Imagine stints in the kitchens of some of Brisbane’s best restaurants: E’cco, Urbane, Esquire, Cinco Bistro and The Long Apron. Then imagine running a successful food blog and being published in the Weekend Australian. Now, imagine you haven’t even celebrated your 14th birthday yet.
Such was life for Elliot Baker, the young Brisbane gourmand who’s turned heads in the restaurant industry with his relentless passion for food and a fearless attitude in approaching some of Brisbane’s biggest guns.
Now 17, Baker is part of the local industry. Looking though Baker’s blog, Musings of a Young Gourmet, makes you guffaw, if only because his achievements are that intimidating.
We caught up with Baker the week of both his high-school graduation and his 17th birthday to chat about the past and the future.
Broadsheet: Where did the passion for food come from?
Elliot Baker: Ever since I was young my parents have been really good cooks. I guess just them hosting big dinner parties – I would help them stir the pot or something like that from a young age. That’s how I started. And the cookbook they always used was this E’cco cookbook by Philip Johnson. I read the whole book and I think that’s where my passion started.
BS: What was it about that book that appealed?
EB: I think it was because he was Brisbane based. A lot of those books tend to be by your Neil Perrys and your Matt Morans. Because mum had been to the restaurant and he’d signed the book for her, that was special.
BS: The last seven or eight years, the culture of the celebrity chef has expanded. You can build a profile these days. Did that interest you in the early days?
EB: One of the things that interested me was that people could progress through the ranks and then possibly have their own restaurant, and then go from there into TV appearances. That interested me a bit. But as I started to do a bit of work in the restaurants, I found out how hard it was, how tough it was. There were so many chefs saying, “This isn’t the career for you.”
BS: Where have you worked?
EB: In Brisbane, I did the most at E’cco. I managed to get in there for a while. Also Urbane, and Esquire for a week – that was really intense. I went to Spring, Tank, Cinco, Gerard’s, Public. I went out to Montville to The Long Apron for a bit. That was really cool.
BS: So have you switched entirely to thinking about being a food writer now?
EB: I think that’s one of the options. I wouldn’t mind being an owner-operator as well, and maybe work front-of-house for a little bit to see what it’s like. But being a food writer is probably the dream.
BS: So at what point specifically did you start drifting towards writing about food?
EB: Probably when I started meeting up with food writers.
BS: What inspired you to do that?
EB: The Noosa International Food & Wine Festival is where I got to meet a few people. I did some volunteer work there at some of the stalls. I think the first was Margie Fraser, who used to be the QWEEKEND reviewer. I got talking to her about food writing and met her across the road at GOMA. We chatted about food writing and what she looks out for when reviewing. Then I did the same thing with Tony Harper, who’s the Brisbane News reporter, and John Lethlean from The Australian.
BS: Do you consider yourself an introvert?
EB: Definitely. Whether it’s on the cricket field or at school, I tend to keep to myself.
BS: So you probably didn’t find it easy to reach out to those guys?
EB: I didn’t. I didn’t, no [laughs].
BS: Was it encouraging when they said, ‘Yes’?
EB: Some guys are hard to get on to. John Lethlean, when I asked him, wasn’t very happy about it. I had to prove to him that this was something I was passionate about. Finally, he said yes.
BS: What kind of advice did they give you about writing about food?
EB: They taught me a lot about not writing too much – keep it short. And a technique I learned from John: whatever you start with, always try to come back to that to help finish the story. I think that really helped. Tony helped me quite a lot: when we went to a restaurant, we’d both review and then compare our notes to see how similar our scores were – just to see how on-track I was.
BS: And then you subbed in for John Lethlean at The Australian. How did that come about?
EB: His editor contacted me and said, “John’s away this week. Do you want to write an article yourself, on something you can talk about?” I ended up writing a piece on kids’ menus.
BS: It’s interesting that the food writers were relatively encouraging, whereas the chefs weren’t so much. Did that make you think a little bit about the kitchen culture at all?
EB: I think it did. Sometimes when I would go into a kitchen, chefs would question whether I really wanted to do it, telling me it was a really tough job. That kind of did have an effect on me. Head chefs not so much, nor the apprentices, but the guys in the middle. But then again you get some really nice chefs who I became friends with and I watched them go through that period and eventually open their own places.