Food & Culture

How the hospitality industry changed my life

Heavyweights of Australia's dining scene come to its defence with stories of friendship, success and creativity.

By Fiona Donnelly
Victor Liong and chefs Roberto Li and Michael Li at Lee Ho Fook, Melbourne.
Long hours, high rates of drug and alcohol abuse, bullying, poor mental health – the dark side of working in hospitality rightly gets a lot of airplay. But while these issues are part of the pressure-cooker environment of kitchen and restaurant culture, it's far from the whole story. Being on staff at a restaurant, bar or café is also about camaraderie, building self-confidence, acquiring technical and organisational skills, sparking creativity and even boosting mental health – after all, it's where many of us find our tribe and sow the seeds for successful careers. Bagging that first job is easier than in many sectors and once you've got a foothold, skills are highly transferable. For those who thrive, a hospitality career can be a
lifesaver. For those who excel, the sky's the limit.
Danielle Gjestland.

Danielle Gjestland, owner, Wasabi, Noosa, QLD

First hospo job: Ice-cream scooper.
Danielle Gjestland's first customer-facing job was at age 14, scooping ice-cream for holidaymakers on Noosa's Hastings Street. Ten years later she'd opened a restaurant. Sixteen years on, and countless late nights later, Wasabi isn't just flourishing – it's Queensland's top-rated regional eatery.
"I didn't know how to be a restaurateur when I was 24 and opened Wasabi," admits Gjestland who jumped in feet-first fuelled by a need for challenge and an affinity for Japanese food and culture. "I had to learn quickly: I learnt it's okay to make mistakes, as long as you learn from them and don't repeat them."
As a restaurateur there's a constant pressure to evolve. Gjestland endlessly refines the Wasabi experience, from its chic interiors to floor service and beyond. Little remains of the Japanese eatery that opened originally in Noosa's neighbouring suburb of Sunshine Beach and moved to its current riverfront digs a decade ago.
"You can't rest on your laurels – food trends come and go. You need to be a good editor and find a line between all the white noise, so you can work out what's important and who you need to have around you," she says. "It makes you decisive. You can't ponder too much. You've just got to do it and get on with it."
Gjestland on a trip to Japan.
The variety keeps her interest levels high. "I love it. The industry has allowed me to be creative in a way I never thought I'd be," she says. "It's so multifaceted."
In such a fast-paced environment, personal growth is almost a given. Gjestland says staff who start out messy and distracted regularly become organised, bristling with ideas. "It's a good way to funnel nervous energy. If you're a bit nervous or awkward, it's a way to focus that energy into something that has momentum.
"I have so much more confidence than I ever would have had. When the buck stops with you, you learn to make smart decisions, and decisions that work for you."
And now, Gjestland is set to embark on a new adventure. Wasabi is up for sale and she's moving to Japan with her husband Pete, where she'll sit the next level of her sake exams and improve her Japanese-language skills.
"It's time for a break. I'm looking forward to it, but I don't know what it's going to be like not working a 90-hour week!"
Victor Liong.

Victor Liong, owner and chef, Lee Ho Fook, Melbourne, Vic and co-owner and chef, Chuuka, Sydney, NSW

First hospo job: Age 14, as a sales assistant at an Italian deli.
Had Victor Liong's mum not spotted a staff-wanted sign at their local Italian deli, Liong's career as a restaurateur and chef might have never taken off. Those late-night shopping stints slicing charcuterie in Sydney's Burwood sparked something that became an all-consuming fire.
"It was awesome," says Liong. "I always liked food, so it was great to be learning about food that was so different to what I was eating. The experience gave me a real curiosity about food and how it all works."
When Liong jettisoned putting his business degree to work in a 9-to-5 role, his father refused to speak to him. But when his parents realised that hospitality wasn't a passing fad, they accepted his decision. "Fifteen years on and they're my biggest fans," laughs Liong.
The team at Chuuka.
Years of classical training followed, including a formative stint at Sydney fine-diner Marque and a spell at Mr Wong. He decided to ditch classical cuisine in favour of modern Chinese cooking and relocated to Melbourne to open Lee Ho Fook, allowing him to properly delve into his own cultural heritage.
"At the start I just wanted to cook French haute cuisine and my training was at that level, so taking a path towards Chinese cooking was about self-discovery and exploring flavours and ingredients that were familiar," he says. "It became more my style of cooking."
Liong is a passionate advocate for the hospitality industry. "If you really love food and serving people, making them happy, it's the best job in the world. You're serving the best wines, working with the best produce – and the travel is really awesome," he says. "There's no better time to cook than right now. It's a buyer's market out there."
Louis Tikaram. Photo: Kara Rosenlund.

