“The fun begins when the ideas flow in!” says Steve Finch, Head Chef at ‘Cooee’, uber-chic modern restaurant and bar, at the Old Swan Brewery. Perth.
Straight off, Steve tells us about their confit Leeuwin Coast Akoya, with apple and dill heroes, a sustainably farmed oyster from Albany. “I have spent a lot of time playing with this very special delicacy”, says Steve. “For this dish, we use a herbaceous dill oil, paired with fresh, sweet apple jelly to represent pearls, like the oyster shell itself”.
Steve says he “loves the organised chaos of being a chef”, and for “putting a smile on people’s faces”. Our interview at Life on the Pass fizzes from the get-go with a head chef’s obvious enthusiasm and passion for the art of cooking.
Exposure to all aspects of hospitality
You might think that Steve started playing with ingredients from the earliest age. A boy in the kitchen who suddenly sees his career path open up before him. In a way it did.
“I had a bit of a different introduction to my Chef career”, says Steve. “I trained as a chef at 17 years old and worked in a tearoom on the weekend whilst at college”.
But Steve decided he would go to university to study Hospitality Business Management. At the same time he still kept in touch with being hands-on by working as part of a Front of House team. Steve, who was born and brought up in England, aimed to enhance his skills by working at 4-star hotel, Malmaison Leeds, ”to gain exposure to all aspects of hospitality”.
The big wake up call soon followed.
Major stepping stone to enhancing my career
The role of a great mentor in a young chef’s development is often referred to as a career-defining experience. Their influence can open up a whole new way of thinking for young chefs to make a creative breakthrough in their food preparation and cooking.
Steve says his life was changed when he met John Clarke, chef of Swan Valley’s award winning Muscats Restaurant at The Vines Resort & Country Club.
“John sponsored me, believed in me, and taught me how to be a true chef”, says Steve. “I loved his attention to detail when creating a dish, it was so layered and deeply passionate. He greatly inspired me and this pushed me to move to Melbourne”.
“I have been lucky enough to work with some great chefs over the years” says Steve who highlights Andrew McConnell as a “major stepping stone to enhancing my career. His standard was incredibly high and I thrived in it”.
Each dish must always have a hero
McConnell is often cited as a key player in the Melbourne restaurant scene. He now has eight iconic venues to his culinary portfolio, including Cumulus Inc. described as a ‘luxe-European’ wine bar with food.
Steve recalls his time working at the venue, which opened in 2013. “I learnt so many vital lessons at Cumulus Inc. Most importantly for me, it was about always remembering that every chef working in any kitchen should know everything about the products they are using”.
McConnell and his restaurant ethos was not the only influence to guide Steve towards his finding his own cooking philosophy. “Recently, I am very grateful to work alongside Z1Z Culinary Manager, Tom Haynes. His passion, knowledge and general excitement about his craft is very inspiring. He taught me that each dish must always have a hero, but each component must always also taste incredible on its own and be well balanced”.
The respect and admiration for a particular chef also has pedigree, as Steve explains, “For many years Tom worked with Matt Moran and has incredible knowledge to share. I feel so lucky to be side by side, curating and cooking together. I can’t wait to see where my career goes working with Tom”.
Something I had always aspired to do
Which brings us to where Steve is today at Cooee. But how did his appointment as head chef come about?
“When I was offered a role to come and open a restaurant, I couldn’t say no” says Steve. “It was the first time for me, and something I had always aspired to do. Hearing the vision of the Z1Z brand was so exciting, particularly with Cooee being situated on the Swan River in such an iconic location. I was incredibly honoured and proud to take this next step”.
Z1Z, which considers Cooee as its ‘premier culinary destination’, is an accommodation, food & beverage, sport & entertainment brand focused on providing truly authentic Australian experiences. At the recent Leeuwin Coast WA Good Food Guide Awards, Cooee was ranked 33 in the Top 50 Best Restaurants in Western Australia.
Working with so many wonderful people – every day is a school day!
Stepping into the role of head chef is clearly an exciting step for Steve. It offers ample opportunity to bring together all the ‘ingredients’ of his career experiences, and food philosophies into his creative working day. Plus the all-important fun, of course!
“Creating dishes and having fun is what it is all about”, says Steve. “That moment when you add the splash of chardonnay vinegar and you taste how it lifts the dish and brings all the elements together…it genuinely makes me smile”.
Passion for his craft is always bubbling on the hob. “I love cooking, I love being a chef, and I just love putting smiles on people’s faces!” says Steve with schoolboy enthusiasm. “The looks you get from chefs, colleagues and guests when they taste your creations…that’s what it’s all about! Working with so many wonderful people from different backgrounds – every day is a school day!”
I like to work very closely with our suppliers to ensure we’re using the best produce
Regular readers of Life on the Pass will know that just about every chef we feature is committed to seasonal and sustainable produce from their local area growers. It’s often one of the biggest eye openers for young chefs from around the world heading ‘down under’ early in their career. Their passion and pride in only working with fresh quality produce is definitely putting Australian cooking on the world stage.
When curating menus at Cooee, Steve says his day begins with, “calling my favourite producers and hearing about the intriguing produce that they have coming into season and its origin. Seasonality, sustainability, and showcasing our great state are all my core focuses. I like to work very closely with our suppliers to ensure we’re using the best produce that’s on our local doorstep”.
That’s when the fun and the creativity starts for Steve. At the start of this interview Steve pointed out his love of making Leeuwin Coast Akoya. Another favourite dish on the summer menu he loves to prepare is Spencer Gulf kingfish or west coast octopus. “Both dishes hero the fruits of our Western Australian seas and are sourced sustainably”.
The beach is my ultimate happy place
Steve has a straightforward hero way with managing the stress and strains of running a busy award winning restaurant kitchen.
“The beach! That is my ultimate happy place”, says Steve. “I lived near the ocean growing up in England so it always has special memories for me…although the beaches in Western Australia are just a tad better! It helps me reset, refresh and recharge”.
When Steve is away from the Pass, you’ll find him at another ‘happy place’ – with his family. ”I’m certainly a family man. I am very lucky to have my family here from England. My parents moved over to be with my sister and I and I am now an uncle which is very special and time I always cherish”.
Steve say he also enjoys playing golf (plus admitting he may not be the best) but for relaxing away from work, “its about getting out with your mates, having a beer and switching off”.
It’s very easy to just say, “yes chef”
Head chefs are often asked for advice by the young and ambitious how to make their way up the career ladder. Time and time again the same answers come up, which Steve lays out into four key ‘servings’ of ‘Listen, Learn, Ask and Stay Humble’.
“I think it’s so important for younger chefs to listen carefully and not be afraid to ask questions. It is very easy to just say, ‘yes chef’, but actually understanding the lesson is another thing.
Stay humble and always be open to learning, no matter how much you think you know. This will take you further in life, not just in a kitchen.
Finally, be willing to take criticism. This is something that’s so important. Although it can initially hurt not hearing what you want to hear, this criticism will always elevate you and help you in the long run”.
Sound like the classic ‘recipe for success?’ They certainly feature throughout Steve’s career to date. Especially, the one about “putting a smile on people’s faces”.
Fun, but always an essential ingredient.