Ups and Downs and Bouncing Around – The Spinning Plate Career of HOTA Chef, Dayan Hartill-Law

“Being a chef is a lot like being a circus performer, you’re constantly spinning plates”, says Dayan Hartill-Law, executive chef at ‘Palette’, HOTA Gallery’s fine dining restaurant and arts venue on South Queensland’s Gold Coast.

There’s not a chef or professional cook reading this who would not wholeheartedly agree. As every chef knows, there’s no substitute for experience, learning new skills and exploring creative recipes.

Dayan’s career to date is almost a non-stop, mad dash around the world from one kitchen role to another. But often guided and mentored by one ‘ringmaster’ after another too.

We had three chefs to do 80 seats – you literally ran every second!

The show began for Dayan some 19 years ago. “The cornerstone of my education as a young chef was working at ‘Solitary’ restaurant in my home area, the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. Typical dishes included a seafood bourride (fish stew with aioli) and a sea urchin souffle, both made to order. During my time there, it was awarded 2 chefs hats and regional restaurant of the year. We had three chefs in the kitchen to do an 80 seat dining room, so each chef was given a section, and you literally ran every second!”

Spanner crab

But it wasn’t long before Dayan was jumping into his next kitchen – the celebrated Quay restaurant, overlooking Sydney harbour – with nearly ten times more chefs. “It was a pretty intense transition from 3 chefs to 26 chefs – and multiple passes. But the food was meticulous”, says Dayan.

“I was exposed to so many chefs from so many different backgrounds. Plus, their sheer work ethic, drive and skills was sensational to be around”. Dayan name-checks, “Tomi Bjork – now a Finnish masterchef host and multiple restaurant owner, Clayton Wells – head chef at Automata, and Chris Black of Black Star pastry”.

Peter Gilmore was so generous with his time…

One chef that stood out for Dayan was Peter Gilmore, executive chef at both Quay and Bennelong  restaurants. Gilmore has been highlighted as a key mentor on several occasions by chefs we have interviewed at Life on the Pass.

Dayan is full of praise for his former boss. “He was a true beacon in that space! Peter Gilmore was so generous with his time, and always backed me to succeed. I truly believe it was Peter who gave me such a head start in the industry”. Dayan recalls a typical example of Peter lending a much-needed helping hand.

“I was deboning a whole chicken which I then needed to roll into the skin, fresh black truffle. Removing the skin requires an incision in the leg which I was doing wrong, and making the skin so short it wouldn’t roll. Pete could see me struggling, and after taking a look, ordered in some new chickens, and then spent the time showing me how it should be done. The experience was quite pivotal for me, in that it showed me true leadership and what being a great leader requires”.

Making a golden chicken wing to resemble an artwork of an angel

Dayan’s early lesson in culinary know-how still holds good to this day for creative inspiration. He says that at HOTA Restaurant, they create menus to pair with current exhibitions at the gallery.

“A great example” says Dayan, “was making a golden chicken wing to resemble an artwork of an angel with massive golden wings by Australian artist, Sam Jinks. We sourced a locally reared chicken wing that we deboned, stuffed with aged rice, then seasoned with Davidson plum vinegar and pickled plum pieces sourced from the Northern River. After frying once we brushed it with a pandan shoyu (which is everywhere on the Gold Coast), then draped it with edible gold leaf”.


The head chef would rip you apart for the slightest mix up

After Dayan left Quay Restaurant, he says he “bounced around a few venues in the greater west” before being offered to work for the Soho House Group, a private members club at their “crown jewel”, Babington House in Somerset, UK. “This was intense, to say the least”, says Dayan, “We were doing a fresh menu for lunch and dinner every single day. The head chef Ronnie, was a beast and would rip you apart for the slightest mix up. But he was also extremely knowledgeable and a tremendous resource for how and what to do.”

Dayan was then off to his next kitchen role in London. This time to Chiswick House in west London – and “a sea of wonderful Polish chefs who all loved heavy metal!”. They were also extremely disciplined, which Dayan saw was clearly a necessity. “The kitchen taught me how to do extreme volumes”, says Dayan, “Some Sunday lunches, we would hit the 500 mark which was extreme, but it taught me so much about what a kitchen takes – and how each one of us is such a vital cog”.

Ambassador for UK based charity, the ‘Burnt Chef’

The part that every single person plays in the kitchen, and the way everyone is treated is often a major factor in the pressures and stress of life on the pass. Dayan is actively involved in helping to improve the everyday issues affecting the wellbeing of chefs and kitchen staff.

“Recently, I have become an ambassador for a UK based charity called the ‘Burnt Chef’ project. This is something that for years and years I have watched. But the industry I love is getting better and better in the manner in which individuals are treated”.

