Chef Liam Downes from Ballarat to Melbourne and Back Again

“Love for making people happy with food”. No ordinary inspirational quote. But the exuberance of a boy helping out in his parent’s kitchen.

Today, chef Liam Downes passion for cooking “things my family and friend enjoy” is making more people happy than even his boyish self may ever have dreamed of achieving.

For Liam is not only executive chef of a small hospitality group in Ballarat, Victoria he is also busy running the catering for three restaurants – ‘Moon and Mountain, a modern Asian, hawker-style bar and eatery, seating 140, ‘Ragazzone’, a small, intimate Italian restaurant offering premium pasta and quality ingredients, and ‘Renard’ social club, a small wine and cocktail bar serving modern bistro food.

Liam’s career as a chef has constantly kept him busy in a number of commercial restaurant and hotel kitchens, from Ballarat to Melbourne – and back again. Since those early days helping his Mum and Dad in their pub kitchen, Liam says he “always knew he wanted to be a cook”. Even his grandmother was a “huge influence”.

I worked my way up the kitchen hierarchy

The journey really began when Liam – now aged 16 – started washing dishes at the Craigs Royal, Ballarat’s legendary and grandest Australian gold-rush era hotel, opened in 1853.

“It was here I was offered an apprenticeship to work under a really amazing chef, Julian Robertshaw, over six years executive chef at the Melbourne Racing Club, who had just come from a 3 chef hat restaurant. I learnt so much in a small time – more then anything, I learnt discipline and finesse”.

Like many an aspiring chef keen to learn more about their craft, Liam took himself off to the Accor, a 144 room hotel, which had recently opened up at Novotel Forest Resort Creswick, just outside of Ballarat.

“It was here I worked my way up the kitchen hierarchy under an amazing chef, Glenn Krumb, who had worked all over the world. He was a real mentor and taught me more in two and half years then I had learnt my whole career”.

Daunting task to step into his former mentor’s shoes

So much so, that it’s all credit to Liam that when Glenn departed it was Liam who took over the very same role as executive chef. He was only 26! Liam admits it was a daunting task to step into his former mentor’s shoes. “I believe I had so much to learn still…” and shortly afterwards Liam decided he wanted to add more to his knowledge of the kitchen.

“I choose to move on to a role at Sofitel Melbourne No. 35 restaurant, under Stuart McVeigh. Moving back down the kitchen ladder was super important to my development”. Liam says he loved his time at Sofitel  “the food was amazing” but was forced to move back to Ballarat when he heard he was shortly to become a father for the first time!

“Returning to Ballarat, I worked a number of sous chef jobs until I was offered a major position at the newly refurbished George Hotel (first opened on historic Lydiard Street North in 1854) and ‘The Lane’ Café. The Hotel owners had created a dining hub, and I was to be in charge of multiple venues and function rooms. It was a great experience, and I firmly believe it was the start of Ballarat’s food movement”.

Back to the Craigs Royal Hotel – to manage the kitchen

Liam’s next job before his present executive chef role – and taking on the ‘Moon and Mountain’ eatery – was to bring him full circle – back to the Craigs Royal Hotel. The start of his journey as an apprentice working alongside chef, and “good friend” Shannon Easton.

This time, Liam was to manage the kitchen, working once again with Shannon, now the executive chef at Craigs Royal, and hospitality consultant Ian Curley, host of ‘Conviction Kitchen’ and a regular guest on ‘MasterChef Australia’.

Looking back over his career to date, Liam says his passion for the kitchen and cooking is unchanged from when he started out. “I love stepping into the kitchen every day, and I love making people smile with food. Nothing makes me happier than when the food our kitchen team have created makes someone’s night extra special. I also love meeting and creating bonds with the people you meet”.

Helping hospitality staff cope with mental issues

Liam is also concerned to always help and support his kitchen team cope with the often stressful demands of the kitchen and life on the pass. Particularly, at this time in trying to move on after the pandemic.

“I see the struggles all chefs are going through just to open the kitchen every day with limited staff, and very much aware of the mental struggles a lot of chefs are going through. A focus of mine at the moment, is working on people’s mental wellbeing. We are currently in the process of setting up a support network in Ballarat to help hospitality staff deal with mental health issues”.

Liam says his time away from the demands of the kitchen is important too. He pays tribute to family life, his wife, Melissa –“my rock”- and 2 children, with whom he loves spending every moment.  Life away from pass also usually means relaxing with his love of sport – “especially AFL”  – he’s a passionate Bombers supporter. Also, a good culinary read. His fave goes back to his apprenticeship days – ‘Confidential’ by Anthony Bourdain, which according to Liam, “opens your eyes to the world of hardcore cookery!”

Favourite ingredient and popular dishes

Liam’s own philosophy is to “cook things I love to eat, things I know my family and friend enjoy. I try and make use of Ballarat’s local produce, which is outstanding, and love to showcase a certain ingredient for each dish”.

His favourite ingredient is using pork- nose to tail. “We have head croquettes, sticky pork hock, belly on the menu at the moment but I love using the whole animal”. Liam also loves “using sous for vegetables and meats, cooking them slowly to get the best flavour”.

According to Liam, popular dishes on the Ragazzone menu would be their Moreton Bay bug (lobster from the Indian and Pacific ocean), Peppernata (sweet bell peppers with olive oil, onion, and tomatoes) and potato wafer snack. Satisfying appetites at Moon and Mountain is the sticky, caramelised pork hock while Meredith goats cheese and local honey doughnuts are big crowd pleasers at Renard.

Everyone in all the venue kitchens are amazing

Liam give full credit to his “wonderful team of chefs that work across all venues”, including Zak McAninly, “my head chef at Moon, who started with us as a second year apprentice chef, and has worked his way up to be a real asset in the business. Everyone in all the venue kitchens are amazing and super passionate”.

There’s also praise for chefs that Liam has worked alongside recently. ”Pauly Sing was my head chef at Moon and Ragazzone for the last two years – the guy is a serious cook” He is so passionate and an amazing chef. Watch out for his next move –  he’s cooking with a skill and a cleverness I’ve never seen before!”

Appreciating past influences and mentors is also important to Liam, including Glenn Krumb, Alex Vilches and Brent Morley. “Amazing chefs from Sydney, who came down to Ballarat when we opened the hotel, and three of the most down to earth and incredible chefs who taught me so much”.

Liam reserves a special mention for chef Shannon Easton. “We grew up in kitchens together, and he was a massive influence on me. Shannon is currently at Sardine Eatery & Bar in Paynesville, overlooking Raymond Island, and they are doing amazing things down there!”

Liam also gives a big shout out to two guys that gave him the opportunity to do what he does. Teddy Powlett and Drew Harry.

“These boys have Great  vision and a an amazing eye to designing cool and unique restaurants. They have made great places to work.”

Supporting the next generation of chefs

Looking to the future and supporting the next generation of chefs Liam says, “We plan to create pathways for young chefs to learn and grow, as well as see a place to have a career in cheffing in Ballarat”.

He also has important advice for young chefs keen to make their way in the hospitality industry, “work hard, stay strong in a tough industry, and enjoy your time in the kitchen. It’s a great industry and it will reward you with amazing memories and friends”.

It may even bring you full circle – back with your friends you’ve met and worked with along the way!