Chef John McFadden has leapt from working kitchens to supplier mode. Deftly, as he moves about the industry, he leaves a legacy behind him of leadership and kindness. As with all top chefs, his life has been illuminated by hard work and attention to detail. Now, older and wiser, he’s looking for better balance. He may just have found it, and a new way, for him, of giving back.
Here’s his story, and we begin in the now:
You have a big new role as Business Development Manager at Select Fresh Providores. How did that come about?
“I was judging at Chef of the Year at Food Service Australia – and out of the blue I received a phone call from Dominic Barba, CEO of Select Fresh Providores who asked me if I was interested in being BDM for Select Fresh. Dom has followed me in my career – Dom and his team created this new role for his business, it gave me the chance to consider my career path.
Dom has an amazing team in place, and this new role allows a great networking platform, growing the business, managing our relationships and creating innovative opportunities, we don’t want to be seen just as a fruit and veg providore. It can be so much more. It seemed like a perfect step for me at this stage of my career.”
To create from scratch is a great opportunity. But daunting! Where did you start?
“I began and am still learning everyone’s role, from buyers to pickers, packers, drivers dispatch, sales, admin, farmers, growers and the list goes on. We are currently in the process of setting up a test kitchen to host lunches and dinners, to promote new produce as it comes into season, liaising with farmers and growers, giving a lot more back to our industry. There’s a human element to our business, our produce and service is paramount, highlighting that creates engagement and a real connection – there has to be a face and story behind what we do, a purpose – if you don’t have a face of the business relating to people, produce and service then you lack the care and passion to drive forward.
It’s no different to being in a kitchen – you need to be aware of the links between each role – FOH and BOH (Front of House and Back of House) – respectful of each individual’s contribution. Something I learned very quickly, is the amount of transactions that take place before fruit and veg arrive at a restaurant is incredible.”
What are the challenges?
“In winter it can be tricky and challenging with variety, frosts etc. I guess the hardest part about getting access to new produce in the first place is about timing and ripeness – new season plums for instance might be ready, but firm, not the best eating quality. Recently we hosted a truffle evening at Acre Eatery, with Gareth (Howard) as host with chefs in the industry discussing produce and our search for perfection. It’s these kind of events that bring people together, that, for me, is what this industry is about.
Normally, these guys and girls are always busy – so to spend some quality time together, sharing knowledge as well as war stories, is a valuable gift and allows for a mutual understanding from both sides.
Client retention is a huge part of the job, for that matter any job. It’s a big role, and encompasses BD planning, management and research, knowing who’s who in the zoo, being at the forefront of what’s happening and sharing that within our team. In short, knowing who’s doing what and what they need. Creating that relationship and dialogue is key.”
So where did your big life in food begin? It wasn’t always John McFadden, head chef.
“I was interested in cooking from the age of 10 – it was something that just captured me, and somehow I always knew that it’s one of the few careers that you can take anywhere in the world.
I was good at sports and played representative rugby league as a junior. But the lure of the kitchen was strong. I started work at 12 after school, riding my bike to work, watching the chef, and within a few weeks I was given a job washing dishes and by 14 I was given the keys to the restaurant, I’d run a section at lunch. It was Dominic’s Manor – and I loved every minute.
Then I moved on to Not Just Pizza and learnt everything about pizza, it had French influences as well, so I was also doing classic dishes, like Chateau Briande.
I was highly motivated and driven but trying to fit in my schoolwork with my job was difficultand my grades slipped. Well, mum and dad demanded my grades improve, so I worked hard, finished school at 15 and began my apprenticeship.”
Was snaffling that first apprenticeship easy?
“Trying to get a job in the mid 80’s was hard. I probably saw 80 – 100 restaurants, and finally got a job at a Chinese restaurant that sat 500 people. I was the only westerner in the kitchen, everyone spoke Cantonese! It was tough, but I loved it.
