There are two sides to Colin Fassnidge. Viewers of My Kitchen Rules might be au fait with the Sydney-based Irish chef as a guest judge on the cooking show. Restaurant fans and kitchen voyeurs might remember his days at Banc, the Four in Hand, or his current venture, 4Fourteen.
So is he the hard-arse, bad-tempered chef with one of the finest old-school kitchen pedigrees in the country, or the guy flashing the perfect pearly white TV grin, juggling tomatoes and playfully blowing soap bubbles at his co-judges, Pete Evans and Manu Feildel? Plenty might say the hi-def version of the man is winning out. Google “Colin Fassnidge” today, and the related searches might be “age”, “wife”, “family”, “height”, “teeth”, “wedding” and “born”. Not one of them is “chef”.
Which is surprising, when you look at his CV. This is a chef who was brought up screaming, going from one violent kitchen to the next, experiencing the sort of mental torture that only the grand European kitchens of the ’80s and ’90s could provide.
It was working at Michelin-starred Thornton’s, in his hometown of Dublin, in the early ’90s that initially broke him in. When it came to psychological warfare in the kitchen, chef Kevin Thornton was a specialist. He would painstakingly set up an entire station, then clear it and make his apprentices do it all over again, leaving them very little time to get properly prepared before the start of service. When the young chefs predictably fell behind, Thornton would start the screaming. It was a set up. “Imagine,” says Fassnidge, “getting told you’re doing something wrong for f—ing 16 hours all day.”
Thornton’s may have been where his career (and the subsequent abuse that came with it) started, but certainly not where it ends. He describes Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons under Raymond Blanc as the kitchen equivalent of Guantanamo Bay. “You weren’t a person, you were a uniform. I used to count the amount of months I had on the wall in the back of the kitchen. When you’d made another month, you’d make a little notch. That’s how bad it was.”
Kitchens back then could be violent places, but Fassnidge says it was the mental abuse that got you in the end, and Le Manoir was no exception. “The head chef at the time – I’m not going to name the name – wanted to get rid of someone. He’d just stand and scream in their face all day. Tell them to empty their drawers, throw the bins, drag them around by their aprons or whatever. It was a young girl and he just broke her.
“One day we opened the [walk-in] fridge and she was sitting on the floor rocking herself. And everyone just walked by her, got the prep, walked back out, closed the fridge. A friend had to come get her. But we used to see that all the time. You had to look after yourself. It’s like prison, right? If you see someone fall down and you help them, you’re also f—ed.”
Fassnidge remembers walking through the supermarket with his mother after a few years of working at Le Manoir, shouting at people and pushing trolleys out of the way. “You have proper PTSD, like you’ve come back from a f—ing war zone. And your parents are looking at you going, ‘What the f— has happened to you?'”
In the late ’90s, Fassnidge received a job offer from Justin North, a young Australian chef he had met at Le Manoir. North had risen to sous chef at Banc, was recruiting for the Franco-British Sydney fine diner run by Irishman Liam Tomlin, a chef with a famously short fuse and a masters in bollocking. Fassnidge fitted in straight away.
Leaving Banc, Fassnidge ran Le Grande Bouffe in Rozelle in 2004 before opening his own place a year later, the Four in Hand Restaurant in Paddington. It was high-end British-style pub dining executed with all the care and elegance Fassnidge had learnt at Thornton’s, Le Manoir and Banc. In 2012, Fassnidge opened the more casual, diner-style 4Fourteen in Surry Hills. A year later, he became a guest judge on reality cooking show My Kitchen Rules.
But in 2015, he closed the doors on the Four in Hand for good. He says it was having kids that really shifted the goalposts for him. “I know too many chefs who still stand in the same spot as they did 16 years ago for 16 hours a day and they’re just grumpy. They hate cooking, and they hate restaurants and they hate life. They drink too much, take too many drugs. I always said if I had kids I was never going to be that person.”
There was a problem, though. The kitchen culture he’d been raised in had given him a well-earned reputation, and getting staff to work for him was proving difficult. “I burned through so many staff. I was known as a hard chef in Sydney. And then one day I turned around and no one would work for me. Like, f—ing no one.”
It was a wake-up call for him. Between the corner he’d painted himself into, and the fact he’d proven himself to be good TV talent, long hours in the kitchen became less of a priority. And posing for the weekly glossies wasn’t looking so bad. “I know exactly what it is, but it’s paying my bills. I used to fight it. I used to rage at social media, but I don’t read it anymore, because I’m quite happy within myself.”
The realities of reality television has certainly changed daily life for the chef. Especially when it comes to social media. His Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are clogged with private messages from online trolls threatening him and his children – sometimes with things so disturbing he can’t even tell his wife. He says there’s nothing the police can do unless there’s a direct physical threat, so he’s had to learn to filter the noise.
He also controls the feed. He won’t post pictures of his two daughters unless they’re fully clothed, and is constantly aware of things most people don’t think about unless they’ve spent years being followed by the Daily Mail. “If I go swimming with my girls on a Saturday, and they get changed with me in the men’s [changing room], a little kid might come up to me and go, ‘Oh, MKR!’ and I’m like, ‘F— it. I’m outta here.’ That’s the life we live in now, where you can’t be seen to talk to a child.”
Who is Colin Fassnidge? He’s a chef who’s learnt to pick his battles.