Maria Kabal, head chef at Fitzroy’s Anada, tells me she’s a “pain junkie”.
It’s the first time I’ve heard the term, but it makes sense. With all the intensity, competition and long hours of the hospitality industry, it’s inevitable that chefs deal with sore backs, achy joints, hangovers and exhausted minds. Sometimes all of the above. But Kabal has always had a strong desire to get up every morning and do it all again.
Kabal’s addiction is fed by her love of hard work, hectic services and dedication to an industry she adores. Her love of cooking kicked in as a child, and it’s still growing.
“It’s the only thing that ever made sense to me,” she says over coffee in Anada’s dining room. “I’ve been cooking since I was very young, about nine years old. I’d cook on my own when my parents were at work. If I wanted a cake, I’d make it. My parents had a lot of cookbooks. They’re great cooks, so that definitely helped.”
Kabal laughs when she talks about the dishes she misses from home, “The pate my dad makes, I eat it warm, straight from the bowl,” she says. “And confit pig’s tails."
The young chef started cooking professionally in her home town of Tallinn, Estonia, when she was 18. It was 2009, and the country was in recession following the September 2008 global financial market crash.
“I’d never had a job and it was really hard to find work. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to study, I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Kabal says. “But I knew I loved to cook.”
Her parents urged her to get a degree. They had a firm belief that without a university education she was “never going to get anywhere”, Kabal says. But, determined to get out of Estonia, she instead took unpaid work at a local kitchen, and gained the experience she needed to move to America or England, where she'd set her sights on culinary courses.
“I couldn’t afford New York but I found a course in London," Kabal says. "It was a bachelor of science in culinary arts and management. It sounded good to me – and my parents were happy.”
She moved to the UK and picked up some bartending work until she got her bearings. Eventually, Kabal found a job at Caravan, an all-day diner at the forefront of the dining scene King’s Cross. “It’s a super-Australian-style restaurant with small, share plates and funky, delicious food,” she says.
Kabal was 21 when she began at Caravan, which is a bit older than a lot of chefs are when they start out, but she came in with attitude. “I was a smart arse,” she says, laughing. It wasn’t tolerated by Caravan’s Australian head chef, Sam Wilson. “He wouldn’t have any of it,” she says, but her work ethic couldn’t be ignored. “He could see something in me and one night, after service, I was cleaning down and he came up to me awkwardly and said, ‘What’s your plan? You’re good and I’d like you to work every section in the kitchen’.
“That was it,” Kabal says.
She stayed at Caravan for 18 months. “I learned so much about work and life,” she says. She’d learned the essential skills of working in a kitchen, and how to deal with the pressure of service, but it was time for Kabal to seek out new challenges – and to try to heal a broken heart.
“London can take it out of you. I was working and studying full-time. I was exhausted and I was in love with somebody and it broke my heart. I wanted to go as far away as I could.”
While she had no interest in visiting Australia, a friend who was travelling to New Zealand convinced Kabal to go to Melbourne with her on a working holiday. She secured a chef role at Gertrude Street’s southern-Spanish neighbourhood diner Anada.
Toward the end of her working holiday, Kabal wasn't ready to leave. So Anada’s owners, Jesse and Vanessa Gerner, sponsored her, and she’s now been at the Fitzroy restaurant for five years. Three years in she was offered the head chef role.
“I thought if I don’t take this opportunity I’m crazy,” Kabal says. But it also opened up a lot of insecurities. “I kept thinking, ‘How could anybody like me be head chef of anything?’ I was anxious all the time. I was so scared that I was going to get it wrong.”
Kabal used her nervous energy to work hard and learn how to be an effective leader. She leads from the front, carrying the load with her team. Anada’s kitchen is small, so Kabal has no choice but to be in the trenches, but it’s clear that no matter how big her kitchen or her brigade, she’d be there anyway, coaching and guiding her team.
“Not everyone learns the same way or reacts the same way to your leadership style,” she says. “So you have to have a different leadership style with each person to get the best out of them.”
Kabal’s anxiety still plagues her at times, but teaching herself self-assessment has helped. “I always reflect on my actions, to try and be a better person. I know I can be dark sometimes and feel things very strongly. I’ve struggled a lot with mental health and have learned to talk about my feelings. I talk to anyone, from a friend to the guy behind the counter at the 7-Eleven,” she laughs. “If I’m having a hard time, I talk and talk about it. It always makes it better and I encourage my staff to do the same.”
Kabal’s kitchen crew was all-female for a year, and hearing about her staff’s past experiences opened her eyes to harassment that male staff members don't usually encounter.
“For me, it hasn’t been verbal but has taken a sexual nature, not from my managers, but peers and suppliers. I always call them out. I will say, ‘Stop, this is making me uncomfortable,’ and they should listen. But they don’t always.”
Kabal encourages her team to speak up, too. “As a head chef, if I am told, I act on it and if I see it, I stop it straight away. Always.”
The head chef is now a fully-fledged honorary Melburnian, balancing time in the kitchen with visits to other restaurants and bars around town. “I do a lot of partying, I’m not going to lie about that. I love working and partying equally,” she says, smiling. “[I’m] a sitting in a dive bar, drinking Negronis kind of girl.”
We’ve finished our coffees and I can tell she wants to get to work. Before I go, I ask what she’d say to someone who wants to become a chef.
"To cook for other people and make them happy is so gratifying,” she says. “It is so personal. If you don’t love pressure and hard work, don’t touch this industry.
“A lot of people think it’s going to be easy work, and it’s far from that. You’re going to have a hard time if you don’t love it like crazy.”