Ross Hardman begins with a riveting story. He was young, 14 actually, and his first night involved a skewering. Of a chef, who was the meat.
What next? Well, some wild times behind the pass, a pistol, a battle with illness, and now, working for the industry, once removed. But I’ll let Ross tell the kitchen tales:
“It was the 80s and my first day of work experience at 14, at the Menzies Hotel where I was the new kitchen hand. The butcher had put skewers in the sink, and the dish pig, who must have pricked his hand, just reached in to the dirty water, picked them up, and walked over to the butcher and stuck them in the butcher’s chest. He skewered this guy, who sort of gasped and fell to the ground. But without a word.
No one said a word! It was bizarre! In the middle of service – as the butcher lay on the floor gasping, the attitude was, ‘Get up! What are you doing mate? It’s only a few skewers…’
And at the close of service, at 14 I was out drinking with the team – at all the bars at Wynyard Station, and no one still said a word.”
Ross Hardman is reminiscing and he’s busy, busy working still in an industry he loves, and busy giving back. While his main job is, as he describes it, selling ‘big boys’ toys’ – at Illawarra Catering Equipment across NSW and Wollongong – he still has a consultancy business and mentors young chefs when he can.
Illawarra gives him the opportunity to meet with clients on site and rapidly identify what they need and haven’t got – but he’s also on the committee and board of Technical Chef, a group that’s trying to raise the conditions for chefs around Australia.
Even though Ross no longer works behind the pass, a lifetime of experience doing just that is a perfect skill set for what he does now. Illawarra runs small lecture programs for hospitality businesses to keep them up to speed with the latest trends and equipment – and Ross gives their clients help and evaluates their businesses. For him, it’s a perfect fit.
But where did Ross’ career and his kitchen tales begin? He laughs at the vivid memory that comes clanking down into his brain. “I’m 8, in Cubs, and one of the badges was gardening, so I grew some vegetables and one of those was broad beans – but I had no idea what to do with them.
Dad said, ‘Son do a cooking badge. That’ll teach you what to do with those beans.’ So I did and smashed it, loved it more than anything I’d done in my short life, and decided then and there that I was going to be a chef.
I did home economics with all the girls in school while my mates were doing woodwork and metalwork. While they teased me about doing ‘girls stuff’, I laughed at them slogging away with sawdust and metal filings in their faces while I got to flirt with the girls and eat great food. I saw them as the losers!
I finished school early and got a job at 14 at Caruso’s Pizza being a dish pig, then Homestead Chicken, until I got a pre-apprenticeship course at TAFE at East Sydney. I had an amazing mentor in Les Gyorfie, and then Henry Zickerman – these guys were all amazing industry leaders – and then the big employers Nationwide, Summit, Centrepoint Tavern etc. came in interviewed us – I got home to 4 offers and had to make a decision. Quickly.
That was hard, as I didn’t have anyone to discuss that with. So I went with my gut and picked Nationwide (now Spotless). This was my first big boys’ job and I threw myself into it. They had so many incredible sites across the city – from boardrooms to staff dining to fine dining. There was huge function work. There were over 60 apprentices in the company and we’d compete at TAFE over a weekend – I got my love of competitions from that. I got an award for best fruit and vegetables and I was stoked. It was daunting as a 15 year old, and being judged by my peers was huge.
Then a job came up 10 doors away from home – The Sutherland District Trade Union Club – which is still there and bigger than ever – and it was and is now a massive organisation. That place gave me huge function experience, we had a full à la carte restaurant with a complete brigade: 6 apprentices, 8 chefs, and function chefs as well. That was amazing and my real grounding in the industry – even to learning good customer skills and how to communicate. I got very good at reading body language of customers while I stood on the buffet, carving meat or serving vegetables.
When I finished my apprenticeship in 1987, I went to Expo 88, where I loved the buzz and busy vibe of the whole Expo party. While I was there, I was offered a job through Hilton Hotels in Lae, Papua New Guinea so I flew up and was promptly issued with a .38 calibre pistol but no holster with, “Stick that in your pocket son and you’ll be right.” Haaa. Every boy’s dream right? Playing with a gun! But this was no toy. I had an assistant, my ‘local thug’, who’d bash staff if they weren’t paying attention. Seemed a tough way to deal with staff, but they took it as if it was a natural thing to do.
The whole kitchen was made up of locals except for a couple of expat Aussies and an American at the top. We lived in a compound for 3 months, and then I decided to leave – I was too young at 20 to cope with the crazy culture there and the simmering pot of problems that was always in the background.
So I came back to Sydney, and registered for agency work and fell into a job at the Department of Defence, working as a civilian chef in the army in the School of Military Engineering, running the officers’ mess and sergeants’ mess. I loved it. It was so different to anything I’d ever done before – in the officers’ mess we had no budget so we could cook what we liked!!! The Sergeant’s mess had a budget but wasn’t strictly adhered to.
The Officers’ Mess was crazy at times – working with top notch chefs, I did trips with them working out of a mobile field kitchen, swapping 7 day ration packs for fresh seafood from trawlers. That made me popular and so we were all happy!
From the army I decided it was time to do my own thing, so I opened Thursday’s Restaurant in Miranda – loosely based on TGI Friday’s – I had that with partners for almost 6 years and it left me exhausted.
But it was a great learning experience, so we sold up and I went back to agency work that I loved – the variety, the challenges, meeting new people and making new friends. It was during this time that I was teaching casually at TAFE for 3 years.
