Food & Culture

In her own words: Alanna Sapwell on leadership and striving for a “no ego” kitchen

The Arc Dining head chef and Gourmet Traveller’s Best New Talent recently presented a MAD Mondays talk at Sydney's Carriageworks on the challenges of steering a successful kitchen. Here, in an edited extract of her speech, she shares her new model for getting the job done.

By Alanna Sapwell
Arc Dining's head chef Alanna Sapwell.
Leadership, be it in the kitchen or the outside world, starts with the people. There's no cookie-cutter template for how you should lead a team, but at its core it's about looking after your people.
At Arc Dining, I need everyone at the restaurant, from the floor to the kitchen, to be happy for us to succeed as a whole. Everyone has their own agenda, sure, but it's how you incorporate these competing interests into your business and values to establish a common goal. That's the leadership challenge.
My time at Sydney's Saint Peter hugely shaped my perceptions of leadership. On Saint Peter's opening night in 2016, we lost our manager. Josh Niland, already the restaurant's co-owner and chef, had to take on the restaurant manager position until we found a replacement – and it was amazing to see his attention to detail to the music, the lighting, the things that we chefs might forget. His way of dealing with the situation reinforced to me that hospitality is not just about the cooking. He's a true leader.
Josh Niland (left) and Alanna Sapwell (right) at Fish Butchery. Photo: Will Horner
When I started at Arc in December, I had a clear vision of what I wanted. There was the food, of course: to create thoughtful, delicious and confident food that people would want to eat not just on special occasions, but three times a week. To support farmers with sustainable practices, whether they ethically raise their animals, use heritage farming techniques, or supply lesser-used species of fish. It was also important the Arc had its own garden of unusual ingredients like native ginger, cranberry hibiscus and lemon myrtle.
But most of all, I wanted to create a restaurant environment that would produce better all-rounder chefs. A space where chefs learn to the churn their own butter, break down animal carcasses, make charcuterie. Where they're encouraged to own their section in the kitchen, to suggest ideas about how to improve our dishes and processes, and to grow as individuals and as a team.
Arc aims to be a no-ego kitchen. The priority is how well we can get the job done, together, rather than how quickly you can climb through the kitchen ranks. There's a staff shortage in the Australian hospitality industry, meaning chefs move through the ladder too quickly, and have unrealistic expectations of what positions they should hold. Our kitchen means that natural leaders emerge, and when they do they're promoted gradually, slowly and meaningfully.
As a team, we've decided instead of collecting our weekly tips, we'd pool them together to something worthwhile for the team, and provide opportunities for those who are putting in the extra work.
Alanna Sapwell presenting her talk at MAD Mondays at Sydney's Carriageworks. Photo: Adrian Cook
We recently had a chef swap with Oakridge in Victoria, paying for all expenses for Jake, our senior chef de partie, to spend some time down there, or for Josie, our vegan chef de partie, to work with Shannon Martinez, Melbourne's queen of vegan food. This system is unique – it creates opportunities for our chefs to learn from their peers around the country, while allowing us to retain our staff.
We hire based on attitude, not explicitly by skill level. In the kitchen, everyone is trained over numerous sections so everyone can jump in and help each other out if needed. As you can imagine, it's been an ongoing slog of curve balls since Arc opened, but the result of putting all these little things in place means we get the job done.
Above all, and as clichéd as it sounds, leadership is about leading by example. Don't be above washing the dishes. One last thing: always make the staff meal a highlight. It's a small gesture, like many of the gestures we make as leaders. It gives staff the energy to work through service, but it's also a beautiful thing to sit together and share a meal.
This is an edited version of a speech presented by Alanna Sapwell at Carriageworks on November 4 as part of MAD Mondays. MAD Mondays is a collaboration between MAD, Carriageworks and Kylie Kwong that brings together Sydney's cooking community.
MAD is a non-profit organization that inspires and empowers cooks, servers, and eaters to create sustainable change. From luminaries in the field to young apprentices, MAD is connecting individuals and equipping them to make a difference in their restaurants and the world. For more information, visit madfeed.co