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May 11, 2023

Q&A with Stephen Nairn

Chef Stephen Nairn’s resume includes stints at Eleven Madison Park, Vue du Monde and Matilda. Now he’s bringing his wealth of experience and knowledge to his role as Culinary Director of Omnia and award-winning Yugen which opened in October 2022. 

He shared with us his insights on how he balances his culinary vision with guest expectations, the impact of space and design on concept development, and the importance of letting your team shine.

Words: Deborah Monrad-Hunt
Illustration: Evie Cahir

Yugen was recently awarded two hats which inevitably brings in a wide variety of guests with differing expectations. How do you balance that with your culinary vision? Do you feel pressured by the culture of food trends and serving Instagram-friendly dishes?

I don’t personally feel any pressure whatsoever when it comes to Instagram trends because I understand that people love that but I choose not to look at it. You know, everyone loves taking a photo but if a trend doesn’t fit with the genre of what I’m doing then there’s no way I’m doing it.

Obviously, feedback is a difficult thing to reconcile with as a chef. For young chefs, you have to understand your data. If you do 30 covers a night at a tasting menu joint that’s really expensive, you’re not going to get a lot of feedback because they’ve spent a lot of money. But if you’re doing 200 covers a night then you’re going to get smoked on Google reviews. That’s something you need to accept from day one. You can’t piss and moan, you have to play the game. You need to be able to have a strong filter and take it on the chin. That’s a necessary evil.

I’m more focused on, instead of letting people’s opinions influence the work, letting the work speak for itself. I try to stay in the realm of “Is this a good experience?”I knew that some critics wouldn’t like our venue right off the bat but then I can use my culinary and hospitality scopes to try to deliver a really consistent product where you can maybe say, I don’t like the other stuff but what’s on the plate? You can’t really argue with that. You may get feedback that really destroys your confidence, but you have to get past that if you’re going to have any longevity in this career. You have to accept that what you’re doing is not for everyone.

In saying that, if someone says a dish is disgusting, and you hear that 20 times, the dish is probably disgusting.

In saying that, if someone says a dish is disgusting, and you hear that 20 times, the dish is probably disgusting. If I’m getting a lot of feedback that a dish is too salty, I’m taking that deadly seriously. I’m checking the recipe, I’m looking at what they’re drinking when they say this, what did they have before and after; I’m analysing all of it. But if it’s something like a green Sichuan-crusted lamb rib and the complaint is that it’s numbing and it makes their mouth tingle, then yeah that’s the properties of green Sichuan. You can’t approach that arrogantly and say it’s because that person doesn’t have a clue. It’s an opportunity for me to ask my team, “Ok, are we communicating with the guests?” That’s the skill of the art of the table. You don’t want to profile people, but it is about reading people and approaching it in a tactful way.

It’s a balancing act and there are ways to develop and improve. If it’s just about aesthetics, then how I style my house is not the same as your – it doesn’t mean it’s a shithole. You might drive a Ford Mustang and I might drive a Tesla, but I don’t think you’re a bad person because you like petrol cars. You have to understand it’s just an opinion and I try to not get distracted by that. There’s no denying that when you’re reading bad feedback it’s hurtful, but if you’re pushing yourself to the absolute limit of your culinary ability as a head chef, you’re going to have to develop the skill set to deal with that embarrassment and the confidence knock so you can turn around and continue to inspire your team.

Can you talk a little bit about your kitchen team and how you rely on them to create dishes that align with your culinary goals while still remaining culturally appropriate?

It’s just pure collaboration. When you get to an executive chef or culinary director level, the most important thing is that you need to be comfortable giving other people a platform. I want my team to succeed even more than myself, because if they’re killing it then I’m killing it. You need to be comfortable allowing other people to have creative control because they know the realm of what we’re trying to achieve.

With Yugen, I knew we were going to have a sushi element and I knew I wanted an omakase. I have known Alex Yu for a long time so I knew it was a no brainer to get him in to do his own omakase. He’s the number one guy and it’s his thing, so my input is more about guest experience and helping him to bridge that gap. Whether it be from interacting with them during the reservation process, to what the fabric is of the chair, these are all factors that do play a part in the outcome, and are where I can provide guidance.

You need to be comfortable allowing other people to have creative control because they know the realm of what we’re trying to achieve.

Then when it comes to actually constructing a menu, where my skill set comes in is as a source for the products. That’s a hugely underestimated thing within kitchens. Do you have relationships with suppliers? Do you know how to negotiate? Are you forecasting against the seasons? I’ll bring in this produce, mud crabs or different varieties of fish, interesting cuts of meat, and bring them back to the kitchen and say, “Hey guys, what do you think about this?”

I will then try and draw out inspiration, which is all part of building the chefs’ character and confidence. My kitchen team have a variety of backgrounds so it’s about harnessing that, getting them involved in finding the best solution and the best use for a product. And then we’ll start to try and mould it into something that becomes a Yugen-style dish.

