Chef Julio Figueroa – Importance of a good working environment to develop a strong connection with your team


Each and every chef we interview has their own reasons for devoting their life to preparing and cooking food.

But they can often also share the same powerful motivation.

“Everyday there is a chance to give love to people through food”, says Julio Figueroa, clearly expressing his guiding passion.

Julio is senior sous chef at Balcon By Tapavino, contemporary Spanish restaurant in the heart of Sydney’s CBD.

These days, you will find him busy choosing, “traditional Spanish flavours, ingredients, or methods”, and giving them his “own interpretation” by mixing them with available, seasonal Australian produce.

But Julio is actually from Santiago – Chile, where Chilean Spanish is the main language, and where his love for cooking was first awakened.

Cooking was not just a need –  there was so much love and tradition

“I started cooking when I was a kid” says Julio, “watching my mum, aunty and grandmother cook. Their love for cooking, and how they made this amazing food from scratch, motivated me to follow their steps”.

Julio cherishes fond memories of when his family gathered together to cook. Making the different entrées, mains, desserts, and the bread, could sometimes take days to finally create just the right recipe.

“Cooking was not just a need –  there was so much love and tradition, so much respect for the process”, says Julio. “Basically, because they were giving love to others. It was a beautiful way to give love to the family through the food they were making”.

Low temperature cooked snapper, “san simón da costa” cheese.

Enrolled at one of the best cooking institutes in Santiago

But a career in cooking was not the direction that Julio took when leaving school. Instead, he enrolled on an Engineering course at University. “It seemed like a good decision at the time”, says Julio, “I had good qualifications, so I was granted a scholarship”.

However, it wasn’t too long before Julio recognised his mistake. “I realised that Engineering was not fulfilling myself, and so I decided to drastically turn everything around, and head in a different direction. I enrolled at one of the best cooking institutes in Santiago”.

Now Julio’s passion for cooking started to make itself felt and continued to grow.

So much so that, when he finished his 4 year course in Administration in Gastronomy and International Cuisine, Julio decided to take an introductory level in Sommelier at the Sommelier’s School of Chile. “That’s when my passion for food and wine really took off”, says Julio.

Working with Australia’s fresh produce “a beautiful experience

Following graduation, and now firmly set in his true vocation, Julio now put five good years into building up his hospitality experience in Santiago’s many restaurants and bars.

A young man’s ambition to take his career to “another level” eventually saw Julio take the decision that many an aspiring chef hits upon – go to Australia – where else! We hear time and time again from chefs we interview at Life on the Pass that heading down under really can turn a chef’s career around.

Julio started his Australian ‘journey’ in 2013, working in the various cafes he found in and around Sydney.

At first, it was all very new and strange to Julio.

“When I arrived here, I did not know much about the scene, and also what hospitality really is in Australia. It was something absolutely different for me, for many reasons – language, trends – but mostly the produce. And what people expect when they sit in a restaurant, cafe or bar, in terms of standard and service”.  However, Julio found working with Australia’s fresh produce “a beautiful experience” and was impressed with the fast pace of service, adding, “we all know how busy a good cafe can be”.

Fish “Tiradito”, pickled black trumpet mushroom, leche de tigre.

Cooking for many celebrities and artists

Julio’s next career move would see him caught up in the hurly burly of celebrity hospitality. And where fresh seasonal produce is at the heart of creative cooking.

It was now 2015, a time when Julio says, he was truly, “learning what Australia had to offer in terms of fresh produce, seasonal inspired menus, seafood –  and what was actually happening in in food trends too”.

“I found a position as a chef de partie at “Cook And Waiter” with “chef, David O’Brian”, says Julio. “He’s one of the most sought-after of Sydney’s Boutique Caterers for events with an established clientele and an enviable reputation”.

Julio recalls he had access to ‘first class produce’ for cooking, which was good news because, at the same time, he was given an opportunity to cook exclusively at private events. He found himself cooking for many celebrities and artists at celebrations and glamorous house dinners as a private chef.

“I remember cooking twice for Cate Blanchett at one of her many visits to Sydney, and also talking about food with her in one of her houses. It was an amazing food experience back in the day, working with chef David, his team, vision and passion to develop outstanding food. I gained very good friends there too”.

Rustic and refined dishes of Northern Spain

One year later, and another career move saw Julio present at the very start of Balcon By Tapavino. It was mid-2016, when owner Frank Dilernia first opened the venue, with its concept vision of creating ‘contemporary Spanish cuisine to share’.

Julio highlights these examples of current dishes to be explored, which take their cue from the ‘rustic and refined dishes of Northern Spain’.

