As the entries for the Electrolux Appetite for Excellence (Young Chefs, Waiters and Restaurateurs) awards open for this year, I was lucky to have the chance to catch up with last year’s winner of the Young Chefs award, Richard Ousby.
We’re sitting in the restaurant where Ousby has been working for the last three years, Quay (arguably our best restaurant in Australia – as Number 26 on the coveted S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurant’s list). The restaurant is closed when I’m there, and it’s his day off. Still he makes me a coffee before we get started, telling me he’s used to it, as there’s no floor staff there to make a coffee when he gets started in the early mornings. His previous cooking experience was at The Waterside Inn. That was challenging he tells me. He spoke very little French and was just “a young guy going in the back door and going hard for it”. In Ousby’s softly spoken words he’s worked from “ultra classical to ultra creative”. That’s quite a CV for our Australian Young Chef of the Year 2011.
In June, Richard Ousby will be representing Australia at the annual S. Pellegrino Cooking Cup in Venice. That’s the starting point for our conversation. He’s currently planning his menu. He’ll be required to cook four plates of his one dish on a yacht, with limited cooking facilities and no electricity. He reminds me this will mean he won’t be able to use a blender. And that he’ll be cooking everything from scratch. The tricky part however is he won’t know at what time he’ll be required to serve up his dishes – that will all depend on how fast the yacht sails. On the night before the cook-off he will be cooking 100 small portions – also for part of the judging – of that same dish.
Richard is excited, and enthusiastic and he’s passionately telling me some of the menu ideas on which he’s working. I take notes. Then I look at him sheepishly and say “It’s probably not a good idea to tell the world what dishes you’re working on”. He smiles and answers probably not. I’m looking at my copious notes now as I write. Sorry, but they’re not for publication – not yet anyway. We move onto produce and seasonality – the seasons are reversed and it will be summer in Italy. How much control will he have over selecting his produce – I wonder? Not much he says; he sends off a list to S. Pelligrino who will source his ingredients.
How does he plan a dish? “You have to sit down to force yourself to think about food” he starts before explaining how he then thinks about different ingredients and how they go together. It can take Chef Peter Gilmore “six months to make a dish” at Quay, Ousby says. I joke with him, counting on my fingers. It’s only three months until the cook-off in Italy.
I already knew Richard before catching up for this chat – last year I travelled with the Appetite for Excellence finalists on the week long produce tour of Queensland. We chat easily and I ask him how things have changed for him since winning. His first response is that his career has “definitely accelerated.” There are more demands on his time now. Life is not just about cooking in a kitchen. “Whenever I get a spare minute, there is a recipe to write, or someone to talk to” he says undaunted.
For him though, the best is yet to come. “The whole year centres around the stages. I get to choose where I’ll be working.” If previous Appetite for Excellence winner, Chef Shane Osborn (and last year’s special guest at the awards) had still been at Pied à Terre that would have been his first choice. He’s thinking perhaps about the Ledbury – “(Peter Gilmore’s) Pete’s good friends” with the Chef there. He’d like to spend time perhaps with a friend who owns an artisan bakery in London. He’d like to learn more about bread.
Then, there is Mad Food Camp with Rene Redzepi. Ousby’s describes is as “a gathering of some of the best Chefs around to discuss the future of food.” As he continues I can’t help but notice the strong influence that Gilmore has played on this future shining star. There are so many plants, vegetables that aren’t being used he says with a commitment that echoes his current Chef.
And after all this what are his plans? Ousby has a house in Brisbane, so “it’s time to move on” from Quay. “It’s been awesome developing Pete’s style of food, but I’d like to develop my own style of food before … not I loose it – I’d just like to get it going.” When he tells me about his cooking plans in Brisbane though, it’s about the renovations he’ll be making to his house – he’s going to build a Yakitori grill and a big pizza oven.
Perhaps the most interesting discussion of the day came when we realised we were both going to the PorkStar dinner that night in Sydney. While we were in on the subject, Richard stated if he had to eat only one animal for the rest of his life, he would choose pork. Then he went on to say he’s pretty keen on beef too. I jumped in that I like offal. We effused about cuts of different meats, different dishes that could be cooked. Then Richard added his uncle is a lamb farmer. He took some of the team from the kitchen at Quay out to the farm recently and they “killed a sheep, skinned it, hung it up, which was pretty interesting.” Understanding where the meat comes from is an important part of being a Chef he said.
Later that night, when Richard Ousby sat opposite me at the PorkStar dinner, I winked and asked the question to the other Chefs at the table “If you could only eat one animal for the rest of your life, what would it be?”