Chef Glenn Thompson was the winner of the inaugural Mid North Coast Signature Dish Awards and is the proud owner of one of only two Chef’s Hats on the entire Mid-North Coast.
> Hey, Glenn. You grew up on the Mid-North Coast in Port Macquarie. How did you end up in Port Stephens?
I was about 15 when I left Port Macquarie for Sydney. It was to start an apprenticeship as a chef with an old airline called TAA. The head chef at the time was Cheong Tse, formerly the Executive Sous Chef of the Regent Hotel Sydney (which during the 80s was considered in the top ten hotels in the world).
He must have seen something in me and decided he didn’t like the idea of me wasting my talents doing airline food. So he arranged for me to get experience at different establishments to further my knowledge and basically never to return to TAA.
After getting experience in confectionery, butchery, baking, pastisserie and fish mongering, I then worked in the famous Kables Restaurant at the Regent Hotel under Serge Dansereau, The Point Restaurant at the Hotel Nikko under Maurice Guillouet, Zigolini’s, Le Kiosk Restaurant, Park Hyatt Sydney, then I was offered the Head Chef position at a One Hat restaurant called Roberts at Peppertree in the Hunter Valley. While there, I was offered a job and sea change to run a hotel in Port Stephens.
Then after a couple of years, my wife Jenny and I decided to open Zest Restaurant in 2002; she knew I would never be happy until I had my own restaurant. So now 7 years on and juggling three kids, we managed to get awarded 1 Chef’s Hat by the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide. A first for Port Stephens.
So since opening, we have managed to win a lot of awards, which are on our website at www.zestrestaurant.com.au
> How did you end up becoming a chef?
As long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a chef. I was surrounded by good food as I grew up and enjoyed doing home science (as it was called back then) at Port Macquarie High. What really opened my eyes and was the icing on the cake (so to speak) in deciding my career was the opportunity to do work experience at the old Port Macquarie RSL (which was later relocated) in their French Restaurant. Then on my school holidays, I would work at the RSL voluntarily to get as much experience as I could.
> Your restaurant, Zest, is one of only two restaurants on the whole Mid-North Coast to be awarded a coveted Chef’s Hat. What does it take to get, and keep, a Chef’s Hat?
To receive a Chef’s Hat after all these years of hard work was a great achievement. It was not only for me and Jenny, but also all the dedicated staff who put in such long, tiresome hours. It was a dream come true. To get awarded a Hat takes dedication, commitment from me and my team. This includes the chefs, waitresses and even the kitchen hands. After all … it’s a team effort.
We pride ourselves on using the finest produce that is available to us, giving great service in a relaxed but stylish atmosphere. Having said that, though, it’s not any less stressful maintaining this prestigious award. We are critiqued every year anonymously, which puts a lot of pressure and strain on all of the staff. Especially around September, when the SMH Good Food Guide is published with the latest scores. Believe me … you don’t want to be around anyone who loses their Chef’s Hat. It makes Gordon Ramsay look like a pussycat!
> Where do you draw your passion and inspiration from?
You’re to love what you do and surround yourself with staff who are just as passionate as you are – which is very rare quality in this industry. The produce we use also helps with the inspiration. Believe me … there’s nothing like hunting for fresh truffles in winter then taking them back to the kitchen to create new dishes for the menu.
It’s also important to not become complacent. We all dine out regularly to see what new trends and techniques are happening.
My family also play a big part of my inspiration: Georgia 11, Dylan 9 and Riley 5 get involved in the kitchen either at home or at the restaurant. I think it’s a great way for them to see how food is created from start to finish, rather than thinking it all comes from a tin or take away. They enjoy especially helping out all the chefs with their food preparation and trying new things.
> You won the inaugural Mid-North Coast Signature Dish Awards last year. Tell us a little about your winning dish.
Yes, it was fantastic to be the first to take out the inaugural Mid North Coast Signature Dish Award. I was wondering what would best describe the Mid North Coast on a plate and thought nothing would showcase it better than using seafood, which is of such high quality in the region.
So the dish I created was crisp skinned snapper on a fennel, tomato, olives and kiplfer etuvee with oyster beignets. I only trialled the dish once before I gave it to the guys in the kitchen to try. Once I got the thumbs up from them, we knew we had come up with a great dish to submit for the competition. Then we matched with a Cassegrain Riesling, to complement each other.
> You went head to head with some of our local area’s leading chefs. Were you nervous or intimidated at all?
I suppose you could say I was a little nervous. For me there’s nothing more nerve racking than cooking outside your own environment. Then to walk into a kitchen with different equipment from what you’re normally used to and not having any idea of where anything is can be daunting. Then to top it off, to see all these chefs surrounding you all wanting the same outcome – to win the first Signature Dish Competition. Yeah, you could say that I was a little intimidated – especially going head to head with some of the region’s top chefs.
> It’s said your staff weren’t having you back in your own kitchen unless you won?
Yeah, that’s right. They’re probably some of my toughest critics. They said with our reputation at stake that if I didn’t take the signature dish competition, not to bother coming back to work. I told them that was a bit harsh, so the pressure was definitely on to come back with the trophy. They said they would lose face with me if someone a lot younger than me could take out the competition.
> If you had any advice for anyone looking to be a chef, or just a better cook at home, what would it be?
To be a chef, sure. For starters, think long and hard about it. It’s not like what you see on TV and in the movies. You’re basically overworked and generally underpaid at the start; it’s extremely hard work.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I love it and wouldn’t have it any other way. Just as long as you’re passionate about food and cooking, the industry can be very rewarding. There are not a lot of jobs where you can travel around the world and get paid to do what you love.
Remember … what you put into this industry in the start of your career, you will be rewarded two fold.
Now, to be a better cook at home don’t be afraid of experimenting with different flavours and textures. Source the best produce you can afford. Invest in some professional cookbooks – they’re very accessible these days. And don’t worry … some recipes are a lot easier than you think. At the end of the day, cooking should be enjoyable and fun – not a chore.
> What does the future hold for you and Zest?
The future … that’s a tough one. The main thing is to survive the current global downturn at the moment and maintain what we have been doing for the last 7 years so far.
It’s worked well for us. Hopefully we are still there for when the kids are older; they say that they all would like to be chefs (to my wife Jenny’s disgust). We’ll have to wait and see.
> Thank you Glenn.