Chef Stacey Conner’s Career of Self Discovery

 Inspired By Good Chefs and Cookbooks  “You’re only as good as the books you read”, says Chef Stacey Conner with a broad smile.

The Chef Owner of ‘Humble on Duke’ Restaurant at Sunshine Beach, Queensland is recalling a time when she, “needed to research more to understand the creativity, and what inspires other good chefs”. Currently, it looks like “Fried apple pie with Dubliner whisky ice cream, which Stacey says, “customers are loving, and it brings a “nostalgic feel”. A fascinating choice for a restaurant with a Middle Eastern inspired approach to eating.

Stacey’s passion for her craft, and desire to realise her ambitions in hospitality, remain undimmed over a 20 year career. It actually started with reading. The cookbooks of Dame Alison Holst – New Zealand food writer and television celebrity chef – while growing up in her native Invercargill. Stacey says she also spent her earliest years “cooking with her Mum and Nanna”.

Pivotal start to my career

Stacey’s career started in earnest at the turn of the millennium, studying Hospitality and Catering at the Southern Institute of Technology, one of the largest in New Zealand. “It was a pretty pivotal start to my career as it created a lot of hunger in me to succeed. We competed in many catering competitions, during which, I was inspired by many great chefs”.

Once qualified, Stacey spent the next 2 -3 years gaining valuable kitchen experience in several restaurants around Invercargill, including her favourite, The Crescent, under chef Glen Stridiron. Glenn’s culinary background includes working in Spain and Europe, and his cooking “with a Moroccan influence” made a big impression on the young chef. “His cooking was probably ahead of its time for a small town but the food has stayed with me ever since”.

Needed to grow as a chef and as a person

It wasn’t long before Stacey realised that in her “small town”, she had worked in nearly all of its restaurants. She “needed a ticket out of Invercargill to grow as a chef and as a person”. Her journey of self-discovery continued with Stacey enrolling as a chef with the NZ Navy, but she only stayed for one year.

“I found quickly that being a chef was my true passion, and being in the Navy was going to be quite restricting for me. The training and routine were an incredible challenge, but mostly the people I met, and the camaraderie during my time there, is something I’ll always fondly remember”.

Back on dry land, and now aged 25, Stacey headed to Auckland where she headed over to the Hotel De Brett to work under Chef Dave Verheul – who later went on to open the Embla and Resa wine bars.

Senior sous chef role at The Grill By Sean Connolly

Once again, Stacey soon felt she needed a ‘reset’ to her career focus, and to “understand the creativity and inspiration” driving other chefs. Stacey took another career step forward and landed a demi chef role and moved up to senior sous chef  at The Grill By Sean Connolly, opened in 2011, and awarded two hats in the Cuisine Good Food Guide, 2019.

Now Stacey felt her career was back on track, and for the next 5 years worked in several of Sean Connolly’s renowned restaurants, including Sky City and Dubai Opera. “I always felt looked after and appreciated at Sean’s restaurants, and his simple food philosophies will stay with me always”.

I keep things simple and fresh

It’s not all that surprising that Stacey’s own food philosophy appears to follow similar lines. “I keep things simple and fresh, 3 – 4 elements max. on a plate. I also want to keep learning about local small suppliers and what we can do to be more sustainable”.

It’s a desire echoed by many of the chefs interviewed at Life On The Pass, and who are committed to a growing movement in the support of local Australian food producers and environmentally sustainable cooking techniques. Stacey says she “loves cooking a beautiful big cut of beef or fish over a fire pit or grill – it’s probably the most satisfying way to cook for me!”.

One of my favourite things to de-stress is a walk on the beach

Stacey also loves her chef’s knives – and flaked sea salt! Two items always beside her when preparing food. A “health routine, even if it’s just going for a walk every day”, is another. To manage the demands and stress of the kitchen. “I try to be as patient as possible, and letting things evolve naturally. Don’t drink on too many school nights”.

Time away from the pass is also important for Stacey. “One of my favourite things to de-stress is a walk on the beach with our border collie, Iggy. I also love all sports, and watching them too, of course. My partner and I adore travelling – and eating out!”.

Advice to younger chefs starting out

Drawing on over two decades of her career, to date, Stacey says her advice to younger chefs starting out in the industry is to “be patient and spend time perfecting your cooking before you apply for that head chef role”.

Stacey says her life would not be the same without her partner, Jade Tareha, “We are a team and I honestly couldn’t do it without her”.

Plus, learning and discovering from cookbooks too – since the start, and throughout her career. Stacey’s favourite all-time culinary read is “hands down”, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by US chef Anthony Bourdain.

Published in 2000, it’s considered a ‘modern classic of behind-the-scenes and contemporary food writing’. Which can only be a good thing for a chef’s career, if as Stacey says, “You’re only as good as the books you read”.