We catch up with Chef Amy Hamilton and get her take on the future of the industry
1. Can you tell us about your current role?
I am the owner, director and head chef of Libertè and have been for the past five years.
2. What has been some of the highlights of this position?
Since I've been open, seeing my team learn and grow in the business is a real highlight for me. Also, seeing myself growing and managing certain areas of the business better, as that's always been a long term goal of mine. I've never wanted to be a good chef in a badly run business. I'd rather be a good chef in a well run business, but that's definitely been a journey and takes time.
Another highlight is seeing the community get behind what we're doing. We're a small town of about 45,000 people and when I moved here 10 years ago, there was quite a lot of resistance to the kind of food that I wanted to do but when I opened Libertè it was almost like because I was doing the food I really wanted to do, and because we all believed in the concept so much, it was easier for other people to get on board and I've been really proud - and thankful! - of how the community have supported us. It's good because the more regional dining spaces, the better.
3. Can you tell us a bit about your career before this current position?
My cooking career started in 2001. I was a visual art student and I naively applied for a dishy job at Must Winebar. I soon fell in love with hospitality and put my degree on the back burner to start as an apprentice under Russell Blaikie. I later worked under Riccardo Momesso in Melbourne before heading home again to WA, working as a private chef to people like Lady Gaga and Michelin starred chef, Shane Osborn.
I bought Liberté in 2014.
4. What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the industry at the moment?
I think one of the biggest problems is not addressing the mental health issues that exist in our industry. We're applying too many band-aid solutions and losing too many good people to stress and worse. For example, look at the long, anti-social hours within our industry. Every chef knows that you work when everyone else plays but that causes a lot of isolation and for a long time chefs were just expected to give up their family, give up their friends, give up their social life and commit to cheffing. I just don't think that's healthy.
I also think that a fear driven landscape in kitchens is changing and you can command respect from your team and have a dedicated team who will be there when you need them without instilling that fear or creating dangerous situations where people's mental health and resilience is at risk. There's no longevity or respect in fear based kitchens and there are some really progressive chefs out there, people like Ben Shewry, who are trialling 4 days on / 3 days off to allow people downtime to recover, to flourish, to thrive. Looking at my own team, I try to roster alternate weekends for everyone - even the young apprentices, who are traditionally the least expensive chefs to have in your business. Allowing them to have a Saturday off every fortnight is a small thing I can do so that they can go out and establish those social interactions that they need at that age, those really important connections that are pivotal when you're a young adult. It's just one thing that I can do to create an environment that's more positive for my team's wellbeing. It's all changing but we still have a way to go.
Another challenge I see in the industry, and perhaps it's a generational thing, is an attitude shift to one of self-entitlement. After being a chef for 15 years I don't feel it's come from a lack of discipline in kitchens but it's quite hard at times. Sometimes staff seem to think they're above doing something, that a part of the job is below them. That doesn't really work because for all the modern changes that we make to our businesses, kitchens do still run most effectively when you follow certain hierarchies and structures and an extreme sense of order. It doesn't work if everyone's not a team player and willing to do whatever is required to get the job done, regardless of what position they're in. Particularly when you're starting out, there are things that you have to do in order to progress up that ladder to where you're the head chef or the owner or whatever your aspirations might be, so there's no room for feeling that something's beneath you.
5. What do you see as a possible solution to the growing shortage of chefs?
A few things come to mind. Firstly, create a working environment that is supportive, non-judgemental and safe. Chefs are expected to burn the candle at both ends and we have a duty of care as employers to be observant of destructive behaviours, such as addiction, that are quite rife in our industry. Empowering your people to come to you if they need help is just as important as you checking that they're okay. For too long the toxic competitiveness of old, where success was driven by ego, pushed chefs to work 90 hours a week and survive on a few hours' sleep to outdo each other. It's time to drive that out of our industry.
Secondly, support women in kitchens, particularly those returning from motherhood. There's a massive gap around accommodating mothers in kitchens - if they love cooking and you love them being in your kitchen, keep them! It seems a lot of mothers drop off from the industry because few employers make room for them.
Finally, rethink the way we go about education. Create a course structure that suit all types of learning - a balance of theory and practical skills is so much better than someone who has read every book and knows theoretically how to do something but then you put them in the kitchen and they drown. Or they have no passion for their work. I think the best mix is to have educators at institutions such as TAFE who are passionate and vibrant about hospitality and being a chef so they pass on that passion and inspire the next generation of chefs. I've had the most success with passionate people moreso than those who have followed a traditional apprenticeship. I think an on-the-job traineeship would be a great solution, especially in regional towns. It's less rigid and allows people to learn by doing, hopefully from someone who inspires them. What could better than that!