Chef Shane Osborn’s past is well recorded. So, it seemed pointless to chat with him about how his mother was a caterer. I had prepared some questions, but these went out the window, once I sat at the table at Glass Brasserie Sydney with this affable Aussie bloke (though there’s really no remnant of his Aussie accent). He says he was “in the right place at the right time” but there’s always more to it than that.
When he started cooking in Australia in the mid-1980s, he says there wasn’t the same attitude to Chefs, cooking and food that there is today. The attitude was more like “if you can’t do anything else you might as well become a cook”. Talking with European Chefs in Perth at that time “set the spark the made me want to travel and see the world” he reports, so in 1990 he left. “It blew my mind” (he says of the attitude in Europe) of “how respected you were”. He immediately felt at home. Things weren’t easy though as Australian Chefs really weren’t taken all that seriously. Opinion was that we (Australian chefs) were all about fusion food. So back to his “right place, right time” comment. I challenged Osborn and he admitted it was “a lot of bloody hard work”.
When he took over the reigns of the kitchen at Pied à Terre from Chef Tom Aitkens, opinion at the time was, Osborn tells me, that it would suffer – because he was an Australian. In 2003 when Pied à Terre was awarded a second Michelin star, Osborn thinks everyone was shocked – it “shocked myself in a way”. It was a difficult time because he did feel a bit of animosity from some people.
(Later in our chat, I remember this start to our conversation – when he tells me he has had to be quite selfish, to stay focused, to achieve what he has achieved.)
Things have changed in the last four or five years he says. Chefs are more friendly, talk to each other and share knowledge and information – and the old guard don’t have the same power. This leads us to the topic of his talk tonight – at the Electrolux Appetite for Excellence awards for Young Australian Chefs, Waiters and Restaurateurs – where he will speak at the showroom of the major sponsor Electrolux, as the Guest of Honour.
Osborn says his speech will be about hospitality. We are in the hospitality industry: but it’s not just about hospitality to customers. Osborn thinks it is all encompassing – that hospitality should be shown to everyone: all your staff, the ‘fridge mechanic, the suppliers. His father (who died when Shane was 15 years old) was a car mechanic. I know this has been a big influence on him. He repeats, that his father looked after his customers. Integrity, Chef says is about how you treat everyone.
Osborn is emphatic “You’ve got to love your job”. “Food is such a pleasure to eat, cooking should be enjoyable also” he continues. He’s been talking about how Chefs front up each day after only 4 to 5 hours sleep. He wants them to wake up in the morning, and be looking forward to work.
As our conversation takes another turn, he talks about the direction that food is taking. At the top end, food is what he calls “homogenised”. These “young guys look up the internet, buy all the books”. He says they’re copying the top S. Pelligrino winners – they want to be like them. His example – radishes with leaves attached – is everywhere now. Yoshihiro Narisawa (S. Pelligrino Top 50) of Les Creations was the first to do that, Osborn says. Now they all imitate. Osborn diverts – one of the first things Michelin said to him, on the difference between one star and two, was about identifying the individuality of the chef. “There needs to be the Chef’s personality on the plate”. The distinguishing factor is to be able to eat a Chef’s food blindfolded, and his food, flavours, textures should standout (even blindfolded) and declare whose food it is.
As we move on, from the present and the past, to the future, I understand more of what’s important to Osborn. His face lights up. Peppered inside his plans for the next nine months, comes the (above) statement that he has had to be quite selfish, to stay focused, to achieve what he has achieved.
After tonight’s Electrolux Appetite for Excellence awards, Chef Shane Osborn will return to his family, who are currently in Ireland. They’ve rented a house there, for two weeks, to say goodbye to all the friends they’ve made, before they start a journey of nine months.
I couldn’t keep up as Shane told me of his plans for all the continents and countries they have mapped out. Together, his wife and he made a list of all the places they ever wanted to go. With their children (six and four) this will be the itinerary. We’d talked about his children earlier, about how they go everywhere with him – and eat at three star Michelin restaurants. They are perfectly well behaved, because they observe those around him, and (in the European style) have been dining out since they were in their prams. But with the plans for this nine month expedition – through Africa, Australia, New Zealand, South America, USA, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and mainland China – his face takes on a brighter glow. Daughter Rose is really excited about the second stop, Perth – to see her grandmother and cousins. To her six year old classmates, Australia in itself, is seen as an exotic adventure. Before that though, life for Rose and her younger sibling will include a five day stay with a Maasai tribe.
Chef Shane Osborn has no plans for when he returns – or even perhaps to where that might be – except that the food will be something “more approachable”. For now, the nine month adventure with his wife and children, is front of mind. For now, he has “not committed to anything” else.
This interview with Chef Shane Osborn was kindly organised courtesy of Electrolux Appetite for Excellence.