We often hear stories of young chefs destined for the kitchen from childhood, entering the industry with one goal in mind: run a restaurant, one that’s preferably your own. It was no different for Lillia McCabe. Given her family pedigree — the chef and sommelier’s mother, grandfather and uncle all worked in hospitality — it’s not surprising she never really considered doing anything else.
McCabe formally started working in kitchens when she left school at the age of 15. It was during a four-year stint at The Wharf Restaurant (a now shuttered one-hat venue on Sydney’s Jones Bay Wharf run by Tim Pak Poy and Aaron Ross) that she truly got her start and learned far more than basic technical skills. “I learned how to be tough and how to hold my own,” says McCabe. “I learned everyday kitchen banter.”
Now more than 10 years on, and with a different mindset and newly defined goals, McCabe is grateful for her years at The Wharf. Why? Mentors. Pak Poy and Ross created a supportive kitchen and took McCabe under their wings.
McCabe went from their tutelage to join the team at Sydney institution Claude’s (closed 2013) and then ACME (closed 2019), where she found another great mentor in chef Mitch Orr (now head chef at CicciaBella).
“Aaron and Mitch are still my mentors to this day,” says McCabe. “They understand who I am and what I need. [Good mentors] teach life skills, they’re there for you as a person and they develop you as chef and hospitality worker.”
While McCabe has been lucky to find mentors throughout her career, it hasn’t always been a smooth ride. There have been venues that didn’t provide a conducive environment. “You miss something, and that’s disappointing,” says McCabe of kitchens that lacked role models. “You’re working for someone else, I understand that, but you’re also working on yourself and trying to get your career to a certain spot. As a young chef, it’s not easy to do by yourself so you need to look up to people.”
Eventually, the mentally and physically grueling nature of kitchens left her believing there was a time limit on her career as a chef. “About a year and a half ago, I realised I didn’t want to spend all my time in kitchens,” says McCabe.
The change in heart came after a move to Singapore that didn’t pan out. “It wasn’t a good experience overall,” says McCabe. “[But] it was a really great learning curve. I’m glad I did it because I learned so much about myself, what I want to do and what I don’t want to do.”
Ultimately still in love with the industry, McCabe is now honing in on diversifying her skillset, which revolves around moving into front of house and wine service. Starting her transition in Singapore, before heading back to Sydney for Merivale’s Kingdom of Rice pop-up in early 2019, McCabe is now on the way to becoming an all-rounder under the guidance of veteran Maurice Terzini. Along with Terzini, whose attention to detail and care McCabe finds inspiring, Icebergs Dining Room and Bar head sommelier Gabrielle Webster has helped McCabe change directions.
The switch has paid off. McCabe has relished the opportunity to develop a fresh perspective, despite going back to square one. “Understanding both the kitchen and front of house [FOH] has changed my opinion on a lot of things and changed my attitude,” she says. “I used to bark at front of house. Now I understand what it’s like dealing with customers. I regret some things I said. I wish FOH and kitchen would do some time in each section. They’re both grueling.”
It’s been a boon for personal development, too. “I feel like I stopped learning a bit,” McCabe says. “That’s partially my fault, but it’s nice to take a step back and be an ‘apprentice’ again. I get to work with amazing lists at Icebergs and we have clientele who want to spend on opening great bottles. It’s a great position to be in. I learn everyday — Gabrielle is a legend.”
Mentors can be found out of the workplace, too. McCabe lists friends including sommeliers Ambrose Chiang and Max Gurtler as significant sources of support and encouragement. In fact, creating a circle of friends in the industry is one of her key pieces of advice. “Find a group of people you want to be involved with,” she says.
Finding the right people also helps with finding the right venues and roles.
“If things aren’t working, find another kitchen,” McCabe suggests. “Don’t just work at the next best restaurant; find something that really suits you.”
It shouldn’t be up to hospitality workers to keep moving until they find the right venue, though. “My frustration is seeing great people move around because they aren’t being treated right,” says McCabe.
