The way the dining public eats and drinks has changed considerably over the past five years. The rise of a more laidback, casual experience has ushered in a new wave of venues and chefs firmly focused on the here and now. Wesley Cooper Jones is part of this shift in Sydney, and is fast making a name for himself and the venue he works at — it’s P&V Wine + Liquor Merchants in Paddington, for the record.
The newly minted head chef speaks to Hospitality about how a body board got him into the kitchen, trading pizzas for fine dining and why snacks and drinks should always go hand in hand.
At 14 years old, Wesley Cooper Jones had his eye on the prize — a body board, in this case. His dad told him he could have one, all he had to do was get to work and
start saving. “I got a job at a local pizzeria and saved the money up, but my old man had already bought it for me,” says Jones. It turned out to be a lifechanging lesson. “It kind of got me hooked on working in kitchens. It was hard, but the rewards were worth it.”
It wasn’t long before the South Coaster was on to his second venue, The Butter Factory Restaurant in Pyree. Jones stayed at the European bistro on and off throughout the rest of his schooling before he headed to the big smoke, aka Sydney. “It was a lot bigger than the coastal town grew up in,” he says. “I got a job at Dimitri’s Pizzeria and the team became like a second family. I worked there in stints over four years; it was like my home to go back to after I went somewhere else.”
Jones’ pizza obsession ended up being the catalyst for a move to an even bigger smoke — New York City. “I worked at Roberta’s to hone my skills in making pizza, but while I was there, I moved into the back kitchen,” he says. “The variety of food being cooked was really encapsulating and it made me want to explore other facets of cooking, not just pizza.”
The chef headed into the kitchen of Roberta’s sister restaurant Blanca; a Michelin star eatery with just 12 seats that runs less than a handful of services per week. “It opened me up to the world of fine dining, which I wanted to do more of,” says the chef.
After a year and a half, Jones returned to his second home of Sydney and worked at various venues around the city until an opportunity presented itself. “I was in and
out of kitchens and wasn’t really finding my feet,” he says, “but then the space at Freda’s came up; it was a fun venue with a bunch of craft beer and wine.” It would go on to become the launchpad for Cheesy Grin; a toastie-centric pop-up.
“The kitchen was small — there was no grill or flat top, it just had an induction oven, but we had a toastie press,” says the chef. “The idea was to make fun food for people who wanted to have a fun night. It was good to get by for those six months and make a bit of money. But going into a venue, understanding what they need food-wise and creating something that fits the environment became an obsession.”
Cheesy Grin made a brief stop at Bart Jr. in Redfern before finding more permanent digs at the Lord Wolseley Hotel in Ultimo. “John Javier was moving to London and
we [Luka Coyne, chef] took over the Lord Wolseley; we did à la carte and a tasting menu on Friday and Saturday nights,” says Jones.
“The pub is small and eclectic, so we tried to keep the food that way — it was pub classics, but instead of just a salad, we would do a tomato salad cooked with seaweed. The owners were super lovely and the kitchen had all the bells and whistles. We did what we wanted to and what would suit the venue.”
It was a glimpse into the future for Jones and Coyne, who had spoken about eventually opening their own restaurant. It was a huge learning curve for the then 24-year-old Jones. “The whole thing was a challenge,” he says. “It was hard working out how to do ordering, food costs and all that stuff. Even managing that amount of food and trying to be creative at the same time. There were lessons that were pivotal, not so much in terms of cooking, but honing my skills in managing a restaurant.”
After Cheesy Grin’s stint at the Lord Wolseley came to an end, Jones joined the team at the lauded Berowra Waters Inn for five months, working alongside Owner and Head Chef Brian Geraghty. It marked a return to fine dining and an opportunity to learn from one of the industry’s most forward-thinking chefs. “Brian has a way of working fast and clean,” says Jones. “The way he pushed staff to better themselves every service and his refined cookery has always stuck with me.”
Jones went on to spend time at The Old Fitz during Nik Hill’s tenure and was planning on a stint at Hartsyard as well, however the pandemic halted those plans when both restaurants closed. “It was weird not cooking for so many months,” he says. But he did whip something up — Hex ‘adult’ pickles; a single-run product.
“We did gin-spiked pickles and you could use the brine for dirty martinis or a gin and tonic,” says the chef. “It filled the space during lockdown and then I was offered a position at Fish Shop where I worked for a brief period. It was pretty crazy doing takeaway in a restaurant where you’re pushing really hard, but you just have a computer screen with orders from people you can’t see.”
Jones’ current role is what he hopes he will become known for. Newtown’s P&V Wine + Liquor Merchants expanded to Paddington last year and was looking for a head chef to lead the food offering in the venue’s courtyard. “I’ve always loved P&V; it’s an introduction to natural wine,” he says.
“After the position opened up, I thought of the bottle shop as an extended pantry. I have all these wines, beers and spirits I can use in my food offering. The whole idea is bringing the products into the food — it’s symbiotic.”
Snacks and small plates are the name of the game at P&V — there’s no specific cuisine or boundaries to stay within, just whatever happens to work with the revolving beverage offering. “It doesn’t fly any flags; it’s fun and about snacks that complement the drinks,” says Jones. “The food I’m cooking comes down to the produce whether it’s using techniques that are French, Japanese or Italian — it’s just making things as tasty as possible.”
There’s no definitive menu at the venue, which makes things a lot more fluid for Jones, but there are some dishes diners will always find. “We have Olasagasti anchovies marinated in fig leaf oil and nasturtium vinegar; it’s a balance of fat and acidity,” says the chef.
“There’s also a raw scallop dish with peas, broad beans and a vinaigrette made from buttermilk, bonito and chives. But all the other snacks change regularly. When you
have a space with that much freedom, it pushes your skills and creativity to make different things and learn new techniques. The best thing about it is pushing forward; I can make something I’ve seen in a book or on Instagram — there’s no end to what we can do in our little kitchen, which is great.”
One such creation is a puffed beef tendon with fermented chilli sauce. The tendons are cooked down to remove any moisture before they are set overnight in a similar manner to a terrine. “The pressed tendons are shaved and then we freeze, dehydrate and fry them,” says Jones. “It’s kind of like the same technique as a prawn cracker.”
But there’s no “we” at the moment. With the slow pace of the summer season and the surge of Omicron cases, Jones has been rolling solo — but he’s not totally alone. “I share a kitchen with Porcine and I have a little section,” he says. “It’s been inspiring working with Nik [Hill] who’s a mentor chef I’ve always looked up to. If I have trouble with something or a flavour profile isn’t getting hit the way I want it, it’s good to have someone there with a wealth of knowledge to point me in the right direction.”
Jones is forging ahead and creating a culinary experience for P&V while making a name for himself in the process. “I think I will stay here for a while and create their identity, and this is what I will be remembered for,” he says. “The guys at P&V are super supportive and have given me free reign, so there will be more collaborative projects coming up whether it’s beer sauce or something else. P&V is the oyster.”
A return to fine dining is certainly still on the cards for the chef, who has hopes to
travel in the not-so-distant future. “I’d like to work and travel overseas to Europe or New Zealand,” says Jones. “I’d like to work at Amisfield, which I think is the most
progressive restaurant in New Zealand. If I don’t go full throttle, I don’t feel like it’s adequate enough — the reward is always better when you do.”