“Never stop learning!” Not only the best advice to offer a young chef starting out. But also sage words from Arkin Barretto, who serves up an impressive list of kitchens, from where his own learning experience was variously prepared.
Arkin is head chef at Rita’s Bar and Kitchen at the Cat and Fiddle Hotel, set amidst the affluent, trendy restaurant scene of Balmain, NSW. Originally from the Philippines, Arkin grew up in Clare Valley and Adelaide, but says it was the five years working in London that made a “huge impact” on his career.
“During my time there I worked at a few five star luxury hotels like The Marriott in Grosvenor Square and The Langham”. However, this young chef’s appetite to learn more was relentless. “I was hungry for more cooking, more experience, more knowledge, more technique, more training, and exposure to good produce and exotic ingredients”.
It was the hardest kitchen I ever worked in
The young chef’s hunger led Arkin to make a beeline for several top Michelin-star restaurants in the capital, even knocking on the front door of ‘flagship’ Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea. “At the time, it was the only 3 Star Michelin restaurant in London”, says Arkin who admits “it was the hardest kitchen I ever worked in”.
“My head chef there was Simone Zazoni, and my time working and learning from him at Royal Hospital Road set the bench mark for me. I understood and respected the highest level of cooking in a world class restaurant, where everything must be perfect, and there is no room for error”.
After a few months, Arkin decided the “environment” was “unsustainable” for him to continue and decided to move on. Arkin will talk later in his interview about “Life on the Pass”, and dealing with the daily pressure and stress of working in a restaurant kitchen.
And he never actually did get to meet “the Man”. Apparently, Gordon Ramsay had just started his “Hells Kitchen” TV shows in the U.S.
An environment that made everything from scratch
Arkin didn’t have too far to go to land his next Michelin-star restaurant. Three and half miles – and the two star Pied a Terre Restaurant, in Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia. Arkin definitely feels the small, 30 seater restaurant with its equally small kitchen and team was where he “learnt and enjoyed the most”.
“It was an environment that made everything from scratch, like freshly baked breads to petit fours. Meats needed to be broken down, whole fish was ordered in and prepped, stocks, sauces, truffles, etc”. Arkin says it was “the place where I made amazing friends”, and also trained over a year under Shane Osborn – the first ever Australian to hold two Michelin Stars.
Perhaps, it was hearing Shane’s accent during all those months… but after nearly five years in London, Arkin decided it was time to leave and return to Australia, itself.
Working at restaurant voted Australia’s No.1
Arkin secured interviews almost immediately, and after a several trial periods, received offers from four different venues, the Vue de Monde in Melbourne, and Tetsuya, Quay and Pier in Sydney.
Arkin says he was “proud” to have chosen Quay in Sydney harbour. Here he would be working under chef Peter Gilmore, a judge on Australian TV’s MasterChef, and who most famously created the Snow Egg. “I worked in his third course section for over a year. I was amazed by his pure passion when it came to produce”.
The “produce” was Australian ingredients, which Arkin describes as “mind-blowing”. And there were further good reasons why Arkin, looking back, describes his time at Quay as “the Golden Years”. Quay had been included in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. But then between 2010 and 2012, was named the best restaurant in Australasia.
Arkin says he was “happy to be part of being there when we received 46th best, and then 27th best restaurant in the world by San Pellegrino. It was also the time where we finally beat Tetsuya. Quay became Australia’s number one restaurant!” An occasion which happily coincided with the publication of Peter Gilmore’s first Quay cookbook.
Appointments at a large handful of venue kitchens followed
Once again, Arkin’s restless quest to learn more took hold, and appointments at a large handful of venue kitchens followed including, Cotton Duck and Dank Street Depot at Sydney International Airport. Here, under chef and media personality, Jared Ingersoll, Arkin says he learnt a more “rustic, casual and humble style of cooking”.
Next up was MoVida Sydney with chef Frank Camora, “I totally loved my exposure to Spanish cuisine and the simple delicious flavours left a lasting impression on me” followed by Pilu at Freshwater working under Matteo Zamboni, offering “2 hatted modern Sardinian cuisine”.
Over the next few years, Arkin’s next appointments saw him step up and take on new responsibilities…
First, as sous chef and acting head chef in his three years at the Potting Shed at The Grounds of Alexandria, Sydney. This was followed by a period with the Trippas White Group as head chef at their Centennial Parklands dining and Queens Park kitchen, NSW.
Arkin also worked at the Osteria di Russo & Russo, Enmore, NSW where he was as head chef for 12 months, and also a year as head chef with the Solotel Group at their Public House Petersham, NSW. There was also a stint at Orana in Residence, pop up restaurant, owned by Scottish celebrity chef and television presenter, Jock Zonfrillo.
