For Rosheen Kaul, head chef of stellar Melbourne restaurant Etta, there was a certain inevitability to her becoming a chef – despite the markedly different career trajectory she had in mind.
Kaul was studying psychology and neuroscience while working at Jimmy Choo, but when her parents mentioned she could do whatever she liked when she finished her degree, she took that as permission to drop out of uni and follow her instincts – right to the kitchen. “It just fell into place that the kitchen environment was the right one for me and my personality,” she says. “It made sense because I really love food. Working nights is good for me; I don’t really sleep and I don’t wake up early in the mornings.
“It was such a non-event, me getting into the kitchen. Then once I did, I wanted to be the best.”
She had a plan: Melbourne fine dining, then international fine dining, then right back home. After an apprenticeship at elegant Chinese diner Lee Ho Fook, Kaul spent six months at the now-closed Ezard under acclaimed chef Teage Ezard, before really hitting her stride at the (also-closed) Dinner by Heston, where she worked her way up to chef de partie within four years.
As is often the case with best-laid plans, though, they went awry. Kaul was at Carlton Wine Room when Melbourne first went into lockdown, so she spent a large chunk of 2020 at home. But there wasn’t a lot of Netflix and chill. She, alongside friend Joanna Hu, published a series of “Isol(asian)” cookbooks, including a vegan volume (Kaul also spent time in Shannon Martinez’s kitchen at Smith and Deli).
Lockdowns and unexpected opportunities helped clarify Kaul’s perspective and changed her approach to cooking. “It turns out that the way I can communicate through cooking is by being as simple as possible,” she says.
When Etta owner Hannah Green offered Kaul the head chef role at the end of 2020, she was flattered, but reticent to take it. “I didn’t feel that I had the full skill set that I wanted when I got to this point,” Kaul says. “I wanted to be able to do all different kinds of butchery. I wanted to have already been a sous chef, to have run a smaller team already. I wanted to be really prepared.
“But offers like this don’t come along very often. And by supporting me in so many ways, Hannah has given me all the tools I need to succeed.”
When young chefs ascend in the way Kaul has, working in renowned restaurants with renowned mentors, exposed to such incredible food, it can be easy to forget that becoming a head chef is a huge step. It’s not just about the food – it’s about the team, teaching them, being clued into the money side of things, talking to media.
“It’s a lot,” Kaul admits. “The narrative is always going to be about food. And it is all well and good to talk about hopes and dreams and aspirations for your menu, but then you need to be able to make that happen with the team that you have, the kitchen that you have and the experience that you have. I didn’t have any team management experience, so navigating different personalities and different skill sets in the kitchen – and then being able to achieve what I want to achieve – is a whole different experience to just cooking. That’s what I found the most challenging.”
In working her way up the ranks in previous kitchens, Kaul says it was highly competitive. “You had to out-cook everybody and be really aggressive to make it happen. It didn’t really matter how everyone around you was feeling, we were just going for it. Now I want to be kind and empathetic and make sure everyone is healthy and happy, because they need to perform. And I want people to enjoy coming to work. It has been a whole cultural shift from what I was experiencing in kitchens to having to dig really deep and think about what sort of kitchen I want to be known for.”
She adds: “As wonderful as it is having mentions in national publications and accolades, this is a neighbourhood restaurant. The people who work here live around here. Our customers have been coming here for the last four or five years through all the chefs and all the iterations. And so before anyone gets ahead of themselves, this is what Etta is.
“It was so important for me to come in and be a part of what it is, as opposed to having it become a Rosheen show. It is very special here.”
Kaul has notebook upon notebook scribbled with flavour combinations and memories of foods she’s been taken by. How does she then distil those ideas into a menu? “I found, unintentionally, that the food that has ended up on the menu here will have some reference to a dish I’ve eaten in Singapore or a technique that I saw in an Asian book,” she explains. “I don’t use as many Western references as I thought I would. The flavour profiles are all very much Asian and speak to my past and my ethnicity.” While Kaul’s dishes are heavily rooted in her Chinese, Filipino and Kashmiri heritage, she says, “I present them in a Western way without being overtly Asian about it”.
To get an understanding of what exactly she means, you need to eat her food. She suggests starting with sourdough; the team at Etta is particularly proud of its bread program and mastering sourdough was another learning curve for Kaul. Then go for two or three starters to share, a couple of mains and dessert. But Kaul is happiest with her medium-sized dishes because they most clearly communicate her ideas.
A past dish was tuna with olive vegetable (a gorgeously black, umami-rich Chinese condiment that Kaul loves) finished with salted shiso and a bit of za’atar. She considers it “a really lovely amalgamation of where we are in Brunswick East and Australia”.
“We use excellent fish and there’s za’atar because we are in a Middle Eastern area and then these lovely Asian references that make sense to me,” she describes. The woodfired cabbage flower, meanwhile, has a dan dan noodles quality, with its Sichuan and white sesame dressing.
Another example of a dish that has a lot of meaning for Kaul is the phenomenal Western Plains pork belly rib. During her time at Dinner by Heston, she learned a lot of technical details about how meat reacts to fire and the different ways to tenderise it. “But when it came down to making it taste nice, I thought, ‘Who makes really good pork? My mum does. What’s a tasty dish I like to eat? Mum’s adobo, which is a Filipino dish.’ Then it was about getting soy and garlic in a marinade and shio koji to tenderise it and then using what we have at Etta, which is the wood fire, to drive that home.”
A year on from her appointment as head chef, a once-tentative Kaul has proved not only her capability, but her understated excellence with clever, considered and downright delicious food that makes Etta an essential Melbourne dining experience.
60 Lygon Street, Brunswick East
03 9448 8233
Wed to Fri 4pm–late