Quiet enthusiasm is behind Dan Puskas’ success
The Sydney suburb of Stanmore is not the first place that springs to mind as the locale of a three-hatted restaurant. But it’s the home of Sixpenny, an unassuming eatery that opened in 2012 under culinary whiz kids Daniel Puskas and James Parry. The tiny 35-seat restaurant has attracted global praise for its culinary ethos, which Puskas describes as “simple food executed well”.
The chef talks to Hospitality about his early career, working in Michelin-starred restaurants and hatted kitchens and how his generation is doing things differently. Daniel Puskas is undoubtedly one of the country’s best and brightest talents. The chef has been in the kitchen since he was a teen after a disinterest in conventional learning sparked a potential career path.
“I was never interested in high school, but I really enjoyed the hospitality lessons,” says Puskas. “I did some extra TAFE classes after school and started my apprenticeship at a small hotel in Cronulla.”
After one year, Puskas decided to take the advice of his boss and work in a bigger hotel in the city, but he soon realised it wasn’t the right fit. “I didn’t really find it challenging, I was stuck in the catering/function side of the hotel and it wasn’t my thing,” says the chef. Puskas’ next move would go on to shape the trajectory of his career. Sick of cooking in hotels, the then 20 year old set his sights on working at the best restaurant in Sydney — Tetsuya’s. “I rang up the head chef Martin Benn and ended up getting a job there,” he says. “I was still really green and I hadn’t even worked at a proper restaurant before. Everyone was really serious and it was super overwhelming, but it was the most amazing experience. I finished my apprenticeship at Tetsuya’s and thought, ‘Wow, this is what I want to do’.”
Puskas left Tetsuya’s for a stint at a café before he travelled to Spain and Italy and spent some time working in London. When he returned to Sydney, Puskas followed in Benn’s footsteps and went to work at The Boathouse, but when Benn moved to Hong Kong to work for Aqua Restaurant Group, Puskas decided to jump ship as well. “One of my friends had his birthday dinner at Marque and I decided it was the place I wanted to be, so I went to work there,” he says.
The chef’s time at Tetsuya’s and Marque wasn’t just career-defining, it was personally gratifying. Puskas met one of his best friends, Phil Wood, in the kitchen and counts Darren Robertson, Dan Hong, Jowett Yu, Dan Pepperell, Louis Tikaram and Luke Powell as not only peers, but pals. “We were all a similar age and people in my generation were a little bit nicer,” says Puskas. “We were sick of being bullied by the older chefs so we formed good relationships with each other.”
All of the aforementioned chefs have gone on to run restaurants locally and abroad, which speaks to the stripes earned from working in the kitchens of Tetsuya Wakuda and Mark Best. “Those two places definitely shaped who I am,” says Puskas. “It was hard for me and hard for a lot of people, but a few years later, I realised how amazing it was and what it did to me as a chef — I feel lucky to have experienced it.”
While Puskas was hitting his stride in the kitchen of Marque, he decided to apply for the Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year award. The young gun remembers how nervous he was to talk about his essay in front of Neil Perry and Damien Pignolet, but the jitters paid off when he was named as the winner. Puskas says the spotlight shifted once he received the award, and is grateful to this day for the opportunity Pignolet gave him. “Damien saw something in me and he took a risk,” he says. “Everything I’m doing today is in respect for the award he gave me.”
The award provided Puskas with not only an accolade, but the opportunity to work in some of the world’s best kitchens. The chef spent six weeks at Grant Achatz’s Alinea in Chicago before moving on to Wylie Dufresne’s WD~50 in New York.
“WD~50 was an amazing place to work because Wylie had a way of drawing creativity from the chefs,” says Puskas. “I was very much into molecular gastronomy and learning about the science behind cooking, but I realised I was a bit more of a nonna, cooking to bring people together.”
After Puskas returned from his travels, he was appointed head chef of Oscillate Wildly in 2007. And while he was up for the challenge, Puskas says there were some challenges at the start. “I was young and probably didn’t have enough experience working in other restaurants,” he says. “When I was an apprentice, people would spend two to three years in a restaurant, but I was only doing one or two years. You don’t have the chance to move around the whole kitchen. It was received really well, but it could have gone either way. I tell a lot of young chefs not to rush into a head chef position because it could make or break you. You need to know the foundations of cooking first.”
Puskas cooked alongside his soon-to-be business partner James Parry at Oscillate Wildly, but the pair would exit the bistro in 2008 to work for Martin Benn at Sepia before opening Sixpenny in 2012 in a location owned by Oscillate Wildly boss Ross Godfrey.
Previously known as The Codfather, Puskas says the site appealed due to its Inner West location and affordable rent, which was a drawcard for two young chefs opening their first restaurant. “I opened Sixpenny with James and Godfrey, who was a silent partner,” he says. “James and I were confident people would travel for the product. We had all the creative freedom we wanted and we could grow things in the backyard as well. It’s not on a bustling street so there were a few risks, but we believed we could attract a crowd.” Puskas would go on to buy Parry out of the business in 2016.
Seven years later and Sixpenny is going strong, in more ways than one. The importance of work–life balance is not just preached at the restaurant, but practiced. Puskas is 37 years old and has been working as a chef for close to 20 years, and says it’s important to establish boundaries in an industry that’s notorious for burning people out. “The hours are ridiculous and it’s important to have time away,” he says. “Our chefs work four and a half days a week and they have Sunday night off, all day Monday and Tuesday and another morning or night during the week. We try to reduce hours as much as possible and we always close over the Christmas period because it’s important for people to spend time with their families. I always take Saturdays off to spend with my family.”
The chef also fosters an environment of creativity in the kitchen and encourages the team to pursue potential dishes — or not. “We all treat each other as friends and we all have an opinion,” says Puskas. “I don’t expect them not to think or try new things. They can test dishes if they want or just come in and put their head down and work.”
Sixpenny was one of just three restaurants awarded three hats in 2019, proof it has well and truly hit its stride under Puskas. The chef has a quiet enthusiasm about him, and his passion is unwavering despite a 20-year career in an industry that’s challenging, to say the least. “I’m not the young kid running kitchens anymore; I have 10 years’ more experience than everyone else in the restaurant. But I need to have longevity because this is what I love and this is what I know.”