Creative and dynamic head chef Michael Lee feels fortunate for the job he has running the Chef Hat award-winning kitchen at Potager – A Country kitchen. He talks with us about the joys of living in Northern New South Wales’, how he maintains a productive team and highlights of his career so far including cooking for Snoop Dogg!
Potager – love at first sight
Michael was attracted to the position at Potager after meeting the owner, Peter Burr, who showed him around the property and gardens. Hearing about Peter’s passion for sustainability and the whole business, Michael knew he wanted to be a part of it. After going for the role, 2.5 years later he’s become renowned for his creativity, dynamic flavour combinations and nothing but fresh produce.
Michael has worked at Potager for 3 years in that time has and won 12 awards, including a Chef Hat from the AGFG, a silver in Qantas Tourism Awards for Australia, and a gold for New South Wales.
Potager is set on a small, 10-acre farm in the countryside of Carool, near the Gold Coast Airport, and has become popular with tourists and local people. As well as customers coming for the unique flavours and plates, they get to soak up the idyllic views of the Northern New South Wales valley. Every dish and element of the restaurant is designed to showcase the local area, from ingredients, to local supplier produce.
The restaurant of course supports local suppliers – even down to the kitchenware – where local potters are hired to make the plates and other items used throughout the restaurant. Potager employs local young people, uses all of the ingredients it can grow on site and has a minimal waste policy as part of its sustainability focus.
Edinburgh-born Michael first travelled as a backpacker to Australia in 2005 and quickly fell in love with the country. While working in commercial kitchens as a dishwasher, he was drawn into the pressure and busy nature of the restaurant world. Michael soon became enthralled by cooking, observing chefs he worked with and asking lots of questions. His first experience began with helping to prep ingredients for the chefs.
Even though Michael had to return to Scotland and to his job as an architectural engineer, he knew his future lay on the other side of the world. He decided to save the money he needed to and make the move to Australia permanently, setting up home on the Gold Coast.
A move later and Michael was still working as a welder – but was unhappy. He knew something had to change in his work. Still thinking about food, he then decided to quit his well-paid job to complete a chef apprenticeship at The Star Casino, where he worked as a commis chef until 2015.
The casino kitchen exposed Michael to many aspects of the industry, different cooking techniques and services, which included everything from a la carte to buffet.
After completing his apprenticeship, Michael joined Peppers Salt Resort and Spa in Kingscliff in 2015 as a chef de partie, where he spent the next 4 years. He was responsible for overseeing the conferencing and events catering and, after proving himself, he was quickly promoted to sous chef. When the chef de cuisine role position came up for Peppers’ signature restaurant (Season), Michael went for it. This marked his first job as a head chef job for a 120-seat fine dining restaurant, a past winner of Chef Hats and featured on Masterchef.
Despite the nerves, Michael had an underlying excitement he couldn’t shake and knew he could do a good job. Around 3 months into the role, Michael was awarded a Chef’s Hat by the AGFG.
Reasons to love it
Michael’s favourite thing about being a chef is the creative freedom he has and the way he can express himself and who he is on the plate. Past seasonal dishes have included lemon myrtle roasted fair game wild venison loin, with a celeriac & carool coffee custard and a rabbit tortellini with braised white beans and puffed pearl barley.
“I’m now known for some very creative dishes with some great flavour combinations and textures that are easy to execute,” says Michael. Notably, he also has a Northern territory crocodile schnitzel with fingerlime aioli.
In his career so far, Michael recalls working with the well-known chef, Colin Fassnidge, whilst working at Peppers. Together, they have hosted lunch and sharing the common ground of a Celtic heritage and similar approach in their cooking style, they had a lot of fun along the way. Though the pressure can deter some people, Michael finds that it helps keep him focused. He loves the variety and meeting new people. Michael Lee has had the opportunity to cook for a number of celebrity artists, including Snoop Dogg, Stormsy, The Cure and Michael Bolton.
Michael counts himself lucky to live in the Tweed area of Northern New South Wales. “Here I get access to some amazing, beautiful and unique ingredients and a great relationship with all my suppliers.”
The area’s unique landcsapes and environmental elements, including the Northern Rivers volcanic-rich soils and stunning beaches, enable farms to produce high quality ingredients. As well as sourcing locally, Michael’s team also grows a mix of fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers at the restaurant, enabling some interesting flavour combinations. Changing the menu according to season means that flavours vary and works out more favourably in terms of the environment and costs.
“As chefs, we have to be responsible for produce we use and the environmental footprint we leave behind.”
Michael believes it’s essential to have a solid plan or structure, which includes details on how to prep and execute service among the team. He has a structure he implements at every restaurant he has worked at, which helps maximise productivity among his team and helps to reduce stress on himself.
Not overthinking the processes and demands required to get the job done helps, too.
“The ability to laugh and communicate with your team is also important.”
In his downtime, Michael focuses on his 3 children, plays music and writes to help him destress.
Advice to new chefs
The advice Michael has for new chefs is simple: Read. A lot. Chefs also need to practise and don’t be afraid of making mistakes and learning from them.
Watch what other experienced chefs do, how they set up, approach their workload and execute it. “It’s amazing how fast a young chef can progress by doing this and I always encourage them,” he says. “The key is attitude – have a positive one, turn up on time and that’s all any chef can ask.
Michael finds his customer feedback humbling and privileged to be able to do his work and make people happy to eat his creations. It’s this positive feedback that makes Michael want to continue trying new ingredients and making his food better.
“We have many new customers, but also some loyal locals so I always try to keep it interesting for them and introduce new ingredients they have never tried before.”