Stephannie Liu is a force. The Sydney-raised chef has only been in Melbourne since February, and she’s already been part of one of the year’s most exciting restaurant openings in her role as head chef at Julie (the new venue at the Abbotsford Convent from the Cam’s Kiosk team).
Liu started her career in Australia, but her ambition, curiosity and desire to find better working conditions led her overseas. “After cooking professionally for a few years in Sydney and becoming a little disheartened by some of the unhealthy practices and behaviour in kitchens I had found myself in, I was encouraged by some thoughtful colleagues to experience more of the world,” she tells Broadsheet.
At 21, she booked a one-way ticket to New York City, where she lived and worked for a year before moving to Paris and eventually Copenhagen. In Paris, Liu worked behind the bar at famed wine bar La Buvette, and in Copenhagen, she was the head chef at Atelier September and then Apollo Bar before she left to open cosy everyday eatery, Studio x Kitchen.
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The chef is only just starting to make her mark on the Melbourne food scene. We took five minutes with Liu to learn more about her cooking and her thoughts on the industry.
How did you get your start in the food industry?
My parents are Chinese-Fijian immigrants who moved to Australia in the 1980s, before they had my siblings and I. I fondly remember fantastic feasts with a wonderful mix of cultures – from classic Aussie barbeque sausages to intensely dark, fragrant Indian-Fijian curries and bouncy stir-fried Chinese egg noodles – that my mum, dad and extended family would collaboratively prepare.
I’ve always seen food as a comforting constant in life and from around 10 years old I knew I wanted to cook as a career.
My aunty’s best friend Sarah Swan (Bay Grocer, 100 Mile Table) worked for Neil Perry of Rockpool in Sydney. She knew I was deeply invested in becoming a chef and encouraged me to volunteer [at Rockpool] after school.
I was 16 at the time and was equally in awe, intimidated and curious about kitchen life, and still am.
How would you describe your cooking style right now?
Food is incredibly personal for me. It’s not just a job or career, it’s a connection to my identity as a woman, my family, my heritage and the local community within everyday life. I hope some of that is evident in the food I cook.
I don’t think the way I put ingredients together is groundbreaking – instead, my style is a reflection of simplicity, comfort and a respect for ingredients and the seasons. It’s producer-focused, nourishing and joyful.
Are there any dishes on the Julie menu you’ve developed that you’re particularly proud of?
Currently, we have a Port Phillip Bay baby snapper on the menu with a mandarin, ginger and shallot sauce and spicy mustard greens grown by Cate Della Bosca, our kitchen gardener at Julie. It’s a dish inspired by my mum’s signature Cantonese-style whole steamed fish that was, and still is, a beloved dinner staple in the Liu family.
Who has had a particularly strong influence on your approach to cooking and hospitality?
Sabine Spindler who taught me about the importance of true seasonality and honesty in cooking. Karishma Sanghi who continues to move me with her adeptness in balancing flavour and textures. Camille Fourmont who leads with such thoughtfulness, integrity and style. Marlene Lough who reminds me of the delight of genuine hospitality. Alisa Liu whose empathetic nature and generosity of spirit I admire. Trisha Greentree who inspires me to be a better leader and cook every day. And, of course, my mum Grace Yee, an all-round badass.
What do you love about the industry?
Feeding people and being able to connect and offer little moments of pleasure and joy through food. I get to be creative, work with my hands, work with interesting talented people and be engaged in something I deeply care about, where I can always learn and evolve.
What would you like to see change?
More accessible resources for leadership, management and mental health are essential in building a healthier and more sustainable industry. [There needs to be] support and opportunity for mentorship for those in the industry who want to start their own business.
And I’m determined to see a more accurate representation in the media of the true diversity and multiculturalism that exists in the Australian hospitality industry. Less focus on awards, trends and gimmicks, and more on producers, people and deliciousness.