The Coolangatta pizza industry isn’t especially recognised as an incubator of rising hospitality talent. Nick Stanton makes it an exception. Since growing up on the coastal savannah the chef’s ascent included stints working in kitchens in Europe before making his name with the moody Ramblr in Prahran and then focusing on his South Yarra bar Leonard’s House of Love and the pretty-new-but-already-beloved Leonardo’s Pizza Palace in Carlton. And as with any hospitality veteran, he didn’t run this gauntlet alone.
As we launch the new iteration of our Broadsheet Kitchen series, which highlights and assists emerging talent, we’re focusing on the role mentors play in the hospitality industry. We caught up with Stanton to press him about his personal journey and to ask: who told you you were good?
Broadsheet: Did you plan to become a chef?
Nick Stanton: I've always been into food and always wanted to be a chef. I’ve always been into the creative side of it but I never really had a moment where I was like, ‘This is what I want to do, this is what I want to be’. I grew up around a family that wasn't really a foodie family. [We cooked] meat and three veg, everyone ate just to kill the hunger. I honestly don't know where it came from.
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I worked in a pizza shop from the age of 14 (Earth and Sea in Coolangatta). It was the first commercial kitchen I walked into. It was a classic kitchen, everyone was young, 17 to 22, everyone partied. It was cool. There was a lot of pressure. It was a lot about the adrenaline rush from it. Being able to cook food that's tasty and doing it under pressure several times over a night. I think that's where it came in. You get into a rhythm, and once I got into that rhythm that’s when I felt like this was the thing.
BS: When did you realise you were becoming a chef?
NS: I've never had a moment where I've thought, ‘I've made it’. Not for one second. It's more [that] I got paid to do something I genuinely enjoy doing. I'm still doing that now. I've been cooking for 17 years but it still feels like yesterday when I started.
One of my career highlights was when I qualified as a chef. That gave some real self-confidence. That's not really a thing anymore. Lots of chefs want to go straight to the top and not go to school, but when I finished Tafe and got my trade certificate sent to me saying I was now a qualified chef, that was a big highlight. That made me feel like I'd done it.
BS: Who first told you you were good?
NS: There have definitely been people who have put their time to up my skills and give me confidence to keep pushing on. Chris Arkadieff and Mark Sargent (at Gordon Ramsay Group) – I was really green then, 19 and straight out of my apprenticeship. I’d moved to London. Where I came from (Tweed Heads) there weren't really serious cooks. Once I got to London, I learnt a lot from them.
In Brisbane there was a chef called Robert Macintosh (at Gianni’s). He came from Gavroche in London and a lot of really good restaurants. I learnt so much from him. Two other chefs, Nathan Johnson and Josh Emmet (at Maze by Gordon Ramsey in Melbourne), were the same. All those guys really pushed me.
Those guys taught me how to cook. They pushed me, put their own time into teaching me things. That's the way I look at it. My way of being told I'm good. When people put time and effort into you, maybe they can see the potential in you.
BS: Who was the first person to challenge you?
NS: Chris Arkadieff and Mark Sargent, those two guys big time. It was the first time I had cooked food in a serious environment. Where if you're cooking on the meat section, ‘That meat has to be perfect or I'll throw it in the bin or at you’. Where I started cooking on the Gold Coast, if the meat wasn't perfect you still serve it. So that challenge was exciting, scary and confronting. That was the first time I got a taste of the challenge. But I loved it.
BS: Who in the restaurant business did you look up to and why?
NS: 100 per cent Matt Chimakis. He's the chef and owner of Captain Moonlite in Anglesea [in Victoria]. He is an amazing chef and a really good guy. He's always got good advice and is a positive person. He’s a good example of a good leader, good chef and good person. I get very motivated by seeing what he does.
