Chef Vaughn Williams – Quality seafood taught me about treating ingredients with respect

It’s not often that Life On The Pass might get to hear a chef say the kitchen is the only place they “truly feel calm”.

But it’s how Vaughn Williams describes the way he feels despite admitting the kitchen is often a ”high pressure environment”.

Vaughn is currently Head Chef of Lightyears, a modern Asian Diner in Byron Bay, NSW, with “an emphasis on bold and punchy flavours”.

Their menu declares “I’m Designed to Share” – and who could resist with such colourful mouth zingers such as, Mud Crab and Scallop Dumplings, Firecracker Chicken, and Beef Cheek Rendang.

Vaughn, whose worked at the diner over two years, points to Bao Buns as “undoubtedly the most popular dish on the menu – nearly every table orders a plate of these” adding, “King Fish Ceviche and Duck Pancakes are also big sellers on any given night”.

When I didn’t know how to express myself, my food spoke for me

For Vaughn “food was always an instinctive way of life”. Raised by a chef father, being in the cooking environment came naturally from the earliest age.  “Everything in the kitchen seemed familiar yet refreshing and stimulating”.

The deep connection formed with the kitchen and cooking was especially important to Vaughn for another reason too. “Throughout my teenage years, when I didn’t know how to express myself, my food spoke for me. I love that there isn’t any other form of craft that can entice all senses at the same time”.

Food was at the centre of all of Vaughn’s family get togethers. He says he loved how his food “helps people celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and who can fall in love sharing a plate of food that I prepared. The sight, texture, smell and sounds of food remains to this day an unending journey for me”.

Vaughn continued working with his father during his teenage years but after finishing school started his chef’s apprenticeship at local restaurants around the Byron area.

Beginning of my passion for Asian cuisine

An important next step along the career ladder was a move to Kingscliff, NSW to work at ‘Fins’, Australia’s most awarded, regional 2 hat seafood restaurant under owner/ chef, Steven Snow. Vaughn says, “Working with such high quality seafood was a real privilege, and taught me a lot about treating ingredients with respect”.

Vaughn was now in his 20s, and the urge to expand his career horizons took him on the next stage of his culinary journey of discovery – to Asia! Travelling through China, Thailand and Laos, staying with families in their homes, and learning their traditional cooking techniques.

“Travelling to Asia for me was an explosion of all the senses” says Vaughn, “a breakthrough moment which, I believe was the beginning of my passion for Asian cuisine”. Destiny soon came calling…

“When Light Years opened its doors I was very interested in what they were doing. It was at dinner with my partner that I made up my mind… I knew I wanted to work there and learn more Asian cookery under Chef Robbie Oijvall. After starting in 2017 I was quickly promoted to Sous chef and then Head chef in 2018 when the restaurant expanded, and successfully opened multiple venues”.

Seafood has a “trinity of smell, flavour and texture

Vaughn says that his culinary experiences led to forming a food philosophy that continues to guide his cooking. “Keep it simple and let the quality of the ingredients speak for themselves. I don’t like to overcomplicate the dish. I’m just there to enhance and embellish what’s already delicious produce”.

Currently, Vaughn is exploring the process of steaming, in particular, vegetables and seafood. “It’s one of the oldest cooking methods around and I think it has a lot to offer a modern kitchen. It’s a gentle and controlled way of cooking that lets you regulate the temperature and retain all the nutrients and flavour”.

Seafood – and its sustainability – is a major interest for Vaughn who grew up around the coast. From the earliest age, he says he felt connected very directly to seafood through recreational fishing and snorkelling, and also to “taste some of the best seafood the world has to offer”.

“I have a deep respect for the ocean, both personally and professionally. Seafood has a trinity of smell, flavour and texture that chicken or beef just cannot match. Seafood doesn’t need a lot of fancy ingredients or techniques. It can be as simple as a grilled fillet of snapper with a wedge of lemon or thinly sliced tuna with soy sauce, and I’m dedicated to the future of the produce I cook with”.

Loves to go cycling, playing disc golf – and of course, snorkelling!

For Vaughn, a “successful kitchen is one without any egos”, and gives a “massive thanks” to his own team, “I’m very lucky to have such hard working, passionate and creative people in the kitchen”.

The head chef has his own take on handling the everyday stresses of the kitchen which, can sometimes affect personal wellbeing. He says it’s the one place he can feel “truly calm”, despite the kitchen often being a ”high pressure environment”.

So has Vaughn a secret to remaining calm and centred in a typical hectic, commercial kitchen? His answer is quite straightforward.

“Being confined to a small, hot kitchen for most of the week means that when I do get time off, I seek out places that are open and quiet. I like to spend time at the beach with my fiancée, go on bush walks, or spend time in the garden. Basically anything in nature with friends and family”.

Away from the Pass, Vaughn also loves to go cycling, playing disc golf – and of course, snorkelling!

It’s no surprise either, to learn his favourite culinary read continues the underwater theme with the ‘Whole Fish Cook Book’ by Sydney’s seafood chef, Josh Niland.

Other page turners Vaugn also likes to relax with are Marco Pierre White’s celebrated 1990 cookbook ‘White Heat’ and his ‘warts and all’ memoir, ‘The Devil In the Kitchen’.

Never assume that you have learnt it all – you never stop learning

Vaughn advises a less fiendish approach in how the next generation of young, aspiring chefs might behave in the kitchen when starting out on their career.

“Seek a restaurant or chef that interests you, and be a sponge. Take in everything you can. Never assume that you have learnt it all – you never stop learning.”

Vaughn’s final straightforward advice is, “Always be on time”, and – perhaps with a view to tackling seafood –  “have a sharp knife and a clean tea towel”.