I’m not a specialist in Asian cuisine, that’s why I have my team that I put ahead of myself on these things. It’s about conversation and collaboration where no one is scared to give their opinion. I’ve got to respectfully pay homage to their skill set and where they come from. I’ll see a dish from their childhood and then we work together to bridge the gap between that and how we’d maybe serve it in this kind of restaurant. That way, they can see the link between the original idea and how a dish is formed. For me, it’s always just purely about flavour. So we take this and refine, refine, refine until it’s ready for our menu, but it’s their idea. I’m teaching them these skills to articulate and communicate a dish effectively, so we’ve done it together but it’s still theirs.

My kitchen team have a variety of backgrounds so it’s about harnessing that, getting them involved in finding the best solution and the best use for a product.

I don’t think I’m above my team when we’re cooking, I’m not saying, “I’m the boss.” It’s about keeping us on track and keeping the boat moving when the big problems come. I’m providing the other layers that they just haven’t had the culinary exposure to, but the cultural references are coming from their heart and soul.

Yugen is undoubtedly a beautifully-designed venue. How much did the space inform your initial concept?

Massively. When we first started this process, I was just going to do what I’d done previously which was a fine dining, tasting menu place between 50–60 seats. I knew Omnia was going to be a bistro or brasserie that was fun and energetic, all about guests just enjoying themselves, but the basement space where Yugen is now was just crying out for an amazing restaurant. We already had an idea of what that could be but then through some sort of architectural magic we were able to add in a mezzanine which I immediately knew should be an omakase. From there, it started to fall into place where I knew we could get in a super skilled sushi team to run the program downstairs and provide not two different experiences but two different offerings.

You’ve got to the find people who have the skill set and patience to take on a mammoth venue, who are going to see it as a great opportunity.

How it works for me is that I started with the structure of what we’re going to try and serve in the restaurant and who are our guests. What’s the mood? What beverage am I serving? Is it a lunch offering or is this a night-time joint? What’s the atmosphere? What’s the lighting going to be like? All these elements are big factors before you can even get to creating a menu. The actual physical space and design absolutely affected everything. Even from having really tall ceilings so we could put in a big bar which gives us the opportunity to use our late license and start thinking about expanding our drinks program and catering to more of a boozy crowd. 

Questions like: how many steps are there? How do we communicate from the entrance to the ground level? How does the kitchen get food to the table? Those questions all keep you up at night. You realise it’s a massive project and it even affects recruitment. You’ve got to the find people who have the skill set and patience to take on a mammoth venue, who are going to see it as a great opportunity.

The shape, the elevation, the capacity – these all feed into the offering which in turn feeds into the mechanics of the business.

What’s one thing you wish you’d known before starting this project? What advice can you give now after this experience?

There’s absolutely no underestimating the pressure I was under for this. This was something completely out of my comfort zone. Opening a restaurant is really challenging, especially when you’re opening something that’s not your natural skill set that is going to have a big media spotlight on it.

It’s not an easy job and you’ll be tested to your absolute limits.

If you’re cheating on the work that you’re putting in, you’re going down. You’ve got to put in the hard yards and you’ve really got to be completely humble in terms of “I am not the star here.” You’ve got to put your trust in other people, talk to them and listen to their advice.

If you’re not doing your homework, then it’s going to be really difficult for you to succeed. It’s not an easy job and you’ll be tested to your absolute limits. In a nutshell, the best advice is to do your research. You need to accept the responsibility and understand that it’s all encompassing. 

It’s the attention to all the details. If you don’t understand how your guests get in and out of the building, that’s a problem. If you’ve got wobbly table, that’s a problem. If you’ve got a dish that takes 35 minutes to get to the table and you go home thinking that overnight that’s somehow going to get to eight minutes when the restaurant is pumping, you’re going to be in trouble. You need to deal with that then and there as a leader, not expect someone else is going to fix it. It’s about addressing problems with a sense of urgency, making those changes quickly by analysing the situation. Start thinking about how you’re going to refine set up, consolidate everything, reorganise your fridges, change the temperature on your grill. You need to be doing this level of work and then you need to be comfortable carrying it out. I always tell my senior chefs that there is no tomorrow and that’s because tomorrow has seven new problems.

The other piece of advice is that once you’ve gotten through the initial phase, then stick to the goddamn plan. Don’t let someone come in at the eleventh hour and start rocking the boat. If you’re following your chute, you fought hard but you still went down, there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you do all that bloody work prior, you’re fighting for every decision made, you’re stressed and exhausted and vulnerable, and then you get rocked by someone who’s got no idea what they’re talking about, then that’s going to be a big problem. That’s when everything is going to unravel.  When the plan is set and agreed upon, I’m not deviating from that one iota. You have to be prepared and have the courage of your convictions because once the lights go on, the other stuff has to be tucked away so you have the mental space to deal with what’s next. Keep running, stick to the plan, keep backing your team and pushing yourself.

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