“Raw hiramasa kingfish is served with Spanish black trumpet mushroom, and dressed with Leche de Tigre or ‘tiger’s milk’, a citrus-based, spicy marinade”, says Julio, pointing to the cultural mix in the Spanish influence of the mushrooms, alongside Australia “because of the beautiful fish and also my South American influence taken from how people eat “ceviche” or “tiradito” using the dressing”.

Another culinary highlight is the dry, aged kingfish collars, cooked over coals and served with made in-house smoked oyster glaze. “I lightly brine the collars to be dry aged afterwards. The oyster glaze is something I make in the kitchen using our charcoal oven for the smoking process, which I apply to the oyster before making the glaze”.

Dry aged kingfish collars cooked over coals, housemade smoked oyster glaze.

What I enjoy the most is being on the cooking line with the other chefs

Julio says his role as the restaurant’s sous chef is, “more to support and develop on the creative side”.

“One of the things that I enjoy the most is being on the cooking line with the other chefs. I really love sharing that responsibility with them, giving support as much as I can and also learning from them. You never stop learning, and it does not matter which position they have in the kitchen”.

It’s a philosophy that also connects with Julio’s passion for wine and food, which he believes is reflected in everything that he creates.

“I carefully choose every element for playing with the senses. I am always trying to find balance in my flavours so the wine palette is wider, or very accurate when it comes to pairing. I also love colours, same as textures. Most of the time when I add some spices, I do so only very sparingly so they won’t ‘drown out’ the main ingredients,  even though I personally know they’re there”.

Julio mentions he also loves cooking with charcoal. “Since I was a kid, I have been familiar with it. In our kitchen we have a ‘Josper’ charcoal oven, which gives us the chance to take a lot of influence from the Basque cooking style, and also connects me to my Chilean roots. In South America, charcoal cooking is something you do all the time, such as every weekend with friends while watching the football – or for any family celebration!”

Charcoal Cooking

How important it is to have a good working environment

Talk of ‘weekends’ and spending downtime with family and friends brings our conversation to how Julio handles the daily pressures of the kitchen, and the importance of time away from the pass.

“One of the best things I have realised in the last few years is how important it is to have a good working environment, and to develop a strong connection with your team”, says Julio.

“You spend most of the time with a group of people that can really turn into a family when you create that strong bond. You can make very strong relationships in kitchens, as you spend hours and days together so it can definitely be like a second family.

This is when your job goes to the next level, and you look forward to going to work every day. It changes drastically the way you perform, your creativity, even the way you see life and your future”.

Another vital key for managing wellbeing is, “recognising what you really like to do, and what you don’t like to do,” says Julio. “You need to realise what makes you perform better”.

Julio continues, “In my case I find myself extremely productive from very early in the morning. I enjoy getting earlier to work so I have plenty of time and space for myself in the kitchen. I can do my prep and have everything ready for the rest of the day without rushing myself. I also believe that when you love what you do and enjoy doing your work everything flows naturally at work and becomes easier”.

“Meloso” rice of tomato, olive, fairy ring mushroom, ballobar caper

During lockdown I discovered my interest in cheesemaking

Away from the kitchen, Julio enjoys being outdoors or listening to music. “I was a musician when I was younger so seeing live music, especially outdoors, is my favourite recreation. It disconnects me from how busy a kitchen can be”.

However, exploring creative food possibilities is never too far away for Julio. “Whenever I have free time I enjoy learning new skills. In fact, during lockdown I discovered my interest in cheesemaking and I started to get some private classes with Kristen Allan – a respected authority of over 15 years in the cheese industry – which I really recommend to follow. She is a true inspiration, a woman who really loves what she does and is an amazing teacher”.

For Julio, cheesemaking allows him to cook in a more relaxed way – without involving recipes, following strict rules, methods and deadlines. “It’s slow pace cooking – the opposite of what, in many respects, a restaurant can be. Cheesemaking, a glass of wine and good music is the perfect combination for me when I’m away from the pass”.

Homemade Feta cheese

I would recommend to young chefs to leave their ego aside

Julio has come a long way from his early years working in the restaurants and bars of Santiago. And has valuable advice to impart to the next generation of aspiring chefs.

“I would recommend to young chefs to leave their ego aside”, says Julio. “I have seen many people stop learning because of it. In the kitchen we are all part of a team, and every member contributes in their own way, there should be no competition.

The key is to be humble, ask when you need help, and recognise when you do something wrong and a mistake needs to be fixed. Everyone makes mistakes – even the older chefs or the most experienced ones –  and there is always an opportunity to learn, and become better and better. Being a chef is a tough job and I think ‘bad ego’ can really block passion. With no passion and love for cooking I do not see the point of being a chef”.

“I can’t make a good looking and tasty dish if there is no love involved”. It’s been at the heart of Julio’s cooking throughout his career.