At its heart, hospitality is about looking after people. Kurt Sampson understands this.
If you’re a diner enjoying hit after hit of Sampson's precise laser-guided Middle Eastern cooking – perhaps at Propeller, the North Fremantle dining room which he oversaw for almost a decade before it closed in April; or at Pata Negra, Dominion League, Saint Brigid or, for those of a certain vintage, 44 King Street back in the ’90s – you’ll understand this.
If you’re a farmer or grower, Sampson is looking after you (and your produce) by giving a damn from start to finish, whether he’s turning dainty quails into flaky, textbook Moroccan pastries known as bastilla, handling seafood with remarkable finesse, or casting vegetables as the unexpected stars of the show.
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And if you’re a chef lucky enough to have worked alongside the man many call “Chief”, Sampson is looking after you not just by passing on knowledge and showing you how to cook, but also how to lead and – in so many ways – how to live.
Since finishing at polytechnics in Auckland in the late ’80s and cooking around the world, Sampson has looked after a lot of people. Following the awful news earlier this year that Sampson was diagnosed with motor neuron disease (MND), diners, producers and chefs all have a chance to look after Chief and thank him for all that he’s done for us. Organised by Sampson’s colleagues and Bread & Circuses (the parent group of Propeller, Saint Brigid, Guildhall et al), these fundraisers will be split between Sampson and his family and the MND Association of WA. There are a few ways to get involved.
The first is by snapping up one of the final tickets for this Saturday’s (June 10) Big Night Out For Kurt cocktail party that sees Propeller reopen for one night. Propeller alum will be in the kitchen and on the floor showing guests a good time. Tickets are $200 and available online.
In addition to the cocktail party, an online auction has also been set up with the public able to bid on some elite items. As well as truffles, wine and dining vouchers, there’s also a 12-person chef’s table experience at Bread in Common on offer. The auction is live now and bids can be made until the Saturday night of the cocktail party.
Finally, a Go Fund Me has been set up for those that are unable to make the dinner and/or would prefer to donate that way. It’s been heartening to see people not just dig deep to help out one of the real good guys of the cooking world, but to read many messages of love and support.
Equally touching has been receiving and reading tributes from many of Sampson’s past and present kitchen colleagues, some of which Broadsheet is privileged to share below. Collectively, these words paint a picture of a brilliant, selfless and prodigious cooking talent, and an even better human. All hail the Chief, indeed.
Greg Malouf, Middle Eastern chef, author and consultant, Dubai
Kurt Sampson is a beautiful, humble person, husband, family man and confidante. He’s also a gifted chef with a brilliant sense of humour. We had a wonderful time together at O’Connell’s in South Melbourne and made it a revolutionary restaurant at a time when Middle Eastern food was considered inexpensive student cuisine.
I’m aware of the fierce and loyal support Kurt has in WA and his reputation among the industry for being so caring. It was the same here in Melbourne. He is a leader, self-motivator and excellent communicator.
Even 30 years ago, I was astounded by his constant commitment to build on his skills and learn new techniques. I’ve been pleased to see him mature as a head chef. His technical skill, attention to detail and dedication to cooking demonstrate a level of care that’s rare, even in more experienced chefs. To a man with very little ego and no fear of failure, I truly wish I was there to give you some grief and hugs.
Natalie Paull, Beatrix Bakes, Melbourne
I first worked with Kurt at O’Connell’s under Greg Malouf’s tenure. We were friends outside of the kitchen and I was honoured to bake his and [wife] Evette’s wedding cakes. I call Kurt my “gentor”: gentle mentor. He was the kind of chef that you just wanted to emulate. I was always hoping some of his poise would soften the edges of my panicky, overthinking tendencies. He always showed unflappable grace no matter the size of the weeds we found ourselves in on busy nights.
Kurt knows food like it comes from this calm, natural, spring within. He is always thinking about achieving a balanced dish and how ingredients behave with each other. He never half-asses or falters on the minutiae, whether that means getting the herbs picked just right, or controlling the heat perfectly. And he cares about the unglamourous stuff. He is the last to leave the kitchen and makes sure all the ordering is in, that the cool room is clean, and that tomorrow’s prep lists are complete.
The man is a once-in-a-lifetime titan of humanity. He is selfless, he is kind and his laugh is utter joy. He has made an ego-less nest in this ego-driven industry and I wish he could be leaving that nest a little later and on his own terms.
