One of the hospitality industry’s most promising young chefs, Jake Kellie had a stellar year in 2015, and now he's on a mission to make 2016 bigger and better.
To be a success, you need to surround yourself with the right people. It’s a simple piece of advice that entrepreneurs and innovators all around the world swear by. This includes Jake Kellie, head chef at the recently opened The Lakeside Mill in regional Victoria. At just 26, he’s preparing to invest in the business as a part-owner, having already clocked up more than 10 years’ experience in commercial kitchens both here and abroad.
Kellie completed his apprenticeship under Matt Moran at Aria Sydney, then – like most newly qualified chefs – did some travelling, before heading to Melbourne and spending a couple of months at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze.
“Then I moved to the UK and did a stage at The Fat Duck for a month. After that, I took my first chef de partie role at The Ledbury under Brett Graham. From there I moved back to Australia and worked for the Melbourne Pub Group with Paul Wilson and Jack Nicholson,” Kellie says.
At the ripe old age of 23, he accepted his first head chef role at The Commoner in Melbourne’s Fitzroy – a position he held for two years before moving over to the kitchen at Scott Pickett’s Estelle Bistro in 2015.
It was a massive year for Kellie, who was also named a finalist in The Age Good Food Guide Young Chef of the Year award and – after being Runner Up in 2014 – claimed the Appetite for Excellence Australian Young Chef of the Year award.
“I re-entered because I wasn’t 100 percent happy with the food I did the year before. And for me, I get a real buzz out of cooking for people like Peter Gilmore, Mark Best and James Viles. To be able to go into a competition and have them as your judges is pretty unreal.
“I didn’t go back and want to win it, my focus was just to cook good food in front of the judges, because it’s not everyday that you get to cook for Jimmy (James Viles, Biota), Mark Best (Marque, Pei Modern), David Thompson (Long Chim) and Ross Lusted (The Bridge Room). I got a real buzz off that.”
Now in its 11th year, the Electrolux Appetite for Excellence program aims to develop, support and recognise the next generation of culinary professionals, and has three categories: Young Chef, Young Waiter and Young Restaurateur.
Appetite for Excellence mentors and judges
The program has an impressive line-up of mentors and judges, who combined have over 500 years of experience in foodservice, whether it be as a chef, restaurateur, waiter or sommelier.
“They’re all really, really good guys. They’ll be completely honest with you, if they don’t like something. I think that’s the stuff that every chef needs to hear,” Kellie says.
And the advice doesn’t stop once the program concludes. Judges, organisers and competitors are frequently bouncing ideas off each other for their latest and greatest endeavours, and Kellie says it’s James Viles in particular, head chef at Bowral’s Biota, who has helped shape the offering at The Lakeside Mill.
“He took the plunge that I have now. He went to Bowral to open Biota, which is three and a half hours from Sydney’s city, and he did that with his old man. He’s been a big mentor and someone I really look up to in regards to what I’m doing here at The Mill.
“In regional areas especially, you have to get the point across to your diners; you have to get them to trust you and what you’re serving. You don’t want them to think that you’re city slickers. Jimmy has that approach with Biota, where it’s been hard for him but he’s gotten on the locals’ side and as a regional restaurant, that’s what you want to do. You want to keep the locals happy because they’re the people that are going to keep your restaurant open,” Kellie says.
The Lakeside Mill
“I love Jimmy’s whole concept, his ethos and how he runs Biota. He relies on the natural surroundings and the produce around his restaurant, and that’s something that I’m adapting to and that I look up to.”
Showcasing the region
In a similar leap of faith, Kellie’s latest project sees him heading up the kitchen at The Lakeside Mill, located in Packenham some 56km out of Melbourne’s CBD, where the menu is all about championing the area’s producers.
“We offer an upmarket bistro feel. We do a few snacks, we do some of our own charcuterie, and then we also do some larger share items, like the O’Connors beef tomahawk steak. On the flip side of that, we’re also doing a tasting menu, which is based purely on the produce we get from the area.”
The restaurant opened in mid-February and since coming onboard in October, Kellie has spent a lot of time researching the area and its suppliers.
“We’re not going to use anything that’s not from this area. The furthest we’ve gone is Mornington, Mt Martha for our mussels and seafood and Lake Entrance, which is about an hour and a half away. We want to keep it local because we want diners to come in who aren’t familiar with us, so we can say ‘These potatoes are actually grown 20 minutes down the road in Warragul, and you can actually go there and meet the producer, Gordon, and have a look around the farm, and actually experience it for yourself,’” Kellie says.
“That stuff tends to go by the wayside. People just say ‘potatoes are potatoes’ but there’s actually someone out there picking them everyday, making sure we’ve got potatoes. That’s what I want this menu to do; to create relationships with great local producers and put their food on a plate in a refined way.”
Onwards and upwards
Despite only just swinging open the doors to a new restaurant, Kellie’s not taking his foot off the pedal when it comes to his professional development. Sure, he’s a head chef and soon to be part-owner, but that doesn’t matter, he insists. He’ll always be chasing experiences that allow him to hone his skills by exposing him to new tastes, cuisines and techniques. It’s what has helped him get to where he is today, and is simply part of the job, he says.
“I’m learning every day. In the kitchen, outside the kitchen … going to the markets, seeing different produce, different cooking techniques. Last year I did stages at different restaurants; I did a week at Sixpenny up in Sydney with Daniel Puskas and James Parry and that completely opened my eyes to another style of cooking and different techniques.”
Later this year, Kellie will claim his Appetite for Excellence prize and travel to Italy for a four day culinary experience at the ALMA International School of Italian Cuisine in Parma, after which he will complete a by stage at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana and other at Magnus Nillson’s Fviken Magasinet in Sweden.
“These are restaurants that suit my food philosophy, but I also know that I can go there and learn a lot. You can always learn more.”
But for the immediate future, Kellie’s priority is putting The Mill on the map. He’s in a regional area, has to win over the locals and is soon to put his own money behind the venture – so does he ever think he’s bitten off more than he can chew, especially at the ripe old age of 26.
“When I was 23, I had guys older than me who were working under me, and it was probably the hardest thing I’ve come across, to be honest. Trying to get people to respect you and work for you at that age was quite hard, but now I’ve got a kitchen brigage of 11 chefs and they’re all pumped to work for me.
“There will always be a hump that you have to get over, but as a chef you just have to build and build with more experience,” he says.
“At some age I’d have to step into this role, and I want to do it while I’m young. A lot of people say ‘Are you ready?’ Do you want to take the plunge?’ Well, there’s an old saying, you’ve got to risk it to get the biscuit. If you want to be successful in this industry, you’ve got to take that plunge, and I’m doing it while I’m young.”