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April 6, 2022

Forks in the Road

A career in food can mean so much more than simply becoming a chef, owner or manager. We look at six hospitality jobs that go beyond the expected. 

Words: Dani Valent,
Images: Kristoffer Paulsen, Andre Castellucci

Photo be Kristoffer Paulsen

So, you’re on a career path in hospitality. You learn to cook or carry three plates. Over time, you become proficient, developing leadership and management skills. Maybe one day you open a place of your own - and maybe another. It’s an honourable ambition and a reasonable trajectory, but it’s a little boxed in. Is it possible to find work-life balance, or financial security? 

In reality, there are hundreds of sideways steps, tangents and parallel paths, many of them offering good pay, consistent hours and stepped advancement.

"It’s an exciting sector and there are jobs that pay very well, and offer work-life balance with a chance to work in amazing places, meet extraordinary people and play a key role in creating unforgettable memories for guests,” says Nicholas Hunt, CEO at culinary college William Angliss. But what’s it really like to walk other roads? 

We spoke to six food and wine professionals who have taken different paths and found rich, rewarding and often unexpected careers. 

Photo by Andre Castellucci

Aged care

Kim Wisneski, Senior Chef Trainer for ACH Group

The fine dining chef who now cooks for elderly residents in aged care

Kim Wisneski oversees the food for 800 residents across eight aged care homes in Adelaide. She trained as a chef in New Zealand, and worked in fine dining restaurants and clubs in Australia, before moving to a role in kitchen equipment sales. Eight years ago, she pivoted to aged care.

“Ten years ago, when I was doing degustations and wine dinners, did I see myself training chefs in aged care? Absolutely not,” says Kim. “But I am so proud to be working in this industry.” The work is secure, the hours flexible, and there are no late nights “If you want to have a family and need that balance, aged care is where you have that opportunity. There’s no staying back. There’s no ‘the last table is still going’.’ That’s a big thing. It’s a slower pace and everyone is valued.” 

The work is more creative than many presume, partly because of the specialist needs of some residents, such as  softer ‘texture modified’ meals,  FODMAP or low sodium diets. “There’s a big stigma behind the texture modified meals,” says Kim. “It used to be three ice cream scoops on a plate. Now we use moulds so you can have a roasted chicken breast that looks very similar to a standard meal and the residents can enjoy it with dignity.” 

Ongoing connection with residents is very rewarding. “Food is the only thing some people look forward to in their day and you can see the difference you make,” she says. “I refined a sticky date pudding with caramel sauce, and you can see they are happy. It’s meaningful. In a restaurant, loyal customers might come back once a month but in residential you truly know these people, you learn about their likes and dislikes; it’s like cooking for someone in your home. Chefs tell me it’s like their nana, their nonna, giving that respect back.”

There hasn’t been much good news out of aged care recently, with a damning Royal Commission into standards and devastating Covid-19 outbreaks. “One silver lining with the limelight on aged care is that there is funding and a lot more opportunity for those who want to further their career,” says Kim. “Residential aged care sites are investing in great equipment and there’s a huge focus on food. There are endless possibilities.”

Photo by Andre Castellucci

Events and teaching

Emma McCaskill, food curator, Tasting Australia, and high school educator

The high-flying chef who works in events and education

Adelaide chef Emma McCaskill cooked at top restaurants including Tetsuya’s in Sydney, Restaurant Sat Bains in the UK and Narisawa in Japan. She also spent a year preparing food for Gourmet Traveller magazine’s photography. Back in South Australia, she relaunched a winery dining room in the Barossa Valley and owned her own restaurant in Adelaide, all part of a dynamic career that started when she was 16  but left her feeling drained two decades later. 

“I met the manager of a small hospitality school and he could see how burnt out I looked,” says Emma. “He knew I had two young girls, all these skills. He brought me in - it was luck and timing.” Emma completed a certificate course that enables her to teach commercial cookery as a trade to teenagers. As well as teaching her own classes at Adelaide Botanic High School, she works across 40 South Australian schools as a mentor for students that want to get into cooking. “It’s super rewarding and really good timing because there’s such a shortage of staff in hospitality,”

“Cooking hasn’t limited me to cooking and restaurants. There are so many other creative avenues.”

But that’s just Emma’s first full-time job. After working with South Australian food festival Tasting Australia for seven years, she’s taken on an ongoing role as food curator. “I liaise with all the chefs and I’m the conduit between chefs and local producers,” she explains. “If we have a chef coming from interstate and they want to use scallops or partridge, I can put forward amazing produce from Kangaroo Island, using the relationships I’ve nurtured in my years running restaurants. When we’re curating menus for each event, I’ll talk to the chefs about what they’re doing, balance it with what the other chefs are doing. It’s made me feel connected, I am still in the thick of it and that’s really important to me.” 

