Sous Chef James Higgs – Maintaining a Positive Outlook Banishes the Stress

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It’s an outlook that perfectly chimes with the present challenging times. Plus, an approach that James applies to ‘life on the pass’ and managing mental wellbeing in the kitchen. So successfully, in fact, that he’s no longer “overly stressed so much anymore”.

To find out more, our interview with the current Sous Chef at Lulu la Delizia – a small, family-run pasta bar in Subiaco, WA – starts at the beginning…

Love of cooking and fond memories of preparing food in the family kitchen is a constant theme of chefs we interview. So too, for a 10 year old James Higgs. 

It started as a way to spend time together

“We used to cook dinner with my father on weekends as a way to eat something different from the staples my mother cooked. It started as a way to spend time together with my father”.

At the same time, James says he began to, “love the sense of community that food has. It brings people together, whether cooking together or eating together, food has a way of congregating people”. The early sense of cohesion and harmony would later develop in his career as a much broader philosophy.

Early training at a Japanese restaurant

The first step of his career journey saw James undergo most of his early training at a Japanese restaurant located in Perth. Within a “single kitchen team and two very different side by side restaurants, it was a disciplined environment – and so, a great place to learn the basics”, according to James.

“I had good exposure to both the casual dining we served in the a la carte restaurant and the intimate, finer Omakase –  a form of Japanese dining consisting of dishes selected by the chef – that we did next door”.

James recalls particular career highlights following this period, winning a place in the 30 Under 30 Awards from Food Service Magazine, being involved in the Good Food Month Young Chefs Dinner and a short stage working at the acclaimed Oakridge Restaurant.

Using quality ingredients is a big part of my cooking

Today, James very much embraces the global movement for ‘sustainability’ as a food philosophy to guide his cooking, “I like to keep it simple. Using quality ingredients is a big part of my cooking”, adding that “producers who supply those ingredients tend to have better sustainability practices. When it comes to the produce, it’s a win/win for everyone”.

Ensuring the best quality ingredients also forms part of his broader approach that James believes is the reason he no longer becomes overly stressed in the kitchen. For James, finding the balance in all aspects of kitchen organisation is crucial.

“We have built the team and kitchen capabilities up over the last few years to better suit our output of food and the way in which we prepare it to ensure the quality standards we aim for are met.” 

James admits past stress was caused by the “time vs space vs quantity” issue that is common in many kitchens. “Finding that balance or implementing the systems to meet demand can be quite challenging”.

However, to manage the demands and stress of the kitchen it is James’ firm belief that, “maintaining a positive outlook is probably the most important thing”. 

Allowing negativity is a quick way to make mistakes

“As a manager/leader we need to be in control of the situation so that the junior staff feel reassured that everything will be ok. Allowing negativity is a quick way to make mistakes, rash decisions or aggravate colleagues”.

For James, a good way to manage keeping positive is to, “step back and view a situation from different perspectives. There is always more than one way to tackle a problem, keeping a level head and being logical helps reduce stress in situations”.

James own approach to time away from the pass

The simple and sensible action of ”stepping back” also plays out in James own approach to time away from the pass. “When I’m out of the kitchen I’m an avid snooker player (I have an antique table in my house). It’s a great way to take your mind off of anything weighing you down. It’s a challenging sport that requires focus”. 

James also emphasises “staying positive” as his top advice he would give to younger chefs starting out in the industry. “As a young chef myself, I would just say to stay positive. Having positivity and keeping focused are key points for career progression”.

It’s also proved to have been a sustaining force for James throughout the present epidemic, which hit the hospitality industry hard. James says how positively inspiring it is to “see how flexible and resilient our industry is to overcoming such a massive obstacle”.

 “Helping myself and others” during lockdown

James also rose to the challenge in a similar inspiring fashion by, “helping myself and others”. He decided to use all the time he suddenly found himself with to upskill.

 “I taught myself about chocolate work. It’s a skill I’ve been hesitant to attempt learning due to its complexity. But I have found that I’ve enjoyed it to the point that I’ve continued to push myself to expand that knowledge after lockdown has finished”.  

James also volunteered at Foodbank. “I figured if I’d spent years developing a skill set I could at least put it to use to help those that were in a less fortunate situation than I was”.

Clearly, a full expression of the natural humanitarian instinct that was first formed – alongside his love of preparing and cooking with others – in the family kitchen of his boyhood.