The fix is actually simple: give people a good time and a chance to contribute meaningfully to the business. “If they’re having fun and have a say, you’ll keep them,” argues McCabe.
McCabe left school early and eschewed a formal apprenticeship because she prefers hands-on learning to sitting still, not because she thinks hospitality should be all fun and games.
“I really like discipline and structure, and I found that in restaurants that were rigid and technique-driven,” she says. “It’s hard at points, all kitchens are, but as a person, I really need discipline. If I don’t have it, I get lost. I’m a naughty kid if I don’t have it.”
Instead, McCabe is not willing to put up with ego-driven personalities and unforgiving hours: “The aggression needs to change and the hours people are working need to change.”
Until such changes occur, McCabe won’t be rushing back to kitchen life. In the meantime, she’s satisfied with wine service and finding time to cook on the side. In fact, she’s delving back into the pop-up world off the back of her time at Merivale’s Cambodian concept Kingdom of Rice where she worked alongside Orr and Sophia Thatcher. “It was really fun,” says McCabe. “I’m really looking forward to doing it again.”
By “by doing it again”, McCabe means running pop-ups in collaboration with Thatcher, this time under the banner of Bopha. The first iteration, held at Newtown venue Cafe Paci, was a hit, selling out well ahead of the event. “We were shocked at the response,” says McCabe. “We thought we’d do 30-40 covers, but we did 120 and there was a waitlist. Hopefully it will be the first of a few.”
McCabe is excited by the chance to cook in an environment of her own creation. “I love cooking and I miss it,” she reveals. “But I don’t want to be in kitchens anymore. It is a really great outlet for me to have my hand [in the kitchen] and have my fun without being in it every day.”
No egos popping up alongside the restaurant helps, too. “Khmer culture is really important to Sophia,” says McCabe on how the Kingdom of Rice concept came about. “She wanted to do something Cambodian because there isn’t much in Sydney, so it’s her menu as much as mine. We work well together. She helps with prep and I’ll curate drinks; she jumps in the kitchen and I jump on the floor. We utilise each other’s skills.”
As much as she’s riding the pop-up wave, it’s not enough to will McCabe back into cheffing. In part, the decision to stay in front of house is driven by pragmatism. “I think one of the reasons I got into wine is because I don’t want to be stuck with one skill,” says McCabe.
It’s sound reasoning to any 21st century professional — we’re living in an era of hedged bets — but McCabe is contemplating moving on from hospitality altogether. “I’m trying to figure out whether to stay in the industry at the moment,” says McCabe. “I think there’s a time limit, especially as a chef.”
When she started out, the goal was to own her own venue, but things have changed. “It’s the ultimate goal to be in charge,” says McCabe. “I think that’s what all young chefs want. That’s the ego thing; every chef wants to be in charge and create their own thing.”
Now, it would take a lot to convince McCabe to open her own venue. On one hand, she’s seen too many people go through the ups and downs of success followed by ‘failure’. On the other, it’s a purely personal decision. “I don’t want that for me,” she says. “I have a bad taste in my mouth about restaurants. The industry has broken me a few times — it takes a massive toll on your mental and physical health.”
With so much behind her at such a young age, the chef/sommelier’s experience is both a cautionary tale and proof there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Her advice to those coming up the ranks? If things take a turn for the worse, chill out and take a step back. “What I was doing wasn’t working out for me, but I still loved the industry so much,” says McCabe. “I changed my pathway … and it’s changed the way I feel. I’ve started to have fun again.”
Reenergised by her time in wine service, McCabe is ready to reinvest in the industry. “I felt I was becoming someone I didn’t like,” she says. “I needed to change my perspective and get my shit together so I didn’t rub off on people. Maybe one day I’ll feel confident enough to run a kitchen, but I need to improve myself as a leader.”
Keeping people in the industry is imperative, so we can only hope others take McCabe’s lead.
This profile originally appeared in Hospitality’s April issue. Read more profiles in the new May edition.