Emma is a huge advocate for the opportunities cooking can offer, so long as the foundations are strong: “Cooking hasn’t limited me to cooking and restaurants. There are so many other creative avenues.” 

Those opportunities  won’t just fall in your lap, though. “What I would say to those starting out is not to rush it,” she advises. “Take the first six to 10 years to get as many skills as you can. Hone your skills and the opportunities will open up. Don’t rush it and try to choose employers that will support you so that if you do want to have a family or study more, they will give you that flexibility.”

Photo by Kristoffer Paulsen

Catering chef

Asif Mamun, Executive Chef, Delaware North catering company

The catering chef who cooks 90,000 meals as though he’s cooking for one

Asif Mamun came to Melbourne from Bangladesh 20 years ago to study graphic design. He hacked away in his home kitchen in an attempt to feed himself but he wasn’t very skilled. “One day I burned boiled rice,” he says. “It was the worst day of my life.” Not long after, Asif walked into the wrong seminar at his college. “For the first five minutes I didn’t realise my mistake,” he says. “Then a chef started doing a demo and I was really blown away. I decided to stay there. I approached him afterwards and told him I was keen to learn. That’s how it all started.”

Asif powered through his studies and apprenticeship, moving into roles at Crown Melbourne in banqueting and events. He relished the broad opportunities to learn and grow, helping open restaurants, engineer menus, and assist at functions with guest chefs including Jamie Oliver and the Iron Chef crew. “When you are hungry, you want to eat,” he says. “Food is my passion, I saw how much knowledge I could get,” he says. “I was in the right time with the right people. I pushed myself, challenged myself, and saw that I could offer something too.” Cooking reeled him in, but Asif didn’t let go of his creative arts background. “I love colour, I paint on the plate with my food,” he says.

In 2011, Asif joined multinational hospitality company Delaware North, which runs the food and beverage offerings at venues including Melbourne Park, the MCG, Marvel Stadium and Melbourne Airport. His first role was executive sous chef; he’s now executive chef, with a focus on quality at scale. “If you can do one meal, you can do 90,000,” he says. “My vision is to transport a stadium into a restaurant.” 

Running the food program at events like the Australian Open is a particular thrill. “This year we had 750 tennis players and their entourages and overall we served 100,000 meals,” he says. “When a player stops me and says how good the pasta or the sushi is, then I go home happy. It’s not wide recognition, but it’s deeply satisfying. Food is an industry you can enjoy in so many different ways. And you can connect: you can be honest and genuine and please people with your work every day.”

Photo by Andre Castellucci

Wine guy

Banjo Harris Plane, Good Pair Days

The highly qualified sommelier selling wine via algorithm

Banjo Harris Plane grew up in a restaurant family, so it wasn’t much of a surprise when the pull of hospitality was stronger than the lure of university. He worked in London, Sydney and Adelaide restaurants, picking up skills and experience and a particular interest in wine at venues including Bentley Bar, Universal, Quay and Est. “I wouldn’t say I was massively ambitious, but I wanted to know more about restaurants, wine, different styles of hospitality,” he says. “I was always looking to take on more responsibility and learn more.” 

In 2011, he became restaurant manager and head sommelier at Attica in Melbourne, which was soon to receive its third Good Food Guide hat. “There was a drive to be the best restaurant we could be, and I was given a lot of creative freedom,” he says. “I wrote a wine list I really believed in.” Along the way he visited wineries in Europe, studied in the Court of Master Sommeliers and, in 2015, launched a small wine importing business. “We weren’t commercially savvy, we muddled our way through and we didn’t really make any money, but it was great,” he says. “It taught me a lot.”

Doing his own thing sparked more ventures. One was Grow Assembly, a series of hospitality events designed to inspire, educate and foster community. Another was Good Pair Days, a wine subscription business. His first restaurant as co-owner was Bar Liberty, which he opened with partners in 2017, and another restaurant, Capitano, followed. “There were some long days,” he says. “I was waking up early, working on Good Pair days, jumping to Bar Liberty to do a briefing and wine list, go to Capitano, keep the wine importing business going - and we had a baby…”

Something had to give. Banjo sold his share in the restaurants and import business and the young family moved to Adelaide where Good Pair Days became his sole focus. “We are an online wine retail business that puts education and consumer understanding at the heart of what we do,” he explains. “The way we sell wine is a bit different. People don’t necessarily know what they want so we ask them a series of questions to determine their initial likes and dislikes, then we algorithmically make recommendations depending on those answers. If they buy wines we get them to rate them out of five and then we use that to build a palate profile of each individual. It’s pretty special and it’s unique in Australia.”

