Nick Filsell knows that being an executive chef is a big job and it takes a broad and deep skill set to do it well.
Finding the time to also support the great managers and team of his “love child” – Lost in a Forest, is just one of many shake your head ‘how does he do it?’ moments in lifting the lid on Nick’s busy life.
And that’s definitely a pastry lid. For Nick Filsell, there’s no other job, career or vocation that remotely tugs at his heart strings the way delivering food in all its manifestations does.
Busy? Unbelievably. Working full time as head chef of The Treasury 1860 Nick is also director of the award winning Adelaide Hills restaurant called Lost in a Forest which, last year, created a career highlight for Nick: having Marco Pierre White come in for lunch and then telling everyone on Sunrise – ‘Lost in a Forest? Best pizza I’ve had in my life’.
Nick adds to that a fairly astute take on Marco the man. “He still has the same intensity, being in his presence you feel it. It’s an incredibly surreal experience to stand in the presence of any of my idols – it was an amazing feeling.”
Nick then launches into a brief overview of his cooking life, working backwards and bouncing passionately from one memory to the next, his life unfolds like a movie on fast forward. And the insights come thick and fast.
In his words:
“Before that, (Lost in a Forest), I was head chef at Jamie’s Italian. I opened the restaurant after being trained in London, then when Jamie walked into the restaurant knowing the names of my children, I nearly fainted. Here is a genius who surrounds himself with the right people who feed him the information he regards as important. Nothing extraneous. Time is precious. He’s careful about who he trusts – he works 4 days a week but works 15 hours a day.
Nick Filsell continues: “We (his partner Charlie in Lost and their team) were sitting down one day and someone said, ‘let’s do a pulled pork pizza – then someone said let’s do a banh mi pizza and so we went into development. We worked out how to get that pork on the pizza so it didn’t come off the base in long unmanageable strands, we worked out how to pickle vegetables to match the flavour, how to get crackling into the recipe. It was huge. The research and development carried on over months in Charlie’s backyard. 2 days after we opened, Jock Zonfrillo (award winning chef of Orana) came and said “Banh mi pizza, who knew?”
The banh mi is one of the very few pizzas that’s stayed on the menu – everyone who’s had it, loves it. People know us for that. In line with my food beliefs, we remain unapologetically ourselves. I sometimes think the guys in Napoli would be throwing darts at us because of our outrageous departures from their pure cuisine, but we’re also adventurous with the Australian palate.
I don’t think it matters if you deviate from the traditional as long as you’re not calling yourself that. In essence “Own what you are and be the best you can be.”
“As an executive chef, there’s an awful lot that’s not food that comes across your desk.”
“As an executive chef, there’s an awful lot that’s not food related that comes across your desk and I have found that emotional skills are the skills you need the most in the industry. Mental health in the industry is now particularly at the forefront of my mind. Apart from my own battles, I recognise the depth of the issues with staff I’ve had to deal with.
I’ve found that with most chefs a big issue is, ‘You might stop doing it but you never stop being it.’ Or ‘It’s not what you do it’s who you are.’ has become the paradigm of the chef’slife. This can prove to be a double-edged sword as people link their self-worth to their professional performance. This can become a very slippery slope as you grow and develop through your career, as you will invariably make mistakes and once you’ve attached the paradigm of a chef to it you think yourself a bad person for not getting it right every time!
“The key is to come from a place of service for true success.”
I went to college (TAFE in Adelaide) with 40 others – out of those who graduated with me there’s only 4 or 5 left. That alarming attrition rate is not about ‘falling out of love with food’ at all – it’s the hostility of the conditions that you’re expected to work under.
I mean picture this… your at work, add loud metallic banging, dance on the spot holding scalding hot pans in your hand, hear the droninghumof the extraction, then have 4 people shouting at you all needing on the spot responses to complex questions, then raise the temperature 30 degrees, burn yourself, and that’s a good day!
You can’t tell me anyone can operate consistently at peak under those conditions. And then now, Social Media factors have exponentially raised the stress levels. I’ve seen posts about a bad meal that may or may not be true, demanding the chef should be sacked.
Where’s the accountability of Social Media in the 21stcentury?
Personally, I think it’s a great way to practice cowardice. Every other industry has checks and balances but where are they on Facebook? It’s too powerful a medium to be in the hands of anyone who can type a word. But hey? It’s here, and we have to deal with it, so I push to do the best I can every second of the day.”
