheong Liew and Tetsuya Wakuda pioneered the art of fusing Asian flavours with European techniques; Peter Conistis took the food of his Greek heritage and made it his own; and several of our finest chefs, including Neil Perry and Luke Mangan, take influences from Asia, Italy and Spain to produce uniquely Australian dishes that showcase their exemplary skills and the depth and quality of our produce.
With nearly a quarter of Australians born overseas, there is little wonder those in the food and wine industries have absorbed so many different styles. “Australia is such a young country in an age of travel and sharing information… and it acts like a sponge,” says Momofuku star chef David Chang. “If any country can get away from asking ‘What’s our tradition?’ and say, ‘Let’s just eat good food’, it’s definitely Australia."
Leading chef and television personality Karen Martini agrees. “Oddly, it’s probably our lack of a definable food culture that makes Australia’s approach to food so unique,” she says. “What we cook is shaped by such a range of influences, from traditional cuisines to some more modern perspectives, and I think Australian cooks have developed in a way that respects these influences without being restricted by them.”
It’s a confidence that has seen Australian chefs take their place on the world stage, with Thai food scholar David Thompson’s Nahm in Bangkok holding No. 13 place on the San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants list, and the highest-ranked Australian Brett Graham coming in at No. 10 with London’s The Ledbury. Bill Granger’s popularity continues to grow beyond Australian shores, with his breezy yet benchmark cafe formula winning over crowds in London and Tokyo, while Luke Mangan can add Jakarta, Tokyo, Singapore and Seminyak to his Australian restaurant portfolio.
Australia's emerging food and wine culture
Andrew McConnell, chef, Melbourne, VIC
Robert Hill Smith heads Yalumba, Australia’s oldest family-owned winery, dating from 1849, and is a staunch protector of family tradition – yet he leads the charge with new wine styles and varieties. At the other end of the spectrum are young winemakers who ferment biodynamic wine in huge ceramic eggs or serve it rudely fresh from demijohns on bar counters.
It’s that relaxed approach that marks Australia’s food and wine community out as being different from the rest of the world. In the same way that customers are encouraged to leave the tie at home, so too chefs, waiters, growers, winemakers, baristas and sommeliers have a down-to-earth approach that is warm, welcoming and unpretentious. “It’s hard for me to put my finger on it, but I think the relaxed, professional, quality blend is what we do so well, and so differently to the rest,” says Andrew McConnell, chef and owner of Melbourne landmarks Cumulus Inc and Cutler & Co.
There’s also pride that stems from the fact that Australia has never been a more exciting or rewarding place to eat. That extends to a desire to connect with and celebrate Indigenous produce, unique ingredients that can only be found in Australia.
Kylie Kwong describes it as “Australia on a plate” which, for her, means integrating native ingredients with the classic Cantonese dishes of her heritage.
Up and coming chefs, too, are embracing the produce around them with a confidence that reflects the maturing of the Australian food culture.
In just one generation, the Australian palate has moved on from the English-leaning “meat and three veg” approach to the diversity of cuisines enjoyed today and a freedom to explore new flavours and techniques.
“We’re cheeky,” says Australian food writer Jill Dupleix. Without the weight of a large population and long history bearing down upon us, she says, we’re free to experiment and eat what we like.
"The rest of the world still thinks we’re doing East meets West, or Pacific Rim, but we’re not. We’re doing Australian food, cooked by Australians, for Australians." - Jill Dupleix
The Australian food and wine industry is a bounty of passion and self-deprecating humility. It has a democratic mindset that holds firmly to the belief that good food and wine should be accessible to everyone, and an acute sense of itself that is clear in both the people and the food.
Benjamin Cooper, from Melbourne’s Chin Chin, believes there is a warmth to our hospitality and a genuine enthusiasm.
“A lot of it comes down to people,” he says. “Australians have a terrific attitude to dining and cooking. We’ve embraced all these cultures, ditched a lot of the stuffy tradition and bring a genuine passion to what we do.”