Blaze Young, head chef, Nieuw Ruin
It’s devastating that someone who has done so much good without asking anything in return has been robbed of what us chefs never have enough of: time. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for Kurt Sampson. He gave me the gift of a lifetime. He turned me from a cook into a chef.
Working for Kurt was a culinary education like no other, and we found so much joy among the work. We learned to butcher pigs and turn them into juicy sausages or salty cures. To slowly roast whole lambs over coals and how to eat them with steaming, garlic-laced flatbreads. He taught us to eat offal and to appreciate the art of cooking it. To make fresh bread, perfect crème caramels and brandy-spiked terrines. He taught us to read old cookbooks to learn the history of food cultures and to value tradition.
Kurt would find out what you wanted to learn and change the menu to teach you. He would discover something you were good at and push you harder in that direction. I remember one winter when the restaurant was quiet, he bought a hindquarter of a cow that took three chefs to lift, just so we could understand the muscle structure and what to make from each part.
Beyond the food, I was in awe of the community Kurt built around him. He always had a visitor. Whether it was a farmer dropping off produce, an old friend or a regular, Kurt always made time for a yarn. Everyone would leave with a smile on their face and a snack in their hand.
The restaurant felt like the centre of the universe. Our team felt like family. Kurt pushed us to teach each other and to look after each other.
He’s an incredible man who’s had an immeasurable impact on my life. It’s because of Kurt and the many lessons he taught me that I now lead a team of young chefs. It’s my privilege to pass on his knowledge. I often find myself borrowing his words, his jokes and his inspiring stories. I’ll be forever grateful for the years I got to stand next to him. Thank you, Chief.
Justin Wong, head chef, Millbrook
I was 19 when I first met Hannsie. [A nickname that Greg Malouf gave Sampson] Green as, I had no experience in kitchens other than making shitty sandwiches in cafes. Kurt said he had a job for me washing dishes and picking herbs. I ended up working for him for over 10 years.
In my first week at Pata Negra, doe-eyed and eager to impress, I smacked my forehead on a shelf. The next day, Chief had fixed half a tennis ball to the shelf so I wouldn’t hit my head again. It seems like such an inane moment to remember but it has always stuck with me.
Kurt didn’t just teach me how to cook. He showed me how to lead. He taught me that you can’t run a successful kitchen if there isn’t some element of pastoral care for your team. Not many chefs have it, but he has it in spades. If I can get to the end of my career and say that I managed to emulate just half of what Kurt has achieved in this respect, I’ll be happy.
Joseph Abboud, Rumi, Melbourne
I got a call from Greg Malouf one day telling me that Kurt was running the Momo kitchen and he thought that we’d both get along really well, which he was right about. I went and did some time with Kurt at Momo and then we did a stall at the Victorian night markets selling tajines and couscous. That was quite an experience. Kurt’s wife Evette accused us of having an affair at one point because we'd spend hours in the car park after work and after finishing at midnight, just chatting away about Middle Eastern food. Kurt really helped me see within my own culture and pay attention to those things that can hard to see when you’re so close and on the inside.
He had this way of just putting ingredients together that worked. I remember asking him about how he did that and he said it was like looking around your mum’s table and putting things on your plate that you’d want to eat. You’d never just have one thing. That was the basis of his dishes. He was all about deliciousness. It wasn’t like he had this masterpiece that he would keep cooking. He could make someone else’s masterpiece out of scraps laying around and you’d put it in your mouth and go, wow, that’s good.
Matt Stone, Mosey On Inn group, Byron Bay
Kurt is an amazing cook and a true gentleman. In the short time I cooked with him I learnt so many fundamentals that I still use today. Kurt introduced me to Middle Eastern and Moorish flavours and his delicate touch and use of fragrant spice are second to none. He was also a great mentor to me as a young cook opening my first restaurant Pata Negra [Stone and Sampson were opening co-head chefs at Pata Negra] and was always encouraging and guiding me.
Russell Blaikie, director of food, Prendiville Group
Back in the days of 44 King Street about 30 years ago, I employed Kurt as sous-chef. He’d just come from London where he had been working as sous-chef in one of Antony Worrall Thompson’s restaurants. Kurt presented as a totally unassuming person: he was gentle, had a big smile and was a really nice guy. The weekly menu meetings were amazing. We’d change around six dishes every week and whoever came up with the dish idea that we agreed on took it all the way to menu execution.
