In her own words, Rosheen Kaul is a “late entry” into the world of hospitality. Despite a long-held lust for all things esculent, the 28-year-old chef was originally on a different trajectory; one that saw her studying psychology and neuroscience while moonlighting in high-end fashion.
“Culturally, there was an expectation I’d go to university,” says Kaul. “But I happened to have a chat with my parents one day and what they said — their mistake was saying — was that once I finished, I could do whatever I wanted.”
Needless to say, Kaul never graduated. Instead, she almost immediately set about finding a job in hospitality, eventually landing a gig as a kitchen hand. “I couldn’t get a job for ages because the last place I worked was Jimmy Choo,” she says. “I was working in luxury fashion and nobody wanted to hire me to wash dishes because they were like, ‘Well, you’re a bit fancy’.”
Nothing more than a love of food was behind Kaul’s decision to drop her studies. “I really struggled to care about my formal education because all I actually cared about was food,” she says. “I mean, I was a really greedy child and I’m a pretty greedy adult. It’s a simple thing — it wasn’t so much a passion for the industry or for cooking or anything else: I just really, really like food.”
While a double degree in science was off the table, Kaul hadn’t quite escaped the trappings of conventional learning. In fact, the traditional three-year chef’s apprenticeship spun out to three and a half. And while many in the industry lament the loss of a four-year curriculum, it was more than enough for Kaul, who admits she was “super naughty and never went to class”.
But truancy didn’t extend to the kitchen; instead Kaul found a learning approach that fused with her ambitions. “I found studying cookery dull,” she says. “You only handle everything once and it’s the best way, or the most optimal way. It wasn’t so much a matter of me not wanting an education; I read extensively and I converse with the best people I can for different subjects and different styles of cooking. It’s not a matter of not wanting to learn — it has to be worthwhile I guess.”
Instead, Kaul looked to some of Melbourne’s best kitchens for tutelage. “I’ve always gone straight to good restaurants to work because … if I was going to do it, I wanted to do it properly,” she says. “For me, it had to be fine dining because it was the best environment I could be in for my education. And the things I was seeing at work versus the things I was seeing at school were years apart.”
At Victor Liong’s Lee Ho Fook, Kaul took an appreciation for turning the familiar into restaurant quality. “Lee Ho Fook was the place I started my apprenticeship,” she says. “It was really cool because it deviated away from fine dining, but it was a really precise version of the food Victor grew up with. It had a pretty big effect on the way I see food. I think the way I cook now is quite heavily influenced by those initial experiences.”
A stint at now-shuttered Ezard followed. Kaul walked away with invaluable pastry experience, but the technical skills came with exposure to a less-desirable facet of the industry. “It wasn’t the kitchen for me,” she says. “It was too backwards … misogynistic.”
Dinner by Heston, which closed in mid-February 2020 on the back of wage theft accusations and financial turmoil, was the setting for Kaul’s most formative experience, which saw her rise to chef de partie. “I spent a decent amount of time there; three and a half years,” she says. “It was one of those kitchens where, if it’s not for you, you got weeded out pretty quickly. It was just such a different style of operating. That kitchen wasn’t in the real world. But it [was] a beautiful thing and I loved it — I loved it.”
Kaul found her footing and discovered a kitchen that differed wholly from others — in terms of structure and mentality as well as access to produce. “It was always best practice,” says Kaul. “There was a reason for everything. And the reason was always based in science. When I started, it read like a 50 Best list; everyone’s resumes were absolutely stunning. Everybody knew so much about something. You could ask someone about protein structures and another about the best way to break down a goat. The knowledge kicking around that restaurant was unbelievable. It’s the Heston school, isn’t it?”
Even though Kaul’s career has taken a different direction, the acumen has stayed with her. “It definitely still applies,” she says. “Even though I don’t have as high-tech equipment, the theory still applies.”
Some experiences have offered both a masterclass in skill and culture. After a brief stint at Carlton Wine Room, COVID-19 hit. Kaul was a self-described “unemployed chef” for much of the year — although she kept herself busy, publishing the enormously popular zine series The Isol(Asian) Cookbook with illustrator Joanna Hu.
