Standing out in the city: Q&A with Cafe Sydney’s James Kidman

30 October, 2015 by
Danielle Bowling

Cafe Sydney's James Kidman talks to Hospitality about how the restaurant has evolved over the years and how he's kept it relevant in such a competitive city.

Give us a brief run-through of your career to-date.
My first head chef role was Otto Ristorante, where I was between 2001 and 2009. It was an amazing experience. I went to Canberra in 2009 where I relaunched the National Gallery of Australia and its catering offering through four different venues, functions, cafes, the Sculpture Garden restaurant along with running Defence Department staff catering, Parliament House Caf and staff dining and Dieci e Mezzo restaurant.

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And before coming to Cafe Sydney I ran Doltone House kitchens for a year, which included four venues doing upwards of 10,000 covers a week.

How does Cafe Sydney differ to the other restaurants/kitchens you’ve worked in in the city?
Cafe Sydney is very similar to the way Otto is run from an administrative point of view and also because it is extremely customer focused. The main difference is that it is about twice as busy, so ordering takes longer, you need more staff and everything is just that little bit bigger!! It’s a lot of fun.

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How do you keep the restaurant – now 17 years old – relevant in such a competitive city?
Well that’s the art of it really. Firstly I eat out a lot and see what my peers are doing as well as read books and publications to keep focused on what the current trends are. I like to travel and see what others are doing elsewhere to get inspiration from abroad.

I am constantly working with suppliers and producers to custom make items for me or to secure unique or limited supply produce to give the restaurant an edge, and so that we can offer diners something different.

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How has the offering at Cafe Sydney evolved since you’ve been leading the kitchen team? What changes did you feel were necessary once you came on-board?
When I started, I brought in a new culture and a new way of doing things. It was important to get all my staff understanding a new way to prep food, talk about food and to all get on the same page. We had to do this without changing the menu dramatically or overnight but making a few distinct changes gradually that could be maintained and perfected so that over a year the quite significant changes that evolved have appeared seamlessly.

How would you describe Cafe Sydney’s food philosophy?

  • Emphasis on seafood
  • Uber seasonal
  • Top quality produce across the board
  • Keep the menu and our daily additions moving

What do you look for in a supplier?

  • Believe it or not price is not everything
  • Access to interesting and great quality produce
  • Delivery times are of paramount importance. I have 17 chefs a shift waiting for produce and almost no storage space so we prep everything fresh daily
  • Constant conversation about what we need and what is on offer.

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Cafe Sydney has implemented sustainable practices across its business. Can you name a few of them and explain the reasoning behind their implementation?
At the heart of it we want our produce, whether it is fruit and vege, fish or meat to be available 10 years from now, to use as it is now. So that means we need to be aware of how produce like fish are caught and how the various fisheries are managed. To summarise I find that quality produce that we use across the board is quality for a reason: because it’s produced ethically and using best possible practice.

The restaurant is a destination venue for tourists. In general, how do you think tourists perceive Australia’s cuisine?
Firstly tourists actually make up a small percentage of our clientele. That seems to be a misnomer held within the industry which we’re trying to redress. We have a huge regular clientele from both the corporate and private sectors as well as a large number of very loyal locals patrons.

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Overseas visitors I think love Australian cuisine. From cheaper restaurants to ultra fine dining and in between the skill level is extremely high and I think the best I have come across in the world. They love our produce. The standard of produce here is extremely high and the way that translates to food on a plate is fantastic

What are your plans for the Cafe Sydney menu over the coming year?
To keep the skill level of the kitchen progressing and to keep the menu moving and evolving. It’s hard to say how it will evolve as it tends to just happen and is hard to define.

What are you noticing in terms of diner trends? What ingredients/dishes/flavours are you expecting to be popular in 2016?
I really think we are going to see some cool Vietnamese restaurants popping up. I think with the history of Vietnamese people in Australia we will see some really cool modern joints opening in the same way we have seen new Chinese, modern restaurants coming through.