Taylor Cullen was washing dishes at his family’s restaurant in New Zealand at the age of 11. By the time he turned 14, he was working on larder and prep. The hospitality kid grew up in the thick of the industry with a dad as a chef and a mum as a front-of-house whiz, which made the move from school to catering college (while doing 40 hours a week at the restaurant) a familiar but nonetheless exciting step.

Cullen has worked in almost every type of venue over the years and has now settled into the head chef role of Matt Moran’s Chiswick restaurant in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. It’s here where you’ll experience his vegetable-centric cooking ethos thanks to the venue’s signature — and abundant — kitchen garden.

The chef speaks to Hospitality about learning the ropes at Luxury Lodges, putting paddock-to-plate into practice and making his mark on a restaurant celebrating a decade in business.

After ticking off catering college, Taylor Cullen snagged a job alongside Head Chef Jane Tibble at Longitude 131° just outside Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park in the Northern Territory. Cullen started at the luxury hotel as a demi chef before working his way up to chef de partie (CDP).

He then returned to New Zealand to work as a CDP at another lodge — Blanket Bay in the South Island — for two years. “The lodges are great for chefs who want to learn how to do everything because you run breakfast, lunch and dinner and you’re catering to a wide range of customers,” says Cullen. “It made me realise I could work in breakfast, casual or fine-dining places.”

It was during this time Cullen received a valuable lesson from chef Corey Hume, who would go on to shape his approach to cooking for good. “He taught me how to study,” says Cullen. “Whether it was through books or recipes from other chefs, he taught me how to break them down and put them in context so you’re not copying and creating your own recipes. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

Developing a broad skill set served the chef well during his travels through Europe alongside his brother, with the pair cooking in venues across France, Spain and Portugal. “I later moved to America and became a private chef before I went to Costa Rica,” says Cullen. The chef later made his way back to Australia and joined the kitchen of the now-shuttered Bridge Room in Sydney under Ross Lusted. “I was there for six months before it closed and then the head chef role at Paperbark came up.”

Paperbark was the city’s only fine-dining plant-based restaurant at the time (2018), with the venue remembered for its innovative approach to putting vegetables first when meat was still dominating menus. Cullen worked at the Waterloo venue until he was presented with another overseas opportunity. “I went to Los Angeles and ran the Bondi Harvest restaurants and was about to open a spot in Milan, Italy, but COVID-19 hit at the wrong time,” he says. “We were six days from opening and I had to come home.”

World events resulted in Cullen’s return to Sydney and the kitchen of Ross Lusted, with the chef taking on a gig at Woodcut at Crown before Solotel came knocking. “During the next lockdown, Chiswick rang, and I was like, ‘Yeah sweet, let’s go’.”

Besides a brief stint shucking oysters and slicing sashimi at North Bondi Fish to extend a holiday, joining Chiswick marked the first time Cullen had worked for Solotel. But the restaurant wasn’t unchartered territory for the Cullen family. “My brother and his partner have both worked at Chiswick before,” he says. “My brother and I would come here every year for our Christmas dinner, and I thought it was a really cool neighbourhood restaurant that’s essentially the closest thing to what I grew up in as a kid.”

Due to restrictions, Cullen’s head chef appointment last year didn’t come with the usual trial or team meet and greet. “I was producing a menu without having stepped foot in the kitchen until we were a couple of weeks away from opening,” he says. “So, I just threw myself in the deep-end.”

Taking on the leadership position of a kitchen is a challenge for a chef of any calibre, especially when it comes to producing menus that remain within an established venue’s parameters while reflecting a personal cooking style.

But Cullen’s pared-back principles are a natural fit with Chiswick’s ethos, which could be described as home-style, rustic food you’d eat at home, but probably couldn’t replicate. And while the chef is playing by the rules, he’s stayed true to his own style with dishes that largely revolve around vegetables.