Being back in the game and that agency work picked up my skill level – it creates excitement and variety that I love so through the early 90s I worked all over, and another opportunity landed in my lap so I entered club catering – started with one club contract ended up with 4, and even with 103 staff, I still tried to be hands on as much as I could.
If I could pass on some wonderful wisdom from my dad here I’d like to. Dad always taught me, “Son surround yourself with the best people you can – people who are smarter than you. Learn from them and thank them.”
Dad was Managing Director of St. George Building Society, and he was a smart man and taught me heaps. “Don’t sign the catering contract personally, sign it as the business,” was some of the best business advice I was given. With the catering contracts, I sold the business later and at first my clients weren’t happy with that – they had come to see me and the business as one, but I made sure I sold to someone who knew the business and would do it proud. And I guess that then led me to my consultancy business.
I ended up working for Sodexo and then the School of Military Engineering again, where they had a huge contract, and it was here I learnt a lot, and a big focus was loads of training – I guess that comes from the army, where most of their lives soldiers spend training for something. I found it different working for the contractor than directly for defence – I ended up being a mess manager. And you know? A memory that’s etched into my brain is when I watched the guys who were part of the commandos – boy, they were an amazing group of guys and girls – we were there during the Villawood Detention Centre riots. A signal came through: ‘You have 3 hours to prepare for 440 detainees!’ Well, 3 hours later, a compound was built, razor wire was up, and buildings, toilets, rations, facilities were suddenly all ready to keep these guys for 4 weeks.
It was the most incredible example of perfect team work I’ve ever seen – everyone worked together – no one argued, and I was ordering from my suppliers at 3.30pm Friday afternoon. Well, they weren’t happy, but I had to remind them that they had a contract to supply, and they damn well better honour it!
I fell into a job as head chef at St. George Leagues, and I had 2 years there again, leading the team this time. You know, times change, but by that time it was all about the poker machines, and I made a big difference to the culture of the kitchen while I was there. I’m proud of that, and it wasn’t easy – half the staff had been there for 20 years and some chefs for 40!
Going into all that, I probably need to mention that at 21 I was diagnosed with Chrohn’s disease and for that the worst thing is stress – my medical people advised me to stop, which I ignored. So physically that is still taking its toll – mentally as well – I’ve had 40 hospitalisations but still kept a career and most people wouldn’t know – there were times I would lock myself in the freezer and scream with agony, then stand up, breathe deep and head back into the kitchen.
I still love the industry, and will always love it and will have my hand in it till I die.
Dad introduced me to a Friendly Society board, with huge assets, and I ended up as Chairman of the Board, on the finance and investment committee, and guest speaking for Probus clubs, or Rotary.
I left St. George’s to become executive chef for Westpac and St. George in Kent Street, city with over 4,000 people to cater for. The kitchen was on Level 32 looking out over Darling Harbour and I loved that view. With the bank, I was back into coordinating massive functions again – running 80 – 120 functions a day was common.
We also did a heap of off site catering – we took over car lots for a function catering to nearly 1,000 people spread through a car yard. It was crazy, but I loved working with the logistics of big functions and the adrenalin of the pressure.
Then I saw an opportunity and opened my own café in Kirrawee – I could see it was the right place at the right time. It was a lucky break when a shop became vacant and I signed up in 3 days – I negotiated the whole thing – and renovated, getting council approvals. That was crazy busy but my intuition was spot on, and it went off!
We ploughed through 84 kg of coffee in the first week then 120 kg a week from then on – there were 20 – 30 people queued every morning. The pressure never let up, and we took it as far as we could until I felt it was time to sell and take a big profit – and that business sold in 4 days for the money I wanted.
The business set me up financially and an old friend of mine – Carl Jensen, who owns 2 restaurants, including Summer Salt in Cronulla – Prince Harry’s go to when he’s in Sydney – opened another place – I have so much respect for Carl – and he gave me a job and just let me do what I wanted. It was just as a chef and allowed me to go back into the ranks, back to absolute basics and have a great time. I left that to take up my job with Illawarra, but I loved working for Carl so much I kept up the connection, and sometimes still work with him, like “Can I come and play?”
My wife and I sold up our Sydney family home and went down to the ‘Gong – our kids had grown up and moved out – and we love where we are. It’s a really laid back culture, with good coffee, good food and good people. And so now? I still do bits of consultancy and working for Illawarra is a dream job for me. I don’t see it as sales, but finding solutions for people and the sales follow. I can see things before they happen, seeing a better way, circumvent so many issues. With our clients it’s a long term relationship and it’s consultative. I’m meeting true captains of industry, Managing Directors of huge brands and I’ve got their number. And I listen more than I talk.
I’m desperate to see the industry get back that TAFE training model that produced the world’s best – but from where it is now, with all the funding cuts, it’s got a long way to go. That is what I see as the biggest tragedy that’s happened in my lifetime.
I’m mentoring a young fella and he’s having the time of his life. He’s a really good chef, but he lacked the financials, costings and HR side, so I ushered him through that. This industry has always provided for me. There’ve been highs and lows and tears and laughter and everything in between.
I can honestly say I’ve had an amazing life and I’m looking forward to the rest of it – bring it on. It’s good now, but it can be so much better.”
Wow! Ross hits those brick walls and just gets right back on up and keeps going. And his attitude is something I find incredibly positive, what a credit to the industry he’s been, and will always be. He’s in there with guns blazing. Thank you so much Ross.