Chef George Wintle left Oakridge Restaurant at the start of 2020 and was working at Melbourne venue Pope Joan when the pandemic hit. Just a few weeks before domestic travel and the hospitality industry were restricted, he’d taken a job in Sydney.
“The weekend everything shutdown and all the interstate travel was stopped, was the weekend I was supposed to be going up,” Wintle says.
While the timing was good in some ways — at least Wintle didn’t travel to Sydney only to turn around and head back south — it’s less than ideal. The gig is still on the horizon, which has helped him stay positive.
“It’s just this excitement about when it does open and kind of really preparing yourself when it does happen, and how you can really hit it on the head,” says Wintle.
So, what’s a chef to do in the meantime?
While it took Wintle a month to reorient, eventually he landed a job and then another. First at a 3D printing factory, and then a free range butcher shop.
“I’m really honing my butchery skills and knowledge of meat production and cuts and where things actually come from produce-wise, like regions and things like that,” he says. “That’s been really, really fun. It’s something I wasn’t 110 per cent confident with, so I really couldn’t be in too much of a better position.”
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing and it’s not so much about ‘staying positive’ as it is taking an opportunity to learn something new. A 3D printing factory is something distinct from a kitchen, but Wintle says he’s happy as long as he’s learning something. Ultimately, both are pit stops.
“I’ve always been pretty set on what I want to do in hospitality and what I want to achieve,” says Wintle. “So, going into jobs, I was very clear with the employer that, when things do open up, I will be leaving. I said this is definitely an interim thing for me. And I was very happy and excited that they did take me in and give me the opportunity to actually earn some money, which is obviously a very scarce thing. Not everyone’s able to just walk in anywhere and find a job that easy.”
Wintle is honing his skills at home too, with a fermentation station under the bathroom sink producing vinegars, kombuchas and other ferments.
“I’ve actually been watching a lot of Live with Brad on Bon Appetit, which has been awesome,” says Wintle. “And I just got a new book called Koji Alchemy by fermentation specialists Jeremy Umansky and Rich Shih. That’s been a really cool resource.”
Small projects like at-home fermentation are an important part of staying motivated, says Wintle, so long as you’re not putting too much pressure on yourself.
“It’s a space where there’s no one judging what you’re doing; you can go by trial and error yourself,” says Wintle. “While you have the time, I think that’s definitely something to encourage.”
Read more about what hospitality professionals have been up to during the shutdown in Hospitality’s June/July issue. Sign up to receive the digital magazine.