“Never a dull day in the kitchen!” A pure nugget of a quote from Shayne Mansfield, head chef at ‘The Flotilla’, a 40-seater restaurant located in the up-and-coming Wickham neighbourhood of harbour city, Newcastle, NSW.
Shayne brings his own twinkle eyed sense of delight to the interview. He describes the restaurant’s open kitchen concept of cooking over charcoal, “mingling with the guests, and seeing their expressions as always fun!”
Like so many chefs we interview at Life on the Pass, the big, broad shouldered head chef says his passion for cooking was ignited way back in his childhood. But in this case – not by his parents.
“I know this sounds a cliché, but it was my grandmother who was the driving force behind my love for cooking and wanting to become a chef. I was always in the kitchen on weekends, learning weird and wonderful things about food”.
I was cooking for the elite, rich and famous of London
It’s also definitely more than a cliché that a chef’s early career is likely to be a fast learning curve of self-discovery in kitchens around the world. Personal breakthroughs in how to approach food and cooking are almost always given a helping hand by a “mentor” chef, just at the right time.
Shayne recalls an early influence in his career. “One of my first industry mentors was Philip Johnson when I was working at the Ecco Bistro in Brisbane. I learnt a lot from him about the finer details. He also helped me on my way in moving to London as I always wanted to do Michelin starred dining”.
The young, aspiring chef soon found himself working at ‘City Social’, Jason Atherton’s sumptuous art-deco style restaurant based in Tower 42, Old Broad Street, in the heart of London.
“I was part of the team that was awarded a star in 2014, the first year of opening. I learnt a lot of lessons working in such a refined and high pressure environment, and really honed my skills as a chef. I was cooking for the elite, rich and famous of London, using some amazing produce and some unique techniques”.
Learning how to find my voice as a chef
When his time was up in the UK, Shayne decided to head back to his native southern Queensland. A new job beckoned at The Long Apron, a frequently awarded 2-hatted restaurant ‘offering a taste of France’ to the Sunshine Coast. It was also where Shayne discovered his next ‘mentor’ influence.
“Over the next two years, I was working under head chef, Cameron Matthews learning how to find my voice as a chef. I found his creativity and lack of boundaries inspiring, and I took a lot away from my time there”.
Those invaluable learning experiences would eventually find expression when, after a couple more “stints” in local smart eateries, Shayne took on a new role at The Flotilla.
Locally sourced produce and fine dining – without the fuss!
“At Flotilla, I get to be creative on a daily basis,” says Shayne, “it’s a fun outlet to have. I draw a lot from my time spent overseas, an
uld say I use a lot of techniques and methods I’ve learnt along the way. I’ve taken all the good things I have learnt from all these amazing chefs over the years and adapted them to my own style – it’s one of the best things about this industry”.
Shayne says the venue is all about offering a totally relaxed, chilled-out, ‘at home experience’ – as if you’re coming to ‘our own house for dinner’. At the same time, “it’s still a level of service and food that is of a higher standard – but without the fuss. If we had to put a label in it would be ‘modern Australian’. I also really like the concept that a majority of our cooking is cooked over charcoal”.
Favourite dish and ‘mates on a plate’
Shayne also emphasises the focus upon locally sourced produce and fine dining. “Our biggest philosophy is to use as much local produce as possible. We have produce from some amazing growers and suppliers on the menu, and feel very lucky to showcase all their hard work”.
To illustrate more clearly how the menu ties into their ‘home from home cooking’ concept, Shayne points to one of his favourite dishes.
“Its a simple chicken and mushroom dish prepared with ingredients from some of our favourite suppliers – chicken from Simon and Kelly @little hill farm, mushrooms from Stu and Del @mother fungus mushrooms. Dylan from Newcastle Greens also supplies us with some amazing heirloom vegetables and herbs – basically, just our’ mates on a plate’.
Like all culinary professionals dedicated to their craft, Shayne believes, “the best thing about being a chef is the relationships you build, whether it’s with producers, suppliers, guests or colleges”. For Shayne, “working alongside people who are passionate about the industry and have a genuine love for what they do never goes out of date”.
I saw the old school mentality… and there’s no place for it anymore
It would seem that “old school kitchens” – as Shayne calls them – are most definitely consigned to history. The commercial kitchen is known for being a high-pressure environment, and the management of mental wellbeing is often a constant challenge. Shayne agrees.
“It is a very demanding industry, and from time to time, does take a massive toll on your mental health. I think as we grow more aware of it – not only in the industry but in all walks of life – there are more outlets to express these concerns and talk about them. I think we have adopted a more open, positive and nurturing approach at Flotilla. I saw the old school mentality that we’ve all been exposed to at one time or another, and there’s no place for it anymore”.
Shayne offers his own take on how the build-up of kitchen stress is handled at The Flotilla. “I’m very present when it comes to checking in on the team. I think it’s important to do things outside of the kitchen with the pressures removed, such as visiting suppliers or a few beers in the park. The staff are our second family and we sometimes spend more time with them than our immediate families, so things do need to be fun”.
“Having an open kitchen has also helped in a big way”, says Shayne, “as everything needs to look smooth and under control. One of our favourite comments we get is that the restaurant is run with such beauty and grace. I believe this removes a massive element of the yelling and raised tempers of the old school kitchens”.
Motorcycles are a weakness of mine
Shayne says he’s occupied with several different things when he’s not working in the kitchen. “A lot of my down time is spent doing thing that keep my mind busy – archery, pottery, gym, reading, podcasts – and anything to do with engines. Motorcycles are a weakness of mine, and I spend a lot of time getting lost in exploring them”.
As you would expect, Shayne draws upon his own career journey when asked to offer his advice to young chefs keen to make their way in the industry.
“Don’t be in a rush to get to the top”, says Shayne, “Take your time learn, listen and be a sponge. Your time will come, so don’t be scared to fail. Knowledge is paramount and you will never stop learning”.
Perhaps, most important of all – and just like his own personal breakthroughs in perfecting the techniques of cooking – Shayne is adamant that you should “find your voice” and let it speak through every dish you create.