Born and bred in Perth, Shane Osborn holds the distinction of being the first Australian to earn two Michelin stars through his efforts at London’s Pied à Terre. He was also the first British-based chef to cook for the European Council.
Shane has worked in highly acclaimed restaurants in Sweden, London and Courchevel. And more recently Hong Kong with St Betty. Shane shares with us his insights on Michelin stars, his journey so far and what it takes to become a success internationally.
Bistro: You left Perth early in your career, at a time in the Perth scene that to use your words ‘cos lettuce was the rage’ How far has the food scene developed since those days?
Shane: The Perth and WA food scene has definitely evolved dramatically since my days of cooking there. You only have to look at events such as the Margaret River Gourmet Escape to see how far its developed, this festival and also Taste of Perth are world class events attracting the culinary elite.
B: As you know, there has been a lot of pressure on high end dining here with many well-known venues closing their doors. With the European economy being what it is, are there similar challenges for comparable restaurants in London?
SO: I don’t think there has been that many casualties in London, what’s happened are chefs and restaurateurs have adapted to the market, which means better value for money for diners. There’s been an explosion of low to mid priced restaurants offering quality food and service without having to break the bank.
B: You have been a Sous Chef, Head Chef and an owner. If you had to put an oven temperature against each of these in terms of pressure what would they be (Celsius please) and why?
SO: Being a sous chef is tough because you’re stuck between the chef and the rest of the brigade. Obviously the head chef expects his sous chef to be all over the kitchen, in some kitchens I’ve seen the chef blame the sous chef for everything that goes wrong no matter who’s at fault. Temperature rating -200C
While being the head chef /owner is a totally different ball game, certainly in my first few years the pressure was immense. What with so many responsibilities falling under the title of head chef.
Modern day chefs have so much exposure in the press and online you need a thick skin to cope with the praise and criticism. This of course gets easier the older and wiser one gets, that’s why I believe cooks shouldn’t be head chefs before 27-28 years of age. Temperature rating -250C
B: Pied à Terre received two Michelin stars under you. Many of Bistro’s readers probably don’t understand the pressure that comes with this accolade. Could you briefly explain both upside and downside?
SO: Michelin is interesting, I came into the Michelin system not really knowing or appreciating the true worth of the hallowed stars.
I was 20 when I arrived in London in 1990 and when I heard that Michelin had a restaurant guide I asked what the hell do they know about restaurants, don’t they make car tyres? So the pressure wasn’t that great as the stars weren’t part of my career goal. Saying that, it was an awesome thing to achieve, especially in the early noughties. I felt there was an expectation I wouldn’t last the distance at Pied a Terre. Certainly the attitude in London towards Australian chefs at that time was we all cooked Pacific Rim /fusion food with no understanding of French cuisine. Australian chefs couldn’t win Michelin stars!
B: In your formative years you worked with big names such as Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing. How important is it for a young chef to work with great chefs.
SO: Working for well-known, respected chefs is vital to a chef’s career. Training under someone such a s Gordon, Heston or Marco puts a stamp of approval on your CV. Doors will open due to the high level of training and skill these type of chefs provide.
B: Many successful chefs have had a great mentor? Have you? How important is it for a young chef to have a mentor?
SO:I don’t have a particular mentor, I’ve been lucky to work with a wide range of quality chefs, who all posses a range of diverse and unique skills.
B: What advice would you give a pub chef in Australia looking to break into the high-end food scene in Europe?
SO: You must have a strong CV. Without it you have no bargaining power. With a strong CV the power comes your way. You have leverage. You will have choice. This industry is well known for people making fake promises. Offering you the world but really just after cheap labour. If you have a good track record and CV from Australia you will probably be looking for a position as Sous Chef.
Look for a venue that has good financial backing. Gastro pubs can be a good entry point – typically they tend to have a cheap location and that probably means low rent – the pub may even be owned by a brewery – even better! It all adds up to not being in a place that wants to continually cut operating costs. So in a nutshell, if you want to commit yourself to a career overseas you need to find the right places and chefs to work with. Build that resume1… and always be learning.
B: Most of your education was ‘on the job’. Is a formal apprenticeship a necessity?
SO: I do like the apprenticeship scheme and I feel that it is important for trainee chefs to have some form of schooling, especially when it comes food safety and the business side of the job.
B: You have described the management style of many of the European ‘old guard’ chefs as brutal. Is there much of this in Hong Kong
SO: I don’t think an old school brutal chef would last very long in Hong Kong.
For one the people here aren’t aggressive, so any form of violence or threating behavior would see the chef deported or even jailed.
B: At your new venture St Betty, do you have many customers from Mainland China? Do they differ in any way from local patrons?
SO: We do see our fair share of Mainland Chinese and to be honest they are as discerning as the local Hong Kongers.
B: You were the first Hong Kong restaurant to introduce a Josper Grill. Can you tell us a little about what makes them special?
SO: The Jospor has been around for about thirty years. There are a few in Australia but very popular through Europe. They are a Spanish invention. It’s like an indoor barbeque – like a grill and oven in one. At St Betty we have a signature dish – a medium rare one-kilo Rib of Australian grass fed beef. The Josper preserves the natural moisture and flavour of the dish. For me, it reminds me of my time growing up in Perth where I learnt to cook on a BBQ with my Dad. I remember chopping the wood, building the fire, the smell of charcoal so it brings back fond memories for me.
B: Can you give us an overview of the restaurant scene in Hong Kong?
SO: The Hong Kong food scene is constantly evolving; in the 2 years since I arrived there has been an influx of European and American chefs, which has made finding staff difficult. Western style restaurants are the minority, which means skilled staff are fewer.
B: I expect that being allergic to fish would be an issue for a chef anywhere but in Hong Kong it must be a greater challenge?
SO: My menus have always heavily featured seafood, so its not been any harder to adapt here, saying that I do get the urge to taste the wonderful produce we get delivered direct from Japan daily, truly incredible stuff.
B: You have previously commented on the importance of a great suppler network and the relationships that go with this. Is it difficult to rebuild such a network from scratch?
SO: It’s so important to treat your suppliers with respect and dignity, if you look after them they will look after you. The best suppliers and producers are as passionate as we are, so work with them and treat them as part of your team. You and your business will reap the rewards. Hong Kong has been quite a challenge finding quality suppliers. There is still room for improvement regarding the quality of ingredients sent from places like Australia and Europe.
B: Can you expand on this?
SO: Well, I know how good the produce can be from Australia and Europe. There is Wagyu from Australia that is unquestionably the best in the world. Same with seafood- Australia has incredible produce. I suppose it’s just the economics of freighting produce to Hong Kong where the demand for high-end produce isn’t that large. On the other hand Japan is only two hours away so there is the accessibility issue – my Japanese seafood suppliers can harvest produce out of the sea in the morning and have it delivered to my restaurant by 6pm…. and of course some of the fruit and veg produce, not just seafood is out of this world – but very expensive. Japan has the best tomatoes in the world but you pay for it – $60 kg!
B: If you had a child who wanted to be a great chef and you were to buy them a one-way ticket to any city. Where would it be?
SO: I would send my child to Paris to visit Rungis market, it’s a truly amazing place, and the range and quality of produce on show is unbelievable.