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  • Jeremy O'Connor

    I used to sit at the table of my nan’s (Rita’s) house poking beans through this really cool gadget that would cut them lengthways. I still do not know what they are called.
    I have fond memories of going to my grandmothers house (Lorna) and walking into her kitchen with a wood-fired stove where she would have a pot of steak and kidney stew boiling away. The smell was intoxicating throughout the house.

    I had a neighbour growing up (Carmel), really nice Italian lady who had a herb and vegetable garden in the backyard. She put on the most amazing Italian spread you have ever seen on a Wednesday night. Antipasto platters, beef Ragù, a big bowl of spaghetti in Napoli sauce in the centre, crusty bread, shaved parmesan etc. Mum used to wonder why my brother and I didn’t eat dinner on a Wednesday night very often, it was because we had eaten across the road, lol. So I had very strong cooking influences from an early age.

    Mum was great at making recipes from Margaret Fulton and Dad was always really good at BBQs, Spits and Chinese food that was in a book he got from the Chinese joss house in Bendigo. All food was eaten with a knife and fork at the table, there was no using your hands. Very traditional Irish -Catholic background type food, things like meat and three vegetables. It was filling, simple and nice.

    I went to do work experience as a waiter at a place called France-Soir, in South Yarra. I lasted a day doing that, just!
    I nearly had a punch on with the head waiter who was also the owner. He banished me to the kitchen and said to the chef you deal with him! The chef Joakim, had me deveining prawns, shucking oysters, peeling potatoes, onions and carrots and I was loving it. I decided shortly after to do an apprenticeship as a cook, much to the disdain of the rest of my family. My father is famously quoted as saying “you will never see it through!” I think that was a driving force for me to stick it out and complete my apprenticeship.

    My first Job was with Naughton’s Hotel in Carlton, my first day I didn’t know the difference between a chicken schnitzel and a veal schnitzel when asked to get one from the fridge.
    I then went to work at an Italian Restaurant called Lazaron in Carlton and stayed for about six months with this very interesting Italian Chef. He used to throw tantrums and things at you, he would have a cigarette in his mouth while he was there stirring the Napoli sauce, but amongst other things he was a good cook. I then went on to the turning point of my career.

    I started working for probably the most amazing cooking mentor I have ever met, Ross Ellis Jones. We worked at a cabaret/variety venue “The Prince Patrick Hotel” in Collingwood. Ross used to make me close my eyes, hold my nose and then I had to try some food item that he wanted to give me. He would let you smell and taste it, then you could open your eyes and eat it and if you didn’t want to eat it after that he would leave you alone. He would get me to try things I never would usually have tasted that I still really enjoy today, like sea urchins for example. Ross is very creative and taught me to take food to extreme places both texturally and visually.

    During the course of my apprenticeship, I also worked at Annick’s French Bistro in Fitzroy, The Grosvenor Hotel in St Kilda and Stitches theatre Restaurant in St Kilda with Ross again. My final year I spent at The Australian Club in Melbourne where I was put through a proper French Brigade Style Kitchen. This is where you get put in a specific section like vegetables, main courses, desserts, fish etc. I learnt an absolute heap of stuff cooking there and had a very motivating head chef Craig Walker who spent a lot of time making sure the apprentices were learning a lot.

    After I finished my apprenticeship I had a few holidays around Australia, then came back to work in the café and restaurant scene. I ended up working at an Italian Restaurant in Carlton named “Cerebona’s” where I had the pleasure to meet one of my greatest friends “Ivan Ellul” who taught me all I know about Italian/ Maltese food today. We worked together in a few of Paul Mathis’ Projects like Cerebona’s Flinders Lane, Blue Train and even for his mother years later at Sam’s Café in Niddrie.

    I also consistently returned for a guest cooking spot at “The Prince Patrick Hotel” for the Comedy Festival every April where I had the pleasure of cooking for and getting to know quite a lot of International and Australian Comedians, Band Members, Celebrities etc. I had a race with Craig Ferguson (late night tv host) one night, up the drain pipes on the outside of the building. I also got to cook for people like Anthony Morgan, Greg Fleet, Dave Taranto (RIP), Dave Grant (RIP), Linda Gibson (RIP), The Found Objects, Wendy Harmer, Tony Rickards, Steve Vizard, Rachel Berger, The Melody Lords, Dave O’Neil and many more. I loved the atmosphere in that place, really conducive to good food.

    I fluffed around town all over the place learning new styles of food and utilising new equipment on the market, for the next few years. Then I had the pleasure of working with a chef who gave me my first taste of working at major events doing catering (Darren Flouch). He sent me out with a company called “Life’s a Party” to work on the inside of the track at Flemington. I had a ball, we were doing finger-food for 400 people and pumping it out as needed in a very rudimentary setup. I had a ball, and needless to say returned to do many more race events.

    I have worked at Grand Prix’s, Moto GP’s, Spring Racing Carnival, Big Day Out’s, Music Festivals, Queen Victoria Night Markets, and many other festival-type events. Here I learned how to cater for very large numbers, but still ensure it tastes good and looks presentable using very basic equipment. It is easy if you manage your time, people and equipment effectively. Last year at Caulfield myself and six other chefs put out 420 main courses in 12 minutes. It was an adrenalin rush and a half! Nothing went wrong, all the plates were hot, looked great etc.

    I have had the benefit and chance to cook for some of the most amazing people in the last 28 years.
    This year I almost took off Arnold Schwarzenegger’s head with a tray coming out of a cooking area at the F1 Grand Prix. The greatest one for me was cooking for Nicholas Cage at the Grand Prix while he was out here filming ‘Ghost Rider’.
    Although a lot of my friends say that cooking for Prince Charles was my most important one.

    I have cooked for sporting stars, tv stars, movie stars, rock stars, comedians and politicians.
    I have worked in about 297 Cafes, Restaurants, Hotels, Catering establishments, food production companies, Nightclubs, Bars, Bottle Shops and major event companies. Mostly employed at a senior level, to manage people and food items on a large capacity and grand scale.

    I have written and costed recipes, developed in-house training programs for hospitality sites and Registered Training Organisations, worked with a vast variety of cuisines and equipment, developed a huge network within the Australian Hospitality Industry and have had the focus that you can never stop learning.

    My favourite thing to do is train someone who wants to learn to cook. You have to be patient but when you see they get it, it is one of life’s greatest rewards.
    If you can cook at least 20 dishes in your life you have got enough to survive. If everyone did that McDonald’s would be out of business quick smart!

    I also love gardening which has added a different dimension to my cooking presentation and preparation. Whether it be flowers to garnish plates or herbs to use during the cooking process, I really love to utilise my garden to enhance the occasion.

    Another thing I really like is to enhance any good food with what is obviously the right combination of alcohol to accompany what it is you are eating. I have frequented a great deal of wineries over the years, preferring the wines from Heathcote predominantly, the home of the big gutsy red.

    I have been involved in quite a lot of degustation type dinners over the years and love putting parties on at home with small groups to do this.

    I love travelling, having done so extensively throughout Australia.
    I did my first overseas trip this year, travelling to 3 Hawaiian islands, Maui, Kauai and Oahu. I really loved what they do with their food trucks over there, and the cuisine as a whole was pretty amazing.