Louis Tikaram, head chef, Stanley, Brisbane, QLD

First hospo job: Washing dishes at age 17 at the now-shuttered Gecko Thai in Mullumbimby.
Watching Louis Tikaram joking around, confidently conjuring a dish on television, it's hard to imagine the chef was once so painfully self-conscious he would let his big brother do all the talking.
"At the general store or fish-and-chip shop, I'd hide behind him and say nothing," says Tikaram. "He'd always have to order."
Tikaram returned to Australia earlier this year to head up the kitchen at Stanley, a new Cantonese restaurant in Brisbane, following a four-year stint leading the kitchen at Asian-fusion hotspot EP & LP in Los Angeles.
He says it was the camaraderie and pace of working in the industry that helped him find his groove. "If it's the right environment it can really help you come out of your shell as a person, and that also translates onto the plate," he says. "I remember being on the line at Bentley. We'd be working 16- or 17-hour days – my best friend Dan Hong (now Merivale's executive chef) and I – and we'd just be talking and chatting and laughing. It was such a great time."
Working in LA also taught Tikaram media smarts and on-camera composure, something he says he never imagined when he started out as a chef. "The chef used to just be this guy behind the swinging door. But that's all changed through cooking shows and travel shows and films – who'd have thought Bradley Cooper would play a chef? The perception of what a chef is has changed, as well as what is required to be a chef."
Louis Tikaram (centre) with Dan Hong (right) and colleagues during his time at Bentley, Sydney.
His first hospitality job, in a local Thai restaurant in Mullumbimby in northern New South Wales, was what got him thinking about cooking as a career. He quickly graduated from dishwashing, and soon had the keys and was spending all his free time there.
"I loved it. It transformed my life," he says. "I was good at it and I really felt it was in my blood. I knew I could make a career out of it."
After completing his final school exams, he drove to Sydney where he knocked on the door of the then-head chef of Longrain, Martin Boetz, and eventually persuaded him to take him on. "On the fourth day he came out and said to me, 'You're a persistent little fucker, aren't you?' I said yes – and he put me in a back room grinding spice for the next 12 months," says Tikaram. "I was hooked and worked every single possible hour." Tikaram then spent time working at Sydney restaurants Bentley and Tetsuya's, and later, he returned to Longrain as the head chef.
Duncan Welgemoed. Photo: Andre Castellucci.

Duncan Welgemoed, owner and executive chef, Africola, Adelaide, SA

First hospo job: Working the salad section at Gianni's, his dad's pizza restaurant, at age 13.
To say that hospitality threw a teenaged Duncan Welgemoed a lifeline would not be an overstatement.
"I was in London, about six hours off the plane, and I got mugged at a strip club and lost all my money," he says.
"So, as a 16- or 17-year-old, I turned to the industry that I knew and grew up in."
Welgemoed had worked at his dad's pizza restaurant while growing up in South Africa, and quickly found a vacancy at a French restaurant called La Bouchee in South Kensington. "That's the thing about hospo… The turnover is high, but there's always a job for someone."
Welgemoed describes his role as chef de partie at La Bouchee as hardcore, but he lasted for more than a year. He then found himself at The Goose in Oxfordshire, as part of a two-man team with upcoming chef Michael North. "Six months later we won a Michelin star," says Welgemoed. "I'd thought a Michelin star was unachievable, but we got it."
Duncan Welgemoed with colleagues at The Goose, Oxfordshire.
Working in such an intensely focused environment he quickly built skills and self-discipline, but learnt he didn't want to work in fine dining forever. "I'd cut my teeth cooking simple, beautiful food and jumped into grand cuisine. But it wasn't where my heart was," he says. "That's food for the 5 per cent who have the wallet for it, and I want to cook for the 95 per cent."
A move to Australia freed him from the restrictions of the Michelin headspace, creating an opportunity for greater balance, which culminated in the opening of Adelaide's much-loved Africola.
"It's about relaxed, natural cooking – you're not trying for three stars," says Welgemoed. "You're doing the best you can to feed people well and run a sustainable restaurant."
Does he feel working in hospitality has changed him over the years? "I've always had a particular drive and confidence, and hospo has given me an outlet for that," he says.
"It's not a job, it's a lifestyle – and it's not for everyone. It's hard. It's brutal and it's saturating mentally and physically. But it's one of the most beautiful ways to connect."