Dylan Turnbull, a chef originally from the Hunter Valley, and now in Connecticut, in the USA, generously shares his story. And it began with old knives. Dylan has a passion for hand-made, well-used and loved knives. Each one comes with a story or twenty, and Dylan takes his role as custodian seriously. Not a bad passion to have, for a chef. Enjoy his journey, in his words.
“I fell for old knives long before I stepped foot into a commercial kitchen.
Maori believe you imbue objects with your soul when you use them. So, I was raised to have respect for the old and well-worn tools that get handed down.
Then when I started working in kitchens, the culture was very backwards looking, things were harder, supposedly it was more glorious in the past. And most chefs have a sacred blade. One from their early apprenticeship, usually acting as a fillet knife, after years of sharpening, which they guard with a jealous love.
I worked for a nasty piece of work (older chef) who destroyed my first knife kit in my first year as an apprentice, which forced me to replace my kit piecemeal with the knives I could afford. So I wandered off to the internet and began researching knives.
Old carbon steel knives tend to be higher quality than new stainless and F. Dick knives tend to be quite common. My favourite? It’s my unmarked Grand Culinaire, she is an Empress of the kitchen: she sports a 14 ½ inch blade with the last six inches being more flexible then most fillet knives; a French heel and an ebony handle all weighing less than a new 8 inch Culinaire Ordinaire.
I got her for a song as a previous owner had used her as a screw driver and snapped a 7mm deep, 30mm wide chunk out of the blade near the heel. I had her reground and she is the most beautiful knife I have ever held, beating out a 1903 E. Wustof Grand which broke my heart once.
So that’s my ode to my knives. As for my journey as a chef, I can’t really distill it down to a neat little anecdote about Nan’s cooking, or pleasant family dinners etc. I come from the Hunter Valley, in New South Wales, Australia, at a time when BHP was dying a slow death but before the wine industry got serious.
There wasn’t a lot of work around and I fell into dishwashing then working in a hospital kitchen. I cooked at home from scratch as it was/is cheaper than buying prepared food. I read about food culture as the girl I dated at the time had some very ignorant half formed ideas about food and I needed a relief from being badgered about my weight!
Being of Polynesian stock I gain weight easily regardless of fat or muscle, not an excuse but she cut me deep with arguments about the healthiness of fruit and seafood, which are my two favourite foods. Which segues nicely into my hardest time as a Chef.
I was an apprentice working long hours and enduring an abusive Chef. I had broken up with my girlfriend, but still loved her with every beat of my heart and I tried to plate every dish like it was my one shot at trying win her back, because I am an idiot. “(From Chrissie: No you’re not, Dylan, what a wonderful, passionate man!)
“Needless to say, she told me I never had a chance, but I stuck it out, battled a serious drinking problem and eventually we ended up speaking again. I had used my emotional pain to become good, driving myself with pain, constantly feeling like I was Sisyphus.” (Pushing a huge boulder up hill – just fyi for those who don’t know the legend)
Then one conversation we had, I mentioned I had a respectable skill set and she told me “Of course you (I) do (did)” like I had been handed my knowledge on a plate. We had a massive fight and I haven’t spoken to her since. It hurt because it meant I sacrificed everything I once wanted more than my next breath (her) to feed the demon that drives me. And it scares me for the future, because I know which part of me is the strongest and it isn’t the part I like.
But the demon has brought rewards, I have cooked for Prime Ministers, billionaires and Buzz Aldrin (which is my career highlight, screw three Michelin Stars, I have cooked for one of the greatest human beings to have lived). And I still enjoy busting out good food under pressure.
I also have learnt older techniques from haute cookbooks, dabbled with old beer brewing recipes and started to find my voice as a Chef. The road is long and I will never see its end but the views are unnervingly beautiful and private as only subjective experiences can be. I, mean, how do you have a casual conversation about a cake baked using the oldest chocolate cake recipe known or dispassionately discuss a 400 year-old mead recipe?
The one thing I would change about the industry is the rate of pay. I have had to leave three cities because I can’t pay rent and I am currently having to live with my in laws (who are great people) because this job doesn’t pay the rent. And that is bullshit.
I don’t think it’s a matter of paying one’s dues or other nonsense. I’ve seen the new Mercedes that an owner will buy the day after telling me money is too tight for a cost of living pay rise. And I have seen the money a server makes on a Friday night, usually twice my weekly earnings, for carrying a plate 5m.
I personally feel the solution is a no tip policy. But customers here in the USA don’t like that and even in Australia historically low wages are still paid to BOH. (Back of House) The industry needs to grow up and stop burning down the next generation and old, well off people need to own the problems of stagnant wages which fund their lifestyle.
It seems to me that my generation is being held in slavery by the boomers just so they can have an “acceptable” lifestyle.
And my advice to a young chef is never work for free. The Stage* system needs to be destroyed. El Bulli was able to be run at a profit at the expense of the majority of its workforce. Which lowers overheads and prices and that flows down to every level.
There is no need to pay living wages in the middle if the high end of town doesn’t pay you at all – (experience is nice, but my phone company, bank and rent can’t be paid with it) which in turns locks the working class out of true fine dining, because you have to be quite well off to afford 6 months of unpaid work.
Now? I’m in Connecticut. I had an American girlfriend who I wanted to see after a year apart, she was in Seattle. And I thought Vancouver was just as interesting as Europe, as I wanted to cook in the great cities. Well, I now have an American wife and I haven’t worked in Vancouver. It’s funny how things turn out when you are trying to make things happen.”
Thank you Dylan, for your incredible honesty and openness in sharing your story, and your wishes for the industry you’re such an important part of. Do you agree with Dylan? I for one would love to see the bloody stage system burn in hell!
Dylan’s dishes are: The first plate is an heirloom tomato fine tart with frise salad dressed with Verjus Blanc and Almond oil;
The second is a Tart du Porc, classical French suet pastry filled with confit pork and a pork jus served with chervil salt and a bitter leaf salad dressed with macadamia oil and whisky.
* The Stage system is very like the intern system but for chefs. Ambitious chefs get to work in the top restaurants around the world just so they can put the restaurant names on their resumés. “Oh, yes, I worked for Heston at Fat Duck etc. etc.” Trouble is, it doesn’t mean they were hired for a proper job, and often they are used as cannon fodder in the kitchen while the celebrities take all the money and credit. It’s a two edged sword, and I’m not a fan of anyone working for nothing, and it’s created a very dangerous precedent in the industry where use and abuse are rife. I’d like to see it go.