Working together: why chefs collaborate
Chef collaborations have always been an integral part of the industry’s dynamism and that doesn’t look set to change. Working side by side with others exposes chefs to new philosophies – something that can’t be learned in books or classrooms. By Madeline Woolway.
“You give two chefs the exact same ingredient and the wild differences you get with what they put on the plate in the end, it’s crazy. That’s why collaborations work so well. You always get to learn new things and see what other people are doing and how their brain ticks,” said Drew Bolton, executive chef at Vine in Double Bay.
Although Bolton has worked with other chefs throughout his career, the Origins Series, which he is running at Vine, is the first major collaboration that he has organised himself.
“It’s less about what they’re cooking now and more about exploring where they’ve come from and their journey as chefs,” said Bolton.
“I look at my friends and what they’re cooking in Sydney and you know, one’s Italian, one’s Indian, one’s Israeli. They all come from different parts of the world and they bring all those different contexts to their food. I thought it would be fun to explore that.”
The first dinner in the Origins Series saw Bolton work with chef-forager Elijah Holland to create a menu inspired by produce foraged from the Blue Mountains region, where Bolton originates.
Holland – who was head forager and chef de partie at Noma Australia and ex-head chef of The Powder Keg in Potts Point, Sydney – has spent most of this year operating his foraging business Nature’s Pick Supply and working with other chefs. Besides the collaboration with Bolton, Holland has also collaborated with Matt Stone at Oakridge in the Yarra Valley and with the team at Roots in New Zealand.
“I’m going back to Roots for a week in early October. I was there at the end of August to start foraging and organising some of the stuff,” said Holland.
“You don’t have to organise everything in advance and I haven’t for a lot of them.
“But if you can, it gives you more chance to get a bigger variety of ingredients. Instead of making something up in two or three days or a week, you can have it preserving and developing more flavour for a couple of weeks or a month.
“Like, we’re making charcuterie at Roots and we want to get some wild pepper to use in the cure, which will take about a month.”
The amount of planning that goes into collaborations is dependent on individual chefs as well as the nature of each event.
“It depends who it’s with and what you’re doing,” said Monty Koludrovic.
As executive chef at Bondi’s Iceberg Dining Room and Bar, Koludrovic’s list of collaborations includes events with Morgan McGlone, Andrew McConnel, Adriano Zumbo, and David Moyle. He’s also been the guest chef at other venues, from Africola in South Australia to Lakeside Mill in Victoria and Blackbird in Queensland.
“I’m fastidious about organisation but some of my mates are more off the cuff and like to go with the flow. I will practice beforehand, but there are always surprises and flexibility is required,” said Koludrovic.
Organising the Origins Series at Vine started with Bolton pitching the idea to his collaborators: Holland, Roy Ner, Danny Russo and Kumar Mahadevan.
“Everyone was easy to get on board because it’s a fun idea, but getting our schedules lined up was quite difficult, because it’s four busy chefs who are all doing their own thing. So finding the time for us to come together was the first challenge,” said Bolton.
“For the first dinner EJ and I did we wrote the menu together after our first day out in the bush. We were sitting around the campfire cooking dinner and started to bounce ideas off each other. Being a foraged menu, we had to wait to see what we could get from the land; it happened organically. For other dinners it might be a little bit different. We might be able to do a little more planning.”
Old acquaintances, new friends
Although it might seem that collaborations could only work between chefs with previous experience working together, that’s not always the case.
“A lot of the collaborations I’ve done I hadn’t actually worked with the chefs before,” said Holland.
“Or I may have just done one event or something like that, but we’ll somehow work out that we’re on the same ground and that we want to try something different.”
Talking about their collaboration, Bolton echoes this sentiment.
“We both worked at Aria, not at the same time, we missed each other, but from that we have a lot of mutual colleagues and friends. We have a bit of an idea about how each other operates and our differences,” he said.
Danny Russo, Kumar Mahadevan, Elijah Holland, Drew Bolton, and Roy Ner.
While the positive effect of collaborating is obvious in the kitchen, there are benefits for the business side of venues too.
“Communication with your customers is so important in this information heavy age. Pop up and collab events are a great way to keep your customers up to date with where you’re at with your food,” said Koludrovic.
However, it’s less a case of needing a reason to get involved and more a case of knowing how to get the most of collaborations.
“Our industry is dynamic. There are exciting projects and chefs around but the best thing is getting a great group of people together and sharing their passion,” said Koludrovic.
“Be open, be flexible, and understand that a collab is not the same as your usual kitchen or restaurant. You can’t always get the ingredients you are used to and that’s alright, it could mean you find something new.
“I love getting up close and personal with someone’s food and philosophy.”
Bolton also stresses the importance of embracing the process.
“Go in with an open mind and with the aim of doing something spectacular, but in the end it’s about having fun and be willing to learn from each other. One thing I thought EJ and I did really well was embrace each other’s experiences and ideas, and that’s what makes a true collaborative event,” he said.
All three chefs agree that it’s a fun experiment.
“It’s a lot of fun. You get to do something unique that you might not normally be able to put on a menu because of limits to what ingredients you can get or how involved the dish is,” said Holland.
“It’s also great to broaden your knowledge and bounce ideas off each other. Working with a lot of different chefs and advising them [through Nature’s Pick Supply] has really helped me to understand the world of food.
“Somebody always has an idea that somebody else doesn’t have. There are no egos; you work with each other to create something that is greater than what you could create on your own.”