Good Pair Days has 60 employees, 35,000 subscribers and sold over 1 million bottles of wine in 2021. “It’s growing quickly, it’s a really exciting challenge,” says Banjo. “Hospitality people often don’t realise the skills they have. Opening Bar Liberty saw me wear the hat of HR manager, business planning, business development, finance, marketing, translator, conflict resolution specialist. You need to have an innate sense of empathy, a skill in making people happy, you need to multitask efficiently and effectively, and your head has to be in five spots at once. I have people working underneath me with two or three degrees and a professional background, but I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”

“Opening restaurants in Melbourne was a real source of pride,” he says. “But I see the upside of what I’m doing now in terms of spending a lot more time with my family. It’s not where I thought I’d end up but it’s good and I can use the skills I learnt in restaurants.” So, what about the future? “In a perfect dream world, in five to 10 years’ time, someone would offer to buy the business and I would take the money and open a restaurant and maybe a vineyard as well. I’m still a restaurant tragic.”

Photo be Kristoffer Paulsen

Charity kitchen

Arnel Quinoneza, FareShare chef

The ex-restaurant chef who cooks for meaning, not ego

Arnel Quinoneza was working as a chef at caterer Peter Rowland when the company took their team for a corporate volunteering shift at FareShare. The charity kitchen uses donated and rescued food plus produce it grows on city farms, then uses a mostly volunteer workforce to cook it into food for the needy. “My eyes were opened,” he says. “I was so used to cooking with the goal of making a profit that the concept of FareShare seemed out of this world. It’s a different mindset - it’s totally refreshing. From that moment I knew I wanted to be part of it, so I signed up as a volunteer and from then even at my busiest - working 60-70 hrs a week - I volunteered once a week.”

The pandemic hit six years later, when Arnel was head chef at a cafe. His shifts were cut to two days a week and Arnel left to seek more stable work with no success. “I was going to quit being a chef  altogether,” he says.

Thinking he could at least step up his volunteer shifts at FareShare, Arnel was thrilled to be offered a job in the Melbourne kitchen. It changed everything for him: “In the past, profit was success. Here, collaboration, community and getting the job done is success.” 

“I would encourage any chef to get as much experience as you can while also broadening your mind to options that might seem left of field.”

There’s also a lot of creativity because ingredients vary from day to day. “We might have lots of spring onions arrive, so we have to come up with things to do with it,” he says. “Last week we had half a pallet of basil, so we made pestos and salsa verdes that were incorporated into pasta and casseroles.” On the other hand, he can’t get carried away with overpowering flavours or cheffy flourishes. “It’s a bigger purpose than feeding our egos,” he says. “As chefs, we are used to ‘this is my food, this is how you do it’. That’s not the case here. It’s not for myself, it’s for meaning and greater purpose.”

Two years ago, he was on the verge of quitting the industry. Now, his attitude has changed. “I would encourage any chef to get as much experience as you can while also broadening your mind to options that might seem left-of-field. There are so many different avenues for chefs. Try volunteering at a charity, nursing home or any other community group. Cooking for a need is a very valuable learning.”

Photo by Kristoffer Paulsen

School teacher

Sarah Maric, VET Kitchen Operations Teacher

Making a difference in the lives of disadvantaged children

After a varied career that included being a personal cook for the Governor of Jersey in the Channel Islands, cheffing at resorts and clubs, and catering for the Commonwealth Games, the idea of working with children popped into Sarah Maric’s mind. She retrained as a teacher and parlayed her chef skills into a role in high schools. She’s working now at Copperfield College in Delahey in Melbourne’s outer western suburbs, teaching cooking to high school kids who often haven’t had many advantages in life.

The Vocational Education and Training (VET) courses run alongside the standard secondary school curriculum, giving students a head start in trades. Sarah finds it enormously satisfying. “You can make a difference in their lives,” she says. “In some ways, teaching is the same as being in the kitchen. Being a chef is quite altruistic: you give something of yourself every time you plate up a dish. Working with young people, you have to put in a lot of energy, passion and enthusiasm or you can’t engage them. You have to give a bit of yourself every day. You get a lot back as well. It keeps you engaged.”

Sarah loves using her industry connections to inspire her students. “A lot of these young people have never been to a quality restaurant or venue in the city. I’ve arranged placements for them in nurturing environments so they get in-depth experience of what the industry can be. They are so excited. They get incredible energy from being in a real-world kitchen.”

Her own varied experience is an advertisement for hospitality in itself. “The industry is hugely diverse, you can work anywhere in the world and there are so many pathways,” she says. “I tell the kids, ‘keep your mind open, see what’s around you and don’t be scared to challenge yourself and take the leap’.”

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