Who said you need to find a path and stick to it? No one, least of all Aussie chef Darren Robertson, a veritable beacon for all those tempted to jump ship on one path in favour of the (shinier) road less travelled.
Hertfordshire-born Brit Darren originally studied art, before a segue way into cooking took over – mainly as a route to escaping his homeland for greener pastures. Upon decamping to Australia, he sharpened his cheffing skills in the kitchen at widely-renowned Sydney restaurant Tetsuyas, where he helmed as head chef for four years. It was here that Darren met then-apprentice chef Mark Labrooy, with whom he would cross paths again after he left Tetsuyas and the pair decided to launch a pop-up guerilla diner, The Table Sessions.
Fast-forward to late 2011, and Mark approached Darren to join the Three Blue Ducks team – which now consists of Darren and partners Chris Sorrel, Jeff Benett, Sam Reid, Mark LaBrooy – based in Sydney’s Bronte. He is now part-owner and chef at the group’s recently opened Byron Bay, NSW, venture, The Farm – a fast cult favourite championing grassroots fare. Here, diners can enjoy dishes like slow cooked beef brisket and smoked potato mayo with beer mustard, farm dill pickle and buttermilk onion ring, before a stroll amongst the surrounding paddocks to peruse the crops and meet the resident cows and chickens.
Here’s how this one-time guerilla chef managed to carve a sizeable mark in the farm-to-table food movement.
Your first love was art: was there anything from this experience that you applied to your new path as a chef?
I studied art and design and was always messing around creating. I guess that helped a lot – allowing oneself to play with an idea. This become a valuable tool, which I guess I learnt though drawing and painting. To play with an idea is incredibly beneficial to anyone trying create something new… Resisting the temptation to take the easy way out or just to follow suit. Doesn’t always happen though!
You achieved success in the food industry pretty quickly – what do you think was the key to that?
Hard work. I definitely was not a quick learner, I was just really determined to be a good cook and also fortunate to work along side some really talented, generous people. I did find however, when I finally managed to master a system, technique or recipe, I would often try to figure out ways to do things differently, improving and refining – otherwise I’d get bored.
Going from cooking in the kitchen to actually building and managing the institutions themselves is some leap – what were some of the difficulties you faced when building your first business?
My first business was called The Table Sessions. It stared as a pop up restaurant project. I really had no idea where I was going to go after leaving Tetsuya’s, so this allowed me to cook wherever I liked. I tried to do everything myself to start with, from building the website, invoicing, staffing, marketing, just to figure out how to run a business and not only cook. To be honest, I made every mistake in the book. But I learnt so much, and again got to work with some really interesting people on some very enjoyable events.
In terms of guerrilla dining, how difficult was it to convince people to come on board with an idea that was a little left-of-centre?
The guerrilla, dining thing was a bit of a slow burn in the beginning. The first event, I couldn’t give the tickets away, well actually I could, I had to! It was basically a room full of people there, showing support. It quickly gained traction though, through print and social media, and eventually events would sell out immediately.
How did you overcome any initial opposition?
There wasn’t really opposition, quite the opposite, the project morphed into something that was really about collaboration, which is essentially what Three Blue Ducks is all about.
Tell us how the Blue Ducks team became involved in The Farm?
We were invited to rent a restaurant space on a 86 acre farm in Byron Bay. Myself and my partners all jumped at the chance. There are always many constraints and challenges opening any restaurant, but this one came with all sorts of logistical curve balls… But it also came with the opportunity to work with farmers, learn more about food and get our hands on some of the most incredible ingredients I’ve tasted.
It was a huge undertaking (taking in livestock, having an understanding of organic practices in farming, for example), what were you most nervous about when getting it off the ground?
I was nervous about everything! Finding staff, training staff, finding suppliers, starting from scratch. And the usual “Are we going to fill the place?” etc… There’s plenty to worry about if you allow it!
What’s your survival strategy when you feel overwhelmed?
Surfing helps helps me, along with a strong partner and a network of friends, many of whom are chefs that have gone through or are going through similar a situation. I try to do anything to create mental space, step back from the project and put it all into perspective. They’re just restaurants, they’re not that scary!
You’re a father – how do you balance your business and family lives?
I certainly value my time a lot more. I’m just more disciplined with how I spend it. Early mornings help, you can pack a lot more in. Luckily for me, my son, loves waking up at 5.30am…
What is the biggest reward of building your own institutions?
There are huge rewards, not always financial. The biggest reward is the ever-extending network of people involved in the business, the staff, suppliers and friends that have all come about because of the hospitality industry, I’m proud to be a part of it… Plus, we get to eat like kings!