James Privett turns up the heat for Applejack

James Privett’s appointment as Group Executive Chef of Applejack Hospitality sends a clear message to other small bars that when it comes to the food side of business, it’s game on!
James has held a number of high-profile positions over the years, including Head Chef at Ananas Bistro and Bar, The Cut Bar and Grill (Urban Purveyor Group), The Light Brigade Hotel, Merivale’s Bistro CBD and Bistro Moncur, as well as roles at The Clock Hotel and Bennelong Restaurant.

Classically trained in French cuisine, having worked under veteran chefs Damien Pignolet, Janni Kyritsis and Anders Ousback, James has been inspired and influenced by such renowned chefs as Peter Doyle and Paul McGrath.
James’ journey to date has been an interesting one and how he makes the switch from working at some of Sydney’s finest eateries to the fast-paced world of small bars will be well worth watching.

Bistro: Your background is most impressive, polarised as it is between fine dining restaurants and classic “pub-type” venues. What are the key differences in working in, say, Bennelong Restaurant or Bistro Moncur to Light Brigade or Clock Hotel?
JP: The key difference is primarily the market that you’re aiming your product to. The standards don’t change and the expectation stays the same – you’re just providing a different style of dining experience. It’s all about giving customers what they want even if they don’t know they want it.

Bistro: You have worked with many of the biggest names in the country. Who were the standouts and why?
James: They’ve all been instrumental in different ways. Janni Kyritsis and Gay Bilson at Bennelong gave me my first look into fine dining and really shaped the direction for the rest of my career. Damien Pignolet gave me a lot of opportunities to grow and develop as a chef. Everyone I’ve worked with and everyone I’ve worked for – good and bad really – have played a stand-out role in shaping me as a chef.

B: How important is it for a young chef to have a mentor?
JP: It’s important for them to have someone who cares about their career and cares about making them a better chef. I guess it’s good to have someone who inspires you and drives you to be better but that can only get you so far. It’s the hard work that makes you successful, not the success of someone else.

B: Most successful small bars nowadays seem to have a strong food presence. How important is it for venues like Botanist to have a strong food offering.
JP: All of our venues are food-focused – we’re more restaurant than bar. Having said that, as a general rule I think you need to offer a complete package. Customers are better educated about food and have a higher expectation of what they should be able to get when they go out. If you want your venue to do well long term then you have to meet that need.

B: In the food sense, where are venues like Applejacks competing? Is it pubs or restaurants?
JP : We’re competing with restaurants. We have a fairly unique style but it definitely hits the restaurant side of the scale.

B: You are known for great steaks – will your menus be a bit ‘red meat-centric’?
JP: Not at all. Of course we have a great steak offered at each venue but again, it’s about building a menu that is driven by customer needs. How good would a solely red meat menu be though? Delicious!

B: You have taken an interest in South American cuisine. Why?
JP: My interest in South American food came about because it was the direction we were looking at for SoCal. It’s very different to everything that I’ve done in the past and it’s been a really nice thing to challenge myself with new flavours and products.

B: Will the three Applejack venues have similar menus?
JP: The structure of the menus is very similar – they have some cross-over but each venue has its own identity and that’s important for us. People should know they are in an Applejack venue based on the feel and style of the room but they’ll get a different food offer that suits the style of the venue and the skills of its head chef.

B: Your latest venue, SoCal, is in a new food precinct in Neutral Bay, just across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, competing with brands like Firefly, Pony and, of course, The Oaks Hotel. How is SoCal going to be different in the food sense? What are you offering that your competitors are not?
JP: The food at SoCal is built around a Southern Californian feel so we aim for fresh and light with some big punchy flavours.

B: How many venues can a Group Executive Chef run effectively?
JP: With the right teams in place, there’s no end to how many.

B: What are your plans and goals for the future?
JP: Right now it’s all about the continued growth of Applejack.