Kurt’s food was remarkable. He’d come up with dishes with bold, authentic flavours. His technique was brilliant. And he hasn’t changed. He has an incredible gift for cooking, a great palate and thirst for knowledge, plus he works really, really hard.
Kurt found his home cooking Middle Eastern food at Propeller. I love how he makes food look simple but the dishes he and his team would put up were full of ridiculously delicious flavours, texture, skill and technique.
Kurt never talks smack or belittles anyone in the game. He is shy about his prodigious talent and always lets his food do the talking. Kurt is a chef that cooks in an ego-free zone which makes him even more endearing.
Ana Campos, head chef, Una Mes
Kurt is one of the best people you will ever meet. He’s a family man. He’s generous in every way; sharing knowledge, sharing his house, or feeding people. He’s never said anything bad about anyone. He’s just a really genuinely good man. The love he has for his family: I wish it to every kid in the world.
Florian Ribul, partner, Vex Dining, Melbourne
I remember the first time I ate Kurt’s food. I was a second-year apprentice and had started to grow restless where I was working. A friend of a friend was working for Kurt at Pata Negra, so a group of us went to have dinner there.
The thing I remember most about that night was the pure joy in discovery. Everything was special and it all looked so simple. I found out very soon that it was not. After faking my way through a trial, Kurt realised my fluke. I demanded a lot of his time. It was obvious I couldn’t keep up with the standard and speed of his work. I had some shockingly bad services. For a young cook, it was the stuff of nightmares.
Things got worse before they got better, but a few things remained constant from Kurt. When it was shit, he’d tell you it was shit – but he’d also tell you that it’d all click one day. No matter how bad a service had been, at the end of every night he’d look you in the eye and say thank you. I felt that. I still do.
We learned that every day was different. We would re-write menus daily based on what came from the farms and add specials at ridiculous times in the afternoon. There was never a thought that something was not possible. He’d tell us, “It’ll be alright, knackers”. We were all so young and inexperienced, but we had our Chief and therefore it was always going to be okay.
His beautiful family [wife Evette and three kids] were always there with us. Harvey would hang out with us during the day and Amelie and Oscar would come flying through after kinder and school. Even Scooter the dog would be hanging out at the back door of the kitchen. Peachy [Evette] would be right behind them, leaving me with a bit of stick for the crappy service I had the night before. Everyone that worked with him was made to feel like a part of the family. It was truly my greatest honour.
In time, things did start to click. The longer I worked with Kurt, the more I came to understand the most important attribute to becoming a good cook and a good person is integrity. Everything was done with the product and the person making it in mind. Guests would come to the kitchen to thank him for a great meal and he would instantly redirect their praise onto others. It was impossible for him to accept compliments. He was just doing what he does.
Without Kurt I don’t know if I’d have stuck with this profession. I doubt that I would have found the passion for it in the same way. Watching him work with his hands was a thing of beauty. Being able to see a true master of his craft will forever humble me. And that’s what he is: the most wonderful human and the most humble cook.
Rory Kennedy, partner, Vex Dining, Melbourne
Chief has been a phenomenal role model for me, both in and out of the kitchen. I’ve been fortunate to be his understudy at numerous venues, however, when I picture Kurt, it’s not in the kitchen. Rather, I see him hand-on-hip, with his back against a wall, that permanent apron of his is on, chewing the fat with a tea towel over his shoulder. No matter the time of day or how long the prep list, Kurt will never pass up a chat (nor will you be able to resist).
Steve Portilla, Compass Group, Western Australia
I could never even begin to dream of being as skilled as Chief, but I’ll never forget Kurt’s calmness and composure. When I interviewed for the pastry chef role at Pata Negra, Kurt spent a good 45 minutes just hanging out and getting to know me. He was flat out in the kitchen but that didn’t seem to matter.
While working there, I learned that you could be only halfway down a prep list from hell, it’d be an hour till opening on a fully booked Saturday night, the firewood delivery just rolled up and we’d be short-staffed, but Chief never flinched and made sure all of us knew it was all going to be alright. He always had a Cooper’s sparkling ale waiting for us at clean down and he’d be cracking jokes and telling stories along the way.
I wouldn’t have continued working as a chef if I hadn’t worked with Chief at Pata Negra and Propellor. Everything I do as a chef, I have, in some way, taken from Kurt.