My TAFE day was considered my day off, I worked 6 days a week for $100. Because I was doing Chinese at the work place, and French cooking at TAFE, I would cook at home to practice what I was learning, I ended up doing dinners for 20 people at home. My parents and grandfather were so supportive I was very lucky, my grandfather and parents would pick me up from Hamilton TAFE in Newcastle and drive me home. Why? Because I finished late at 10pm – I was on the central coast and I was still so young my family didn’t want me catching public transport late at night.
“I worked at the Chinese restaurant, Lantern Palace, for 2.5 years, and when Peppers on Sea at Terrigal opened, I got really excited and applied as a second-year apprentice.They took me on and placed me as entremétier under the chef Bruno Cerdan in the fine dining restaurant, `La Mer`. A Frenchman, at the top of his game, Bruno took me under his wing and taught me what he knew.
Was he tough?
“I recall one day, Bruno stood over my shoulder when I was turning vegetables and said, “you’re going to be here a long time”. I finished my apprenticeship and Bruno moved to the Windsor Hotel and asked me to come down and work for him as a commis. It was fine dining, by the time I was 20 I’d had 3 years in fine dining.
What did that bring to your skill set?
“Those years taught me how to work very clean, and to be very methodical. That training – it stays with you, you get tired of changing your jacket 4 or 5 times a shift, we had to stay spotless, you know how hard that is in a busy service! It was discipline and achievable. I loved the long white apron, it made me feel a couple of inches taller. The refinement of fine dining training sets you up for your career.”
Where to from there?
“I moved to the Fairmont Resort in the Blue Mountains, before Lillianfels was built. It was considered then the place to go, I worked in the a la carte restaurant as a demi-chef. I started doing competitions, entering salon culinaires, won awards and was soon approached by a friend who was working at Hayman Island, so I jumped ship and headed to the islands.
I started off in room service, then moved into the Polynesian restaurant called Planters. I was under Daniel Bucher, a Swiss chef. It was great experience, before the restaurant closed for a week and relaunched with Australian bush tucker concept when it was all the rage. After a year I was getting ready to leave, even though Hayman was the third best resort in the world at the time, I wanted to go to Asia. My last month was in the Oriental Fine Dining and fate intervened, and I met my wife, Fiona, and we both found jobs in Sydney.”
Sydney is a big jump from the culture in an island resort. How did you find that?
“Island life is very different to the mainland, I was young enough to really enjoy it, the biggest shock was getting back into the pace of the city again. It was hard and fast compared to the island.
I started at The Boulevard Hotel, which was 4.5 stars, but for some reason, I found it wasn’t a perfect fit for me, so I left and landed a job at the ANA Hotel, now Shangrila, with Jacky Ternisian. I startedas junior sous-chef at Brasserie restaurant, where we had a team of 25 chefs, I was 23 years old!
We did 3 buffets a day, a la carte and room service, it was a very busy outlet. The training in hotels though, in those days was amazing. The dedication they put into people and their training was incredible, I believe it really groomed me for my years ahead and set me up career wise for life.”
How was that training managed in such a busy environment?
“For that kitchen I was the dedicated trainer for the entire team, I had to do lesson plans, presentations and training and performance evaluation – looking critically at other chefs in the kitchens. The way people learn is different so we had to adapt our training to the individual – learning to really see the person first before the skill. Also having that connection and understanding about the individual on a personal level – whether techniques would vary and adjust appropriately to the skill set.
After 2.5 years as number 2, I wanted a chance to be number 1. Daniel Bucher was executive chef at Hyatt Regency at Kings Cross and had a restaurant called XU bistro, he offered me a role to run it.
At the time, Kylie Kwong was down the road at Wok Pool, Christine Mansfield and David Thompson were in the vicinity – it was in the late 90s, the whole food scene was electric.”
That’s a huge step up, and a big placing of faith in you. What was their driver?
“The day I started, the GM showed me a review where they were rated 6 out of 20, I was given free rein to pull it into gear. I had the full support of Daniel and Alistair McCracken the GM and in 6 weeks I lost the majority of my brigade being 15 chefs!
I sat down with them individually to outline what we needed, everyone had a review in front of them,and it was made clear that I was happy to show them once or twice, but 3 times? 3 times was once too many. We had what I would call a robust conversation and I wanted the team to join me on that journey.”