Wes Nel

“Chiswick was more of a meat and three-veg sort venue, and we have really pushed it to have more plant-based options,” says the chef. “It’s more sustainable and vegetables have such a big range; there are so many interesting things you can do with them, and I want to show people that.”

It’s a notion that’s reflected in a capsicum dish, which sees the vegetable roasted before it’s seasoned with fermented lemon juice and olive oil.

“We take lemons off the tree, salt them for one week and then we juice the whole fruit to get a cloudy, fermented lemon juice,” says Cullen. “It’s little things like taking a simple roasted capsicum and creating a really interesting flavour profile. I approach vegetables with the thought process of how we can make them as interesting as possible while keeping the integrity of the whole ingredient.”

Another example is an ocean trout dish from the autumn menu, which was a nod to Cullen’s time with Ross Lusted. “He taught me that things can be burnt without being burnt, so we had a piece of ocean trout that was seared skin-side down in the pan until it was charred,” says the chef.

The dish was teamed with wood-fired cabbage doused in anchovy butter and garnished with garden nasturtiums and marigolds. “The cabbage was smoky and it was so simple next to the fish, but so tasty. It’s always the simple ones.”

Steven Woodburn

One of the perks of working at Chiswick has got to be having access to Matt Moran, who gives the greenlight for each dish that makes the menu. “He tastes everything with six other people from Solotel and it’s great to get that feedback,” says Cullen.

“Sometimes when you work for yourself, you don’t get that. He’s happy to give credit where it’s due or be completely honest if a dish doesn’t work, which I really like. You can’t get past honesty — it’s important.”

They say you don’t have to do much when you have good produce, and the adage couldn’t be more relevant for Chiswick, which is one of the only restaurants in the city with a kitchen garden. It’s a perk that provides endless inspiration to Cullen, who spends plenty of time alongside resident Gardener Peter Hatfield.

“I’m always talking to Pete about what I’d like to plant and what’s growing,” says the chef. “It’s not big enough to sustain vegetables for the entire restaurant, but we had 340kg of cherry tomatoes which we used during summer and we grew bronze fennel for a carpaccio dish. We grow a lot of herbs for the restaurant. And then it’s about getting my chefs out into the garden and teaching them what I know.”

Sharing knowledge and cultivating a productive and motivating work environment is key to Cullen’s management style and is something the team has widely appreciated and responded to. In an industry plagued with staff shortages, Cullen is all too aware of the challenges that come with running a kitchen, which makes him all the more appreciative of Chiswick’s brigade.

“I was lucky enough to be given such a solid team; we have a lot of long-standing staff,” he says. “Chiswick is like a little family and people stick around, which is nice.”

Recognising hard work and promoting chefs is part of workplace wellbeing, and the results speak for themselves. “The team works really hard for me because they see [the situation] as, ‘This person gave me a shot’, and it’s really important to nurture those people,” he says.

Steven Woodburn

“I’m more chill than chefs I have worked for; I’m trying to create a team environment without the hostility of old-school kitchens. In saying that, I learned so much in those kitchens, so I’m torn about it because you’re in the trenches, but Chiswick isn’t really like that. People turn up to work happy and I find you get the same results from sitting someone down and having a chat about how they are and why they’re making mistakes rather than yelling at them during service.”

Cullen has recently made it to the seven-month mark of his tenure at Chiswick, with the itchy-footed chef committing to around two and a half years when he accepted the role. “I’m hoping to go back to New Zealand and open a lodge on a farm in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “It will have greenhouses, hives, animals and provide 85 per cent of its own food — it’s a chef’s dream to do that.”

In the meantime, Cullen is riding the ebbs and flows that come with running Chiswick, which celebrated its 10th birthday last month with a throwback menu. “The staff told me all their favourite dishes over the years, so I reworked them to suit my style of cooking,” he says. “I’m focused on Chiswick for the next year and a half and then I’ll be working with people in New Zealand. It’s cool to know where you’re going and to have a goal.”