As Melbourne endured a second, protracted lockdown, Kaul found herself in the kitchen of “dear friend” Shannon Martinez. “Smith and Deli really opened my eyes to the way we approach dietaries,” she says. “The amount of effort [that establishment] puts into accommodating dietaries is unbelievable. I saw all the tips and tricks they use to make it delicious.”
The opportunity is one Kaul doesn’t take for granted. “They don’t often have spots available because people go there to work and never leave, which is such a testament to the way the whole place is run,” she explains.
It’s a sensibility Kaul has tried to emulate at Etta, where she was appointed head chef in November 2020. “What I’ve been trying to implement — and I hope I’ve been successful — is an inclusive culture,” she says. “I think what’s important for me is to know that everybody knows something. I value everybody’s opinion so much. Everything is a back and forth conversation. It’s my first obviously head chef role, so I don’t want to reflect the negative or the positive elements of any of the other chefs I’ve worked under. I’m just trying to come into my own.”
Etta Owner Hannah Green met Kaul when she was cooking alongside Charley Snadden-Wilson (former head chef of Etta) on International Women’s Day. “During lockdown, Hannah cold called me and said, ‘I’ve got a head chef position open, would you be interested?’” says Kaul. “I explained to her extensively that I was not ready. I was like, ‘Thank you so much, that’s so flattering, but I can’t in good conscience agree when I don’t think I have the skill set for it’.”
Green didn’t let Kaul off the hook so easily. Over the course of an ongoing conversation, she asked a range of questions: “Have you run a section before? Have you done ordering? Have you written a roster? Have you written a menu?” Kaul answered all in the affirmative.
“But the most important thing, and the reason why we both agreed in the end, is because she said that she would be completely hands on and lead me through what I needed to do,” says Kaul. “In a head chef position, you don’t often get a restaurant owner who is like, ‘Don’t worry, I will show you how to do this’. For that reason, I couldn’t say no. Plus, it’s a beautiful space.”
Although Kaul is once again in a position that enables on-the-job training, unlearning currently weighs heavily on her conscience, too. “I will admit, I was pretty awful when I was in charge of a team at Dinner by Heston,” she says. “Iwas stressed out and the pressure was unbelievable, but that’s not the culture I want, as a person especially, to be known for.”
The process of unlearning the toxic culture the hospitality industry has become known for in order to build something better in its place is a burden that’s fallen in the lap of Kaul’s generation. And, while it might be an unfair task, it’s one challenge the chef is well placed to take on.
“The thing that is on my mind day-to-day and week-to-week is mental health,” says Kaul. “I’ve actually got bipolar disorder, so I have to operate in a way that makes sure I am, I guess, sane enough to do my job. And because of that, I am overly conscious of how my chefs are feeling, whether they’re sleeping … all the small things that make a world of difference to having positive mental health.”
Kaul says the conversation happening around the industry is still too broad. “We do all these things to raise awareness [about mental health], but frankly, everybody’s very aware,” she says. “I don’t know how much more awareness we need to raise — it comes down to individual workplaces now; the culture you’re bringing and the culture you’re instigating. On one hand, people will say, ‘If you have a problem, come to me,’ and on the other hand ask, ‘Why don’t you work extensively and also, what are you whining about?’”
According to Kaul, fine dining kitchens are as bad as they’ve ever been and
it’s unlikely to change any time soon. “Small kitchens can achieve positive environments, but large, fine dining kitchens — no way,” she says. “What drives people to fine dining is that sort of pressure, a desire to work, to push yourself beyond the extreme and cook the most incredible food you could ever cook in your life. That’s why I went there because I wanted to be the best.”
For now, Kaul has found a happy medium at Etta; a kitchen that’s supportive and challenging. “I’m still figuring out the kind of chef I am, but the nice thing is we’ve had a positive response to the menu and I’ve got a really beautiful team,” she says. “It’s baby steps. I’m not reaching for the stars yet, I just want to cook nice food.”