What was your dream for XU?
“My dream was to be in Gourmet Traveller, all the magazines and newspapers.It was ambitious, but we had nothing to lose. So, I started from the ground up, recruited a young team, and began their onboarding with, ’this is where we need to be in 12 months’ time.’ We had a buddy system – I was not a band aid, if someone was sick they (the team) had to find a solution, not me. The camaraderie in that kitchen was fabulous. We did the launch of Lyndey Milan’s first book, we hosted the wine club with Peter Howard, and Carol Selva-Rajah invited me over to New York to cook with her at the James Beard Foundation, where we did a 7 course Nyonya style degustation menu with Australian ingredients and cooked for 80 top food critics. It was a phenomenal experience.”
Wow! James Beard Foundation? Almost a Holy Grail for most chefs. Any problems with the delivery?
“Carol & I had a few issues getting the produce over through customs in New York, a good session in Soho fixed our shortfalls. It was an amazing experience, a great career highlight and to top it off, that year we won best dining restaurant in Australia. We were on fire.”
I’m sure those accolades didn’t come easily.
“I was working 6 days a week, from open to close. The restaurant was pumping, and we were doing 180 covers a night, the team was firing but I found myself spending more time out of the kitchen in the social world. It was a real eye opener. I needed to get back in the kitchen, with my team. I was 25 and the Hyatt property changed, Millennium Copthorne took over their own property – they wanted a hotel in Sydney and me to stay and roll out the XU Bistro concepts across the globe. I had dinner with the CEO, and I watched as the top 3 managers resigned, so that made it hard to move on with the idea.
I felt a loyalty to Hyatt so decided to move on, completely. I joined Blue Rock Catering, doing off site events for up to 5,000 people as head chef. It was a huge learning curve, this business grew dramatically and quickly, doing off site events with little infrastructure –the pressure was something else. I was the only full time chef in the kitchen, to manage events on that scale was rewarding for me. In the end 20 hour days and 110 hours a week wore me down, it took me a while but I realised I couldn’t keep operating at that level, it was not sustainable.”
Those 20 hour days are madness, aren’t they? What was your solution?
“It was time for me to move on from Blue Rock, my wife was working at Serge Dansereau’s hotel (The Regent), and through our connections we took the option to open and run Nick’s Café and Bar at Crow’s Nest. Unfortunately the partnership broke down – however it gave me a great insight into business. Fiona got a job with Serge at Bathers’ Pavilion and I went to the Sydney Club, that very ambitiously decided they needed a $4million restaurant. But the renovation was so expensive, and on 3 levels, it was massively overcapitalized. Eventually The University and Schools Club bought their debt and I worked as their Executive Chef and F & B manager, but membership was dwindling, and it was a challenge to attract members.”
Big learning curve for everyone, I guess. And from there?
“I came on board as head chef of The Art Gallery of NSW – Brien Trippas was the owner, and we got on like a house on fire. We had quite a few challenges in the early days within the kitchen – logistics were far from ideal, the café and restaurants were on different levels, teams were not united and the menu had been designed for chefs to do food quickly and for convenience rather than focusing on the customer experience.”
And your solution?
“Brien had 5 venues at the time, I saw a silo kitchen culture which needed to be changed, and proposed to Brien and Michelle Guberina, General Manager, that we use the Art Gallery as a training and breeding ground for the business, so all staff knew what standards to expect, then farm them out. I worked there for 10 years, we grew from 5 to 30 properties – it was great to see our chefs and teams develop over the years, the diversity of the business was dynamic and challenging in a good way. Being invloved with the product development team for Emirates in Dubai was amazing. We set up menu planners, mobilized new sites, built teams, recipe cards, costings, all the basics that build a solid foundation including a food safety management plan. It astounds me today how many businesses lack those fundamentals, particularly if they are planning to upscale.
During all this time my wife was battling breast cancer, Brien’s support was invaluable, particularly when she lost her battle. Brien sold to AIH, there was a lot of reshuffling and merging, the settling in period took a couple of years, and I worked with Trippas White for 6 more years.
