Episode 26: Life as a Chef in (Very) Remote Australia
Updated: Jul 4, 2020
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Imagine living in one of the most remote parts of Australia and being tasked to procure and create world-class food for visitors to the area. That’s the task for head chef Luke Sutherland who works at an eco-resort in Western Australia’s Kimberley region. In this podcast episode, we talk to Luke about the personal and professional highs and lows of working in such a remote area.
The Kimberley is recognised as one of the world’s more precious wilderness regions and, despite its remoteness, is a drawcard for both domestic and international tourists who come for its unique and ancient landscapes, prolific wildlife, majestic canyons, outback swimming holes and breathtaking coastline. It is the region that makes up the entire north-western corner of Australia – an area of more than 400,000 square kilometres or three times the size of England but with a population of just 40,000 people.
With the eco-resort located 140km from the nearest town and about 2000km from the nearest capital city, Perth, it’s a very long way to the shops if they run out of something in the kitchen. This means organisation is key for Luke and his team. They also make the most of the resort’s own kitchen garden, native meats such as kangaroo, and indigenous plants that can be foraged in the area. Luke aims to provide guests with a menu that’s internationally competitive but with local flavour. This includes a nod to the region’s more recent history and the influence of Japanese and Chinese workers in the pearl industry. And, of course, it’s all served up with the Indian Ocean as a stunning backdrop.
Luke says there is a constant element of surprise – of not knowing what’s going to be available that week. “We’re always trying to adapt an intricate menu because we’ve run out of a basic vegetable and we’re an hour and a half from the nearest town!” he says.
“I put my fruit and veg order in seven days before I receive it because it travels 2450kms to get here, and we get one truck delivery a week. I’m not complaining. It’s made me a stronger chef and I love the challenge.”
Luke believes he and his chef peers have a role to encourage people to eat and cook foods that are abundant in Australia, such as kangaroo, if we are to have a sustainable future for food in this country.
He hopes that as these ingredients become more acceptable and understood, the traditional owners will be able to commercialise and supply them at an affordable price.
Indigenous ingredients Luke mentions include:
Gubinge (or Kakadu plum as it is known in the Northern Territory) is a native superfood and staple bushfood for indigenous people across northern Australia. The health benefits from its high vitamin C content are becoming known in the health food industry.
Karkalla (also known as pig face) is abundant and native to coastal regions and is a very versatile product. Aboriginals traditionally ate its fruit fresh and dried, and paired the salty, fleshy leaves with meat.
The resort’s remote location has the potential to intensify the already stressful world of cheffing. Luke, a native of South Australia who trained in McLaren Vale, has a particular interest in drawing attention to the real world of the everyday chef, as opposed to the “celebrity” chef. He is writing a book and has a website and video diary, called The Everyday Chef, in which he highlights the challenges.
“I want to highlight the true highs and lows of being a chef, compared to the celebrity chefs we see on television and on social media who have the benefit of producers, editors and stylists to shape their image and their food.“I’m all about bringing light to the reality of the hospitality industry. Real cheffing is not like we see on reality tv. We love it but it comes with its passions and its darkness. I want to reach out to other chefs, and to people who are considering working in the industry, so we can talk about the real trials chefs face on a daily basis as well as the triumphs.“Everyday chefs can be inspired by what they see on TV and social media but it can also be unrealistic to emulate such creations when you consider the pressures and realities of the commercial kitchen. You might already be working 50-60 hours a week. This can lead to self-esteem issues because they think they can’t compete with the standard they see on social media.”
Luke trained in a traditional authoritarian kitchen, starting at just 14 years of age, but runs his own kitchen as more of a collaborative, creative environment.
“The buck stops with me but my people have input into what’s created so they have ownership.”
He’s a big believer in asking if people are okay, which is particularly important when most of the staff are a long way from home and loved ones. “A little bit of nurture goes a long way,” he says.
Luke talks openly about his own struggles including with alcohol, pointing out that chefs are surrounded by alcohol and also exposed to it at a young age if they start in the kitchen when they are just young teenagers.
Click here to listen to this episode.