Also Ben Shewry [at Attica]. Its super inspiring to see someone who has been in a restaurant for 14 years still growing and injecting so much creativity into it in so many different ways. He’s just constantly evolving and it gets better all the time which is an incredible thing to see as a chef and person in the industry. I’m motivated by and excited to see what he is doing.
BS: Describe an early fail in your career?
NS: One of them was at my end-of-year Tafe exam. You have to be the head chef of the Tafe restaurant. It's a 60-seater restaurant with paying customers and a set menu. It's your menu, costed by you, you're the head chef on the pass, you do everything. One of the desserts was a chocolate parfait, like an ice-cream.
I didn't think. The guys working on the dessert section put the chocolate parfaits onto hot plates. I was on the pass setting the mains, I walked over to see all the deserts on hot plates, pretty much all melted. I sent out melted desserts to a restaurant of 60 people. Since then I've never let a hot plate near a dessert section. That was, what, 15 years ago? I learnt my lesson.
When I was working in London I was on a meat section. I was cooking these lamb rumps, rendering them off to get the fat down before service. I didn't set a timer and had 20 serves of lamb sitting there in the oven. I got completely distracted and then I was like, ‘Oh fuck’. I opened it and they were like fucking shrivelled prunes.
I got caned. I think I actually got pinned up against the wall. That's fine. I didn't actually bother me. Tough love. You can't do that anymore, but back in the day, you fuck up, they get you for it. These are all things you learn from. I've never let that happen again either.
BS: Once you were on your way, how did you decide what sort of career to have?
NS: I'm pretty open minded when it comes to cooking. There's nothing in particular I don't like. Some people like to focus on fine dining or pastry or whatever it is. I've always wanted to do different things.
Your dream is to have a hatted restaurant. I've always wanted to have a hatted restaurant. That happened at Ramblr. It reminded me of what I wanted when I was young. Things have changed now. I love all that stuff but now it's about having a restaurant that diners respect and appreciate.
BS: What excites you about collaborating?
NS: I used to work solo a lot but these days I've been working closely with the chefs at Leonardo's, using their creative minds and coaching them to create their own food. In the old days I would come up with a dish and get everyone to try it, get a bit of feedback. But these days I'm really coaching and training them to have their own creative control. All chefs need that.
In other restaurants chefs don't come up with any ideas, they just cook what their head chef wants. I think it's nice to give an opportunity for them to do their own thing. Once they cook something that's really delicious, it gives them confidence to do their own thing, gives them drive to do it again, to get better and get ready for the day they have their own restaurant. I focus on that a lot these days. It’s really nice to see things come together. Watching them work together, cooking with them.
BS: How do you recognise promise in an up-and-coming talent? What are the signs? What advice do you give them?
NS: First, you need to love food. Some chefs are into it just for glamour reasons; they just like the game and want to be big shots. They don’t really care about food; they just want to look like that person. It happens.
Number two, you need a good attitude. A positive attitude is definitely important. If you come into the kitchen without one your food will never get any better. We know a lot of chefs have bad ego problems and negative attitudes towards lots of things. It doesn't help anything – team morale, food, none of that. If you don't have a positive attitude in the kitchen, don't be there.
The third one is knowledge. Not just knowledge of food but of cultures, understanding different cuisines and where they come from. I can tell you right now, if people have that kind of understanding but they've never worked in a commercial kitchen before, most of the time those guys turn out to be the best chefs.
And stick it out for as long as you can. Remember you applied for a job because you want to be there. Try and hold out to make it look good for your resume. Working in a place for three months and putting it on your resume isn't a good look, regardless of circumstances. Give it a solid 12 months, don't just quit if you're unhappy about something. Suck it up and hold on a bit longer. Be wise about the decisions you make.
BS: What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
NS: I wish I'd spent more time overseas working with different cuisines. I was in London for a couple of years but if I was younger, I would have loved to have worked in some Japanese restaurants in Japan or spent some time in Hong Kong and learnt about Cantonese cuisine. I have no regrets but if I look back, that would have been cool.