As a child, Claire Ellis viewed cooking as an opportunity to bring joy to others. But as she moved into adulthood and began to pursue a career in hospitality, another force came into play. “Besides making people happy, I’ve been very driven by curiosity,” says Ellis. “I feel I’ve always been so curious about why things work and how you might be able to change them by going deeper and learning more about the process and what you’re doing.”
In the kitchen, Ellis has found ample fuel to stoke the fire. “There’s always something to learn,” she says. “I keep going off on different tangents and down different rabbit holes. I might be more curious about different areas now, but I’m definitely learning just as much now as I was when I started.”
From now-shuttered Sydney’s at the Fork, where she learned to tackle a monthly changing tasting menu, to Bonfire Bistro where she experienced a cohesive front- and back-of-house culture, Ellis’ early-career experiences in her hometown of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada, were positive. “One thing all those places had in common was that everyone really respected the leadership team,” recounts Ellis.
At Sydney’s, for instance, head chefs encouraged the whole team to contribute to menu development. “I learned so much from changing menus, moving around sections quite a bit and having a dialogue about everything,” says Ellis. “[It taught] you how to think for yourself and go through the creative process together.”
It’s a preference that’s stayed with Ellis as she’s worked across multiple restaurants. “My favourite thing is learning, so I really love to move around [sections],” she says. “I like to be able to change it up and keep learning new skills or refining them — the more I can be exposed to, the happier I am.”
While Ellis looks back at her time in Winnipeg kitchens with positivity, there came a time to go beyond the warren. “It was great and I was able to be creative, but I wanted to learn from someone else,” says Ellis. “I was seeking a different type of experience, different foods than I’d experienced.”
Australia was the location of choice, but what sold the chef? “I felt I wanted to see something completely different,” says Ellis. “The ingredients [in Australia] are different, the trends are different; it seemed more exciting.”
Ellis was compelled to move across the world in 2016 after discovering two of the
country’s top restaurants, Quay and Attica. “I came across Quay, maybe through The World’s 50 Best, and it just seemed so magical,” says Ellis. “It was completely different than anywhere else I’d worked. I was so inspired by Peter’s [Gilmore] food, his techniques and the ingredients were so new to me. The food really sparked my curiosity.”
As she moved between kitchens, Ellis’ approach to cooking evolved, leading the chef to Ben Shewry’s Attica, where she has worked since 2018. “When I first started out — in culinary school — I found out about molecular gastronomy and thought it was so cool,” says Ellis. “As time went on, I was more and more drawn to natural things; to people who bring out the natural beauty of something and to food that is very honest and isn’t hiding behind anything.”
Take, for example: ‘a simple dish of potato cooked in the earth in which it was grown’. “It blew my mind,” says Ellis. “I’d never heard anything like it before.” Pared back doesn’t mean simple, though. “There’s still a lot of technique,” says Ellis. “A lot of the dishes that end up feeling simple actually have so much prep and labour that goes into them, yet they aren’t flashy.”
Perhaps the best example of the dedication to preparation and technique that goes into plating up at Attica is the honey ant course — one of a few dishes Ellis has created specific tableware for. “The honey ant dish is the only thing we’ve ever served at Attica — since I’ve been there — that we didn’t do anything to,” explains Ellis. “Each person got a whole, single ant. They’re so special and unique; it’s one of the rare times you really don’t want to do anything to it or have anything else there.
With produce such as honey ants, which have cultural significance to a number of First Nations peoples, there’s often an important story to tell when it comes to sourcing. Ellis hand sculpted terracotta-coloured pillars to reflect the tunnels made by the honey ants in the earth of the Kalgoorlie desert where they’re harvested by Tjupan women.
According to Ellis, it was a logistical puzzle to source the ants; one that deserved to be honoured in some way, if not through chef tricks. “What I aspire to do, when I’m designing tableware for a dish, [is] to match how special the food or ingredients are without being distracting,” she says. “A lot of the ingredients at Attica are unique; the food is unique and there’s so much thought and time that goes into menu evelopment, so I try to have the tableware be as thoughtful as the food.”
Ellis’ interest in tableware was sparked at Quay, where ceramics plays a similar role. “Seeing what a difference ceramics make … it was so exciting to put food on those plates,” says Ellis. “It sparked my interest in searching for more interesting and inspiring ceramics and then eventually wanting to learn how to do it myself.
While the act of making ceramics has certainly helped Ellis elevate the dishes she helps to prepare, it’s led to other benefits outside of the kitchen. Along with getting in touch with producers and making time for yoga practice, it’s kept her from developing tunnel vision.
Ceramics and volunteering at farms such as Dreaming Goat Dairy in the Macedon Ranges are somewhat linked to her hospitality career, yoga is completely separate from life in the kitchen. “It’s had a hugely positive impact on my life,” says Ellis. “It was hard during lockdown when I couldn’t go into the studio anymore.
There’s something about removing yourself from your normal environment where you think about your usual things and trying to be as present as possible. “I think the mental and emotional benefits are my favourite part, but obviously exercise is important. I feel like hospitality is repetitive and tough on your body, so yoga helps.”
When trips to the studio are possible, Ellis finds the experience expansive. “The teachers I go to always have different mindfulness lessons, and that’s opened
me up to meditation,” she says. “I think expanding your mind is important. It’s so easy to get lost or to put blinders on and be so focused [on work]. I think it’s important to think [and talk] about different things … even though ceramics is kind of related to cooking, it’s a different community, with different people, ideas and atmospheres.”
Understanding the world of others around you is as important as expanding your own world. When Ellis thinks back to what made the workplace culture at Bonfire Bistro so healthy, there’s one thing that comes to mind. “I’ve talked about it with so many people that worked there because everyone has the same feeling of, ‘How do you create this environment?’” she says.
“It’s kind of mysterious … [but]something which was unique to that place was that we would sit and have huge chats for hours. Front of house and back of house would talk about nothing in particular. People knew each other very well; what was going on in each other’s lives, with their families and their hopes and dreams.”
For now, Ellis is content where she is. But it doesn’t mean she’s not thinking about
the future or the next challenge. Her inbuilt dedication to engaging with others
means there’s boundless possibilities to consider and conversations to be had.
Currently, it’s environmental sustainability that’s on her mind. “It’s tough and the solutions are going to be different for each restaurant,” says Ellis. “There are different layers to sustainability, too. There’s the produce you’re using — the farming practices make a huge difference — then there’s the restaurant level and the kitchen. I think we need to keep having conversations within businesses as well as within the community.”
While Ellis was originally inspired by Shewry’s style of cooking, working at Attica has taught her more than technique. “I’ve learned a lot from Ben, especially that a restaurant isn’t just about serving great food; it’s the power of committing to what’s important to you and that one small business can make a huge impact,” she says.
On an individual level, Ellis has been exploring opportunities to reduce the impact of ceramics, recycling plastic and egg shells into materials that can be used to produce tableware. Ultimately, change does need to happen on a systemic level, so tough conversations about industrywide practices need to happen.
Along with the many sustainability practices in place at Attica, Ellis points to projects such as the latest iteration of Joost Bakker’s Greenhouse project with Matt Stone and Jo Barrett. “It’s very inspiring,” she says.
“It shows that we can do so much. I get excited when I hear about a good, positive idea. Shame isn’t a very helpful emotion — finding solutions is helpful. I want to share that information with other people and I’ve realised that’s how I want to make a difference; I think the way to make progress is to show people the good things.”
If her career until now is anything to go by, Ellis’ commitment to curiosity and forging connections makes her well placed to do just that.
Lead image credit: Colin Page