Scroll through the menu for a few, not so pub-type eats
Which brings us to where Arkin is today – nearly two years into his role as head chef at Rita’s Bar and Kitchen – and “nestled”, says Arkin, inside The Cat and Fiddle Hotel, with its one main kitchen.
The Rita’s Bar and Kitchen menu offers classic pub favourites, such as burgers, schnitzels and pizzas, which “are very popular indeed”. No surprise there of course. But Arkin points out that their “in-house made pasta of the day” is also very popular, adding, “if you scroll through the rest of the menu you will find a few, not so pub-type eats – like our octopus carpaccio, beetroot tarte tatin, San Sebastian baked cheesecake, and market fish of the day.
Knowing who you’re cooking for, your audience
Arkin believes his hunger to always push to learn more about cooking, and the wealth of experience it brought has actually led to a very straightforward food philosophy. “In a nutshell, it’s all about working with great produce, and respecting the ingredients and tradition”.
Arkin also highlights his commitment to “sustainability – sourcing locally if possible – and working with seasonal produce”. Lastly, Arkin points to “having good relationships with your suppliers”, and “most importantly, knowing who you are cooking for, knowing your audience”.
I work with what equipment I have to bring out the best in that ingredient
You might imagine that having discovered so much about his craft over the years that Arkin could definitely name a favourite cooking technique. But Arkin gently shakes his head. “Not really no, I embrace what equipment I have in my kitchen and make it work to bring out the best in that ingredient. However I do enjoy a little bit of cooking in a wood fired oven. Its a bit like camping. Also it requires a lot more attention”.
Arkin does have a favourite tool he simply cannot do without – a sharpie, “Everyone can relate to how important sharpies are in the kitchen!”.
However, there are also those things that a chef could do without in the kitchen – pressure and stress.
Good communication with your team is an important way of managing stress
Life on the pass can take its toll on mental wellbeing. Arkin has no doubt that kitchen life is very demanding and shares his thoughts on how to deal with managing the stress.
“Organisation is the key. Having the right mental, physical and emotional balance is also crucial to maintaining a good working day. Delegating jobs to others is also a solution if things are behind schedule with prep or during serving meals” says Arkin who, above all believes that, “Good communication with your team is also an important way of managing stress”.
Arkin continues, “We love to check in on each other regularly. We talk about how our loved ones are doing, we ask how things are back home. Showing genuine interest and small talk makes a huge difference. We spend up to 12 hours a day with each other more than our families. So it is important we keep this conversation going. We also love telling jokes in the kitchen. After all, laughter is the best medicine”.
At this point Arkin takes the opportunity to pay respects to his staff., “A huge shout out to my small kitchen team who always push hard for me, and for always making our day a great day no matter what. I am so grateful and very proud to cook with these amazing people”.
Sleeping in, lots of Netflix and Mediterranean cuisine cook books
Time away from the pass is of course vital to wellbeing and Arkin says he loves to “sleep in after the end of a big week”. Fully rested, he drives away from the city to “find a nice walking track somewhere in a National Park, or a long walk to enjoy the good fresh air and reset or clear my mind”
Arkin says he also enjoys visiting a local café and “treating himself to a nice meal somewhere”. Good food is never too far away from his mind as he also likes to catch up with a friend for a “nice dinner” and “try out new restaurants”. Lately Arkin has been “enjoying cooking meals at home after visiting the markets”. Plus, “lots of Netflix!”.
As with just about every chef we interview, Arkin loves reading cookbooks – apparently, enough to open a “little book store”.
“I love Mediterranean cuisine cook books as it’s the type of cuisine I enjoy eating more these days. Sometimes I check into The Modernist Cuisine by Nathan Myhrvold for some technical interest!”. Arkin’s hunger for expanding his knowledge would surely be satisfied. The six-volume set described as a “revolutionary treatment of cooking that pushes the boundaries of culinary arts” won the 2012 James Beard Award for Cookbook of the Year, and was named one of the best cookbooks of the century by the New Yorker.
Always work next to the best guy in the team
For young chefs starting out, Arkin offers a huge platter of advice. Starting with “patience”, because “everything takes time”. Arkin is also keen to steer young chefs to where the right kind of career experience can be truly learnt.
The advice is “not to choose a kitchen with all the fancy gadgets, best equipment, best accolades, the most Michelin stars, etc”. Instead, Arkin says, “learn from a kitchen that has a lot of good people, respectful, ambitious, passionate – a hard working kitchen that has a potential to become great”.
“A place where you will be inspired, nourished – and stay fit and healthy, grow and build confidence. This will develop your strong foundation. This will then give you the courage and confidence to take your skills to another level”.
Finally, Arkin delivers his coup de grace, the key driver that motivated his own career to wearing the head chef hat. “Never stop learning. Always steal with your eyes. Always work next to the best guy in the team”.
With so much invaluable experience at his head chef’s fingertips, sounds very much like working next to Arkin himself.