It all began when Alanna Sapwell was six. Several hours into a road trip from Gympie to Melbourne, her family stopped near Dubbo for dinner. Used to Domino’s, Sapwell was suspicious of the pizza placed in front of her. So much so, she initially refused it. Her father responded with a request: “Just eat it, then complain.” The experience turned out to be revelatory. “From then, I wanted to learn how to do food the way it’s supposed to be,” says Sapwell.
The anecdote is perhaps the first example of the approach that’s re-emerged consistently throughout Sapwell’s career. After completing a school-based traineeship at Gympie’s Impressions Hinterland — “the only place that wasn’t a pub” — she travelled to the nearby coastal town of Noosa to knock on the door of David Rayner’s The River House. “My grandma used to collect newspaper clippings about all the big chefs in Noosa,” says Sapwell. “She said I needed to go work with David.”
It was good advice. Four years with Rayner followed, first as an apprentice and then as chef de partie. Under Rayner, apprentices would write the menus for their sections, with the veteran chef making adjustments so all the dishes worked as a whole. It was a chance to learn about more than technique.
“Obviously, it needed to fit in with his style of food, but I think that’s something I try to pass on … to give people the opportunity to treat creativity as a skill you work on every day,” says Sapwell.
Sapwell left The River House and travelled to Italy, where she worked in Florence for six months. The influences are still evident, if not immediately identifiable. Sapwell might not plate up dishes that could be called Italian, but the approach seen in traditional Italian kitchens is one she tries to emulate. “It looks like there’s nothing in the pasta, but it’s got that really nice glaze and it’s full of flavour,” says Sapwell, after explaining the process of making an emulsion from starchy pasta water and oil. “It looks so clean, yet there’s so much to it. I love that approach.”
Returning to Australia, Sapwell embarked on a trip that was meant to take her around the country. But a broken-down van saw the chef land a gig in Arnhem Land instead. A water plane flew supplies in once a fortnight and the only way to get rid of food waste was to burn it. “You literally had to go out the back and burn your waste,” recounts Sapwell. “When it’s in your face, you become a lot more careful with what you buy and how you use it. I’d save all the food scraps and throw them in the ocean, then catch enough fish to feed 30.”
The six-month stint ended when the tropical weather drove Sapwell to look for cooler climes, and a head chef role in Hakuba, Japan, beckoned. Despite not speaking the language, Sapwell successfully led the kitchen, earning praise from her bosses. “I became really good at miming,” she says. “But that was the moment I realised there’s so much to do in [leadership] roles. I felt like I wasn’t doing it justice.”
While her cooking was commended and the kitchen ran smoothly, Sapwell felt she wasn’t able to check in properly with her team. “It’s not just teaching others how to cook,” says Sapwell. “The way I work in a head chef position now, I try to integrate people’s personal goals into the business so they aren’t just working for me — they’re working for themselves and towards their own goals.”
It’s not the type of leadership a chef can provide if they’ve yet to experience all a kitchen has to offer. Thanks to cutbacks that saw apprenticeships reduced from four to three years, gaps in knowledge aren’t uncommon. “A lot of people were in my position; [we were] given these roles, and instead of being qualified for them, we just grew into them,” explains Sapwell. “The problem was not that we didn’t have enough chefs, but that we didn’t have enough decent ones.”
Recognising her own limitations, Sapwell decided to step back and dedicate a few years to learning each section to round out her knowledge in Australia.
While Sapwell’s overseas stints helped shape her as a chef, she’s not of the ilk that think international gigs are a necessity. Australia has everything a green chef could need to launch them beyond mediocrity.
“We’re so lucky,” says Sapwell. “Ten to 15 years ago, [going overseas] was a stripe you had to earn to be a really good chef. I think what’s more important than going overseas and working 80 hours a week at Michelin-starred restaurants is to think about the food that resonates with you, and then find the best chef who does that and learn as much as possible from them. You can definitely do that in Australia. I think we’re in a really good position … and it’s nice to focus on what we have on our own doorstep.”
Sapwell truly ironed out any kinks in Brisbane and then Sydney. “I hadn’t done a lot of pastry before,” says the chef. “I got a call from Urbane [closed 2019], asking me to come in and help out for a week.”
A week turned into a year and a half in one of the most ideal pastry environments. “As part of the agreement, I said I wanted to be head pastry chef,” says Sapwell. “They obviously laughed, like, ‘You’ve got no experience and this is a two-hat restaurant’. But I worked my way up and got the experience. It was the most perfect pastry kitchen; there was air con so you could do chocolate work and a Pacojet, which I’d never worked with before. It’s nice to do a little bit of everything and then decide where you want to steer your food.”
While in Brisbane, Sapwell spent time at Gerard’s and Goma, too. “I completely understood Josh’s [Lopez, now chef–owner of The Wolfe] thought process at Goma; the fact he was in an art gallery and everything was made to look like a piece of artwork. But just knowing I wasn’t doing the kind of food I wanted to do shook me up. It was very much just learning what kind of food I wanted to create.”
Sapwell found her footing in the kitchen of Saint Peter in Sydney. “I couldn’t relate to anyone’s food more,” says Sapwell. “I love the way Josh Niland approaches everything, from no waste to being so proud to put something like a lemon tart in the exact middle of the plate. It shows such skill and technique, but without all the fluff. I was really happy with that job and I thought that would be me until the end of time.”
Sapwell was content in her role as sous chef at the fish-centric venue for two and a half years. So much so that she turned down an initial offer from Howard Smith Wharves to return home to Brisbane and head up modern fine diner Arc. “Not only was I happy [at Saint Peter], but Josh did the right thing by me,” says Sapwell. “There has to be some loyalty, where you don’t jump at the first opportunity.”
Eventually, the opportunity came calling again and the decision to branch out felt right for Sapwell and the rest of the Saint Peter team. “The start was quite intense at Saint Peter; we felt like we were always on the back foot,” says Sapwell. “Finally, we grew the team and had the right fit where everyone had Josh’s back 100 per cent. Because it was such a small kitchen, there was no room for anyone to grow. I said, ‘Josh, this is the right time. Everything runs great, you’ve got a great team; if someone at the top doesn’t go, you’ll lose people anyway because they can’t just be shucking oysters and not getting on the pans’.”
This profile originally appeared in Hospitality’s October 2020 issue. Read the full feature here.