Dayan says that most of his team have “transitioned to a 4-day working week” and he encourages long breaks. “I personally catch up with each staff member every week to find out what is and what isn’t working, to make changes and ease their workload. I also make a concerted effort in menu planning to manage as many of the control points prior to service. This helps the team to focus on touch points that ‘raise the bar’ for the customer”. Dayan highlights how “service often can be traumatic for a lot of people to navigate through” and his aim is to make this easier so the team can be proud of presenting a controlled, high quality service alongside aesthetically pleasing cuisine”.

Exposed to creativity… developing his own ideas

Back in London, Dayan was considering his career and how he could make better progress. “We had Heston Blumenthal in for lunch and I got a bit down on myself…” says Dayan. A chance meeting next day at a Knightsbridge restaurant with an Australian chef who once worked for Blumenthal was to set Dayan back on track. “Once I told him I had worked at Quay, he offered me a trial the next day. I started a week later working the garnish section in a restaurant that was just about to be named the 8th best in the world and get 2 stars in its first year of operation”.

Duck sequence

Unfortunately, a family issue saw Dayan needing to return to Australia where, once again, he was “bouncing around” from one venue to another, including working with chef Brent Savage at 2-hat Bentley Restaurant & Bar then at his new venture, Monopole, followed by a sous chef role at a Hunter Valley resort. It was a period where Dayan says he was “exposed to creativity… developing his own ideas, and beginning to learn the ins and outs of running a restaurant with financial targets”.

Culinary fates step in again – from mentor to bucket list and Gold Coast

Dayan was next called to work as executive chef at Lizard Island followed by a similar role at the Gold Coast’s Couran Cove and then onto Albert Street Food and Wine in Brunswick, Melbourne. Dayan met his next standout mentor – George Calombaris – owner of Melbourne restaurant, The Press Club with its open theatre style kitchen. “George was so generous with his time”, says Dayan.

But Dayan was once again called to his next role – as chef de cuisine role at Vanitas at Palazzo Versace. “With our newly-born baby we packed up and moved back to the Gold Coast. This job was a bucket list item for me, having adored the space for so long. It was such an amazing experience – and  then to receive accolades was just icing on the cake”.

But the culinary fates stepped in again.  A change in ownership and direction saw Dayan move onto his next position at the Star as chef de cuisine before a new creative opportunity opened up at the HOTA Gallery & Restaurant. “This is now where I call home”, says Dayan, “ overseeing the Exhibitionists bar and Palette Restaurant. It’s really a special thing to be part of, within such an iconic building – and being able to place my own stamp on the food”.

Understanding indigenous ingredients and hero many local businesses

Dayan says he is focused upon creativity and to bringing things together. “My current journey is trying to be able to understand indigenous ingredients and their place within ‘sacred dreaming’. We are really lucky in the south east of Queensland to have six seasons that all offer such unique ingredients which blow me away with their amazing flavours”.

Indigenous ingredients and locally sourced produce is more than a culinary trend. Dayan’s food philosophy chimes with many chefs we interview at Life on the Pass. “We have many guiding principles at HOTA. Where possible, we source from within a 200km radius, which talks to the notion that we actually reside within a food bowl that produces much of the nation’s produce. We hero as many local businesses as we can, from Burleigh Baker to Rice Culture and Little Cocoa. We attempt to work with farms, fisherman, direct with duck farms, cattle farms, to really stand behind the products that we use”.

Dayan also highlights their policy around food wastage. “All parts of the fish, cow, pig, pumpkin, whatever, will be used as ferments, pickles and dried items that will often form the building blocks of our next menu. We also have a belief in the need to build our own flavours, so we make a series of different shoyu’s, miso’s, powders, vinegars, which allows us to have our own unique, intrinsic flavours”.

Time away from the pass and giving of yourself to the industry

Away from the pass, Dayan spends all his time with his family. In keeping with his own food concepts, Dayan’s son is already an “avid forager… and will always bring me a different berry, flower or leaf he loves to smell…”

Talk of  the next generation brings us to Dayan’s advice to young aspiring chefs starting out on their career.

Dayan says, “there is so much that this industry can give you if you give yourself to it. I started when I was only 14 so I never really got into nightlife culture. But the world of hospitality is a community that no matter where you are, you can lean into that community to support you, and guide you through life’s ups and downs”

The role of the mentor can be so important in providing support  too. “You have to surround yourself with great people who are good at their craft. You will need to work nights, weekends, holidays, but it gives you the skills that you need that you can’t pull from a book or off Instagram. It gives you ingrained disciplines that inform your split second decision-making skills”.

Vegetable tart

I have seen so many kitchens fall as a result of arrogance

Dayan also advises to read everything, from food writers and cookbooks to blogs and listening to podcasts. “Knowledge is power and will help you navigate a situation. Ways of accessing information today is so amazing and different from when I first started with just print media”.

The last piece of advice Dayan offers is repeated many times at Life on the Pass, “Be humble but also stand tall when you need to be. Always stay humble because I have seen so many kitchens fall as a result of arrogance. Kitchens are the sum of all their parts – no one chef is greater than the other”.