Tara Browne-Cooper, The Postpartum Chef
Propeller will always have a special place in my heart. Before I’d even landed a job there everyone was telling me I had to work for Chief, that I would learn so much, and that it would be a great career move. They weren’t wrong. Kurt has one of the biggest hearts I’ve come across, and no matter how busy we were, how many dockets we had on the pass or how much prep still needed to be done, he always had time to teach. I count myself lucky that I’m part of a hospo club that’s gotten to experience Chief’s very long, very involved stories at 3am after being absolutely slammed during a dinner service.
I’ve never met someone who can remain so calm and crack jokes while everyone else around them is in “tornado mode”. It’s an art to make everything look so effortless. Kurt taught me about getting the most out of your food, how to make magic with a few key spices, how to keep the integrity of flavour in food when preparing large volumes and how to cook under pressure. But most importantly he showed me what it was like to have a real kitchen family. He inspired people and got the most out of everyone who worked for him. People wanted to work with him because he invested so much energy and time into everyone.
It’s hard to put into words the essence and impact of Kurt Sampson. But I know I am eternally grateful for the two-and-a-bit years I got to work with him. I will always carry those lessons with me.
Benjamin Maja, senior sous-chef, Australasia, Manchester
When I think about Chief, there are so many fantastic memories. From the first time I met him when he interviewed me for a job for Pata Negra and it ended up being a two-hour chat in the sun drinking coffee, to how he’d change the menu an hour before opening because some good produce got delivered and he really wanted to use it that day. He does so much for his family. Having worked for him for eight years, I got to see his kids grow up next to me.
He taught me that even when it gets hard at work, you can get through it when you’re surrounded by your chosen family. I remember once we finished a busy day at Pata and were about to head home but he was going to keep going and make 50 kilograms of chorizo on his own. Of course, we didn’t let him do it by himself, so we stayed making sausages into the early morning. He’s taught me everything I know in the kitchen, and I can’t thank him enough for it.
David Farmer, Guildhall
I first heard of Kurt from his days at Momo and the explosion of modern Middle Eastern cooking in Melbourne. I had admired him from afar and was thrilled he landed in Perth. Fast forward a few years and an opportunity arose to work with Kurt on the opening of Propeller. We totally hit it off, but this isn’t unique, Chief hits it off with most people.
Propeller was a beast. In the beginning, we did breakfast, lunch, dinner, wine dinners and offal nights. Our first service at Propeller was just the two of us doing breakfast and a cast of thousands all rocked up at the same time. We stood there like stunned mullets watching the dockets hit the floor. Chief created something special at Propeller and you can see that in the longevity in the kitchen, we kept the original team for over four years.
I was blown away by Chief’s endless repertoire of flavours. Springing multiple last-minute menu changes just before service came to be the norm, but he believed in us and that made us better chefs. He loved adding up all our years of kitchen experience to form one number and reassure us we’d be okay.
Kurt’s a great family man and a loving husband. When he and Evette do a function together at Guildhall, they’re a formidable team. I like to call them Peaches and Cream. He’s a great storyteller, has a wicked dark sense of humour and is a lover of the mighty All Blacks, but most of all he is a genuine human and lover of life.
Tom Duff, ex-Supernatural, Byron Bay
Kurt Sampson is the GOAT. I was working at Greenhouse and heard about an opportunity at Pata Negra. I went in for a trial and was met by this short, chubby middle-aged man with long sideburns, flawless Elvis-esque hair and a swagger in his step.
Nothing affects Chief. The busiest service; the menu only being ready five minutes before service; dishies showing up late: nothing. I had never met a chef that was so calm. He is the most grounded and kindest person that I know, and he happens to be the most underrated chef. I still look at Kurt as a role model and when I find myself getting in tough situations, I ask myself: “What would Kurt do?” More than shaping me into the chef I am, he taught me so much about life.
Kurt lived with Peachy and his three kids above the restaurant. The only real time he would get to spend with his family was in the morning getting the kids ready for school and if they were running around the kitchen after school. He would come into the kitchen at 9am for prep and not leave till 11pm most nights, sometimes 2am if we had charcuterie to do. After that he would go upstairs and stand in the doorway and watch his then-young children sleep. I only know this because I asked Kurt and he told me that’s what he does, but he didn’t say it in a “that sucks” kind of way: it’s just what he did.
Kurt loves his family, the Pixies, a great time, great banter and an icy beer. If I’m half the man that Kurt Sampson is, I’ll be happy.