It’s not often you meet a chef who got into cooking to avoid being teased, but that’s exactly what happened to Nick Stanton, part-owner of South Yarra bar Leonard’s House of Love and the moody, skill-driven Ramblr in Prahran.
Stanton grew up in Tweed Heads on the Queensland-New South Wales border, and he “was a big boy”, he says, sitting in the back of the Ramblr dining room.
“The token fat kid always gets picked on at school, so … I never used to eat because everyone was like: ‘Look, fat boy is eating’. So I’d go home, mum and dad would still be at work, and I’d love to cook in the afternoon, after school.”
Cooking felt good to Stanton, and he was good at it – it made sense to him while much of his high-school life didn’t.
"I never finished my exams, and my school principal used to tell me I was a waste of space, all that kind of stuff,” he says. “When I started my apprenticeship, the teachers were like: ‘Oh, cheffing? Why aren’t you being a mechanic?’ It was looked down on, like it wasn’t a real job or a job that was safe.”
But playing it safe isn’t Stanton’s style and he left school in year 10, fueled by that criticism to succeed.
“I’ve turned it into a bit of a positive thing ... It’s my motivation and all those teachers that doubted me have all been here to eat!” he says, laughing.
But it has been a long road to get this recognition.
Before he started his first apprenticeship, Stanton worked at a pizza and pasta joint called Earth and Sea in Coolangatta from 2001 to 2003. He washed dishes before being “promoted to pizza boy”. His subsequent apprenticeship at Conrad Jupiters on the Gold Coast came out of working casual holiday shifts at the casino.
“There was a thing where they employ 40 Christmas casuals and then out of the 40 they pick 20 to start their apprenticeship,” Stanton says. “I was lucky enough to be one of the 20 and they put me into the production kitchen and that’s where you do vegetable prep, plate ups, where they do a tonne of braised beef.
“They’d be like: ‘Your job today is to julienne 20 kilograms of capsicum’, and even though that’s all I’d be doing all day, it did get me in control of consistent cutting.”
Nick stayed at the casino for about a year before moving to The Carvery at the Twin Towns RSL in Tweed Heads, where he worked for 12 months.
“I think as a chef it’s important to work in a few places that aren’t about really good food, working in environments such as Twin Towns – everyone’s retired, older, it’s a different audience.” Experiences like that, he explains, “keep it humble.”
“I’m not into the ego stuff in the industry,” he continues. “Working in places like Twin Towns, people aren’t there to work for passion, they’re there to get paid. When I was doing my apprenticeship there was no one around doing good food, so I learned other things about the industry working in these kinds of venues, like time management, talking to customers and realising what I wanted for myself.”
At 19 years old he moved to London and got a job with the Gordon Ramsay Group, working as a chef de partie for a year at The Devonshire Arms – the celebrity chef’s pub in West London.
A good stint under chef Javier Cordina at Brisbane fine diner Gianni’s – then one of the city’s top restaurants – followed, and he also spent time at Gusto Da Gianni, the group’s pizzeria. (It was also a turning point for Stanton emotionally. Then 22, he acknowledged for the first time he suffered from depression.)
Stanton then moved to Melbourne to work at Gordon Ramsay’s newly opened Maze and Maze Grill in 2010, where he worked all sections of the kitchen under acclaimed chefs Josh Emett and Nathan Johnson. It provided yet another important training ground, as well as more proof of the relentless and often vicious intensity of professional kitchens.
“When I worked in London, when I worked in Brisbane, I was working 100-hour weeks. I’ve had pans thrown at my head and been pinned up against the wall. When I worked at the RSL I saw a kitchen-hand push a waitress over. She slipped on her back feet and cracked her head – that was terrifying.
“There’s a mentality in hospitality that has to stop,” he says. “It’s a very masculine, insensitive, selfish, bullying mentality. It’s talking down to people and you just want to say: don’t be an arsehole. People are human – just because you’re a head chef or a rockstar bartender or whoever you are, the people who work for you are investing their time … to make things work for you.”
He sees the brutal hours and expectations of the industry as obstacles to keeping staff buoyed but makes sure he looks after his own teams at Leonard’s and Ramblr, where staff works five-day rosters and no more.
Stanton opened Leonard’s in mid-2015 with mates Guy Bentley, Jonathan Harper and Mark Castburg, after he’d spent a few months cheffing here and there in Queensland and Melbourne.
“To a lot of people, I looked like a liability – a job hopper – and I wanted that foundation of a business, to start again,” he says.
Located in the backstreets of South Yarra, behind Chapel Street, Leonard’s is a bar modelled on a ’70s-style log cabin, replete with a homey lounge room and pool table. DJs are on deck until 3am on the weekend, and there’s no formal dining area or table service, just burger boxes, fried chicken in plastic baskets and bulk serviettes.
“I copped a lot of shit from chef mates,” he says of the decision to open Leonard’s. “They were like, ‘What are you doing, mate? Don’t do this. You look like you’re giving up’.” It didn’t worry him – he knew at this point to do what felt good.
“Leonard’s was about stepping away from the restaurant world and thinking, how do I do something that I know is going to work but will force me to drop my pride? I wanted to set myself up a bit of foundation by doing something that I didn’t need to borrow loads of money [for]. Leonard’s didn’t have much money put into it, but it has worked.”
And without Leonard’s and its success he could never have started Ramblr, his acclaimed and refined casual diner on Chapel Street, which opened in late 2016. Just six months after opening, Stanton closed the doors for a week, renovated the dining room and redesigned the menu.
“The lighting was too bright, the place was too bright – there was nothing to look at and the room was boring. The food was like everyone else’s, it was wrong.
“The one thing I’ve always loved but was scared of is Asian food and flavours. I was trained in European cuisine, and I decided I really wanted to put Asian flavours into my cooking … I decided to do the food I really wanted to do, and after that the restaurant started to make sense.”
He says he’s now “a lot calmer, happier than I have been in a while.
“I can see the vision for the businesses a lot clearer than before.”
Maintaining his physical and mental health is a big priority, and Stanton makes sure to exercise regularly – he trains in muay thai boxing – have days off, and eat well.
“Exercise slows everything down – helps you breathe. And eating well. We all eat super healthy at the restaurant, sit down for staff meals. We’re pretty strict with it.”
With his business growing and a routine that works for him, it appears that after all these years, Nick Stanton is content.
“I used to spend way too much time scared of what others thought rather than just doing it. Like, fuck it, just do it, stop caring what ‘he’ or ‘she’ said, or what they said on Instagram. I don’t even read reviews ... It’s pointless.
“If you got someone that leaves the restaurant happy and wanting to come back, that’s enough for you to know you’re doing a good job.”