Nick has also worked as an ambassador for“A Taste of Harmony” to raise the profile of cultural inclusion using food as the medium. “I think it’s a fabulous initiative and doing really important work.”
“At Treasury 1860 I’m now coming into my food, and I mean by that my own type of food: food that represents me and my journey and where I am on that journey right now. Even though I get briefed now by the owners of the business, it’s a collaboration, and a merging of the vision we all have for the space, and at the core of it, I remain unapologetically myself.”
(Side note here: I just wrote an article for Entrepreneurial Chef in the USA advising young chefs to find their compass point. Where home is for them, and it’s interesting that Nick comes to that in our conversation. Synchronicity at its best! Chrissie)
“Where did I start? Ha! That makes me laugh! I started out as a dishy at my local pub. I was 16 and needed money to take girls out on dates and I put notes around saying I would do anything to work. One restaurant owner got back to me with, “How would you feel about washing dishes?”I jumped at that with, “You going to pay me to do it?”
I sucked for the first 6 months, and met and upset almost every caricature from life in this melting pot of a kitchen. There was the drunk, the junkie, the crazy, the old chef with tattoos. Every night was different, and every night was the same.
It wasn’t food I fell in love with – it was the environment. Every dish was spectacular to me, almost miraculous, and it wasn’t until 3 years had passed and a million or so dishes had been cleaned that I fell in love with food. Suddenly, I had the confidence to put my own spin on things.
Apprenticeships are tough.
You spend a lot of time genuinely eating shit. When you’re developing you try too hard, and now, I feel that the space between the flavours is where the story comes from.
It’s like great art, or music or dance – the syncopation is what makes a great experience.
I remember when I was training waiters at Jamie’s to sell my special: it was Coorong Mulloway (fish) a sustainable by-product of Coorong mullet at the mouth of the Murray River, and I paired it with pippies from Goolwa Beach – we all used to pull pippies out of the sand as kids – almost everybody has had that summer holiday at some stage of their life in Adelaide.
I taught the waiters the story, to tell the customers it will take you straight back to the beach. Picture the sand, the sea, the crunch of the pump, that endless sky – painting pictures, telling the story and guess what? They sold 4 to a table of 4 and so on. They learnt the lesson that it‘s the story that sells.
People don’t want an ingredient, a plateful of food, a tricky performance, they want a memory.
Going back to where I started, after my apprenticeship, I did two laps of the country and one lap of the world – and my favourite place of all was working in the UK at The Royalist Hotel in the Cotswolds. It was a 10th Century building that had an original Roman Frieze, and it was haunted. The owner’s pet dog wouldn’t go into the cellar, under any circumstance, and working within those story-filled historic walls was for me a huge highlight.
Back home I ended up working on Hayman in the mid to late 90s – and moved on to working during the Olympics in Sydney, which was incredible. Then working at hatted restaurants in Melbourne but don’t get me wrong, it’s not all been beer and skittles. There’s been some real low lights, and being the itinerant chef is not all it’s cracked up to be – along the way, there’s plenty of blood sweat and tears. You spend a lot of time sitting alone at night – knowing something is wrong and often you can’t do anything about it. Sometimes what you have to put up on the pass, you have no choice. You don’t like yourself after you’ve done that. I resolved to never put myself or anyone in my team in that position – because when it does happen, everyone takes that home with them. And that’s hard to shift. It’s a weight that sits at the back of the heart or a splinter in your mind.
In this industry, 30% is really hard and 70% is fun, and the crazy thing is we spend more time kicking ourselves up the arse about the 30% than enjoying the 70%. Isn’t that nuts?
It’s funny, this has brought up all sorts of memories I had forgotten about, but one thing I do remember always is that I wanted to be a chef when I was 16 – I’m now 45 and I still want to be a chef.
I’ve thought about it, but this is the only thing that I can see myself doing. I made my avocation my vocation. (Nick laughs loud and long here) If I weren’t a chef I’d be a frustrated designer wanting to be a chef!… “
Nick has to go and see to his myriad responsibilities, but what a massive story, with countless gems of wisdom and insight that he’s carrying into his busy life today. For me, I would think that anyone under his care would consider themselves lucky, and I for one, feel lucky to have made a new friend, and wonderfully wise mentor. Thank you Nick.
PS: Nick Filsell has agreed to be our first chef patron for Off the Hotplate.
And some more art, and love on a plate…