I recall a special project I was given for 12 months which was managing wages across the entire business, reducing payroll by $1million over a year, that was without pain for staff, it was just working with managers and Head Chefs, structuring rosters, based on mutual respect and business acumen. Interestingly I was part of a panel for the third and final interview for a new General Manager for The Art Gallery, Karen. I didn’t realise at the time that Karen would become my wife and we now have three amazing children. I am very fortunate and cherish everything Karen and the kids bring to my life. The support and love they give is unconditional and allows me to do what I do.
I felt I’d achieved as much as I could at Trippas White, and had a conversation with the Sydney Collective Group, who owned some prime properties and I took a Group Executive Chef role mentoring and supporting all the head chefs within the business. I opened the Balcony Restaurant in Byron Bay with Sean Connolly – and somehow, we managed a monumental refit in 3 days! Fraser Short was an incredible organizer and very driven.”
In a way, this was a natural progression for you, wasn’t it?
“I guess. I was approached by Pittwater RSL which had just spent $8m renovating their F&B operations to give it the life it deserved, we put in charcoal cooking in the redesign, but the board was considering putting in an outside operator model as we were close to opening and things stalled after 9 months, so I decided it was not for me and moved into consulting and fortunately the Pan Pacific Hotel Group, who owned Park Royal Hotels, took me onboard. We introduced a work placement program with high school students still at school to have exposure to industry, something I’m a big supporter of. Along with rolling out new menus, food safety programs and the list goes on.
That role went so well I was asked to assist the opening of the Pan Pacific in Melbourne, liaising with the executive chef on brand standards, I came back to Sydney, overseeing Park Royal at Darling harbour and Parramatta when out of the blue I got a phone call from Criniti’s for a group role which really interested me and suited my skill set. Criniti’s had 9 restaurants and were dramatically expanding to 12, I was involved with procurement, suppliers, menus, mentoring – we were going through 2.5 tons of sauce a week – in the quiet season – so that says something about the scale – it was high volume.”
There must have been some big challenges for you then?
“It was interesting in managing the business dynamics and menu roll out. It’s definitely the largest menu I have ever been a part of, although in saying that it also brings its challenges. It also gave me the opportunity to see what I really want to do with my hospitality career.
I didn’t want to be another statistic in hospitality, so when the opportunity came to work with Select and have a family life, and inspire my team, I jumped.
I’m a provider, I love what I do, I love the people, the industry, and I love the support that this industry generates. For me, it boils down to mutual respect and an understanding of what we’re all trying to achieve. I value the skills everyone brings to the table, and embrace them.”
So what’s your advice for young kids coming up through the ranks, or even just considering the industry?
“Where did I start? Someone gave me a chance, an opportunity, we need to nurture our young talent – my credo is that you’ve got to give, it’s all about giving, if you’re not prepared to give you’re not going to get much. So don’t demand it!
I love the mentoring I do now with Kenvale Hospitality College, and now I am ambassador for Starshell Students which is anti-cyber bullying. It will be a platform working with education systems, it’s fairly infant but gaining a lot of traction.
I love judging competitions and there’s always a learning from that, a benchmark– e.g. at the last chef of the year the entrants were given time to plan, and then in the finals a mystery box, they did better with the surprise of the mystery box. For me, that was really interesting to see the different dynamics – it was a totally different pressure.
I feel humbled at times with the support and love of my family, and within the industry. My wife, Karen, is my biggest critic and supporter, I treasure that every day.”
And for the younger ones?
“Do your research, make sure you align with someone who meets your core values, and that there’s respect and mutual understanding there and you can grow and develop within that business. I ask apprentices what’s your development plan? Where do you want to be at the end of the year? The answer comes through feedback, take it onboard, you have to groom your team for success. That’s what our jobs are, it’s simple really.
Once, it was all about me, not now, it’s what can I do for the team around me. I feel proud of being a part of what’s around me, seeing it transpire into bigger and better is my reward.”
Thank you John McFadden, it will be interesting to see you continue to give back to an industry you love, but which obviously gives you much in return.