Hugh Allen Department of Youth
Dani Valent goes inside the mind of one of Australia’s – perhaps the world’s – most talented young chefs, to discover what maketh the man.
Hugh Allen is wearing a chef’s jacket as he grills chicken wings in a pan. He flips them, observing closely, then transfers the meat to a platter that he ferries to a keen table of four. The diners dig into the chicken and soon praise the moistness of the meat, the light char, the judicious flavouring with honey and soy. The cook demurs, evidently glad but not content to settle into pride. There’s more cooking to do.
Hugh – this version of the young chef, in any case – is nine years old, and he’s cooking at the home of his friend Morgan for their parents. “We thought chefs were cool,” says Allen, who turns 28 this March. “We got chef’s outfits. I would pretend to be Marco Pierre White, he’d be Jamie Oliver or whatever. Chefs became our idols.”
Cut to Vue de monde today and Hugh Allen is an idol in the making, leading a team of 40 to bring to life his vision of contemporary Australian dining. Allen’s tasting menu is an expressive, poised showcase of local ingredients. Asparagus is scattered with green ants. Macadamia is transformed into a silky tofu that’s topped with caviar and peas. Damper is finished tableside over charcoal for dipping into marron curry. Legacy dishes that Vue de monde has become famous for during its 23-year history – a soufflé, teeny lamingtons – are rendered perfectly, without any sense that the greatest hits are boring for the new guard. There’s also the view – 55 floors above Melbourne – and a highly credentialled service team that seems infused with a belief in the project of fine dining. Tasting menus at this level can be a slow, showy bludgeoning by prestige ingredients. Hugh Allen’s iteration of Vue de monde is sprightly and questing, always delicious.
The Heir Apparent
Allen was only 23 when, in 2019, he was catapulted into the executive chef role by Vue de monde’s founding father Shannon Bennett, who was seeking a successor. The young chef had just returned to Melbourne from a three-year stint with Noma, at the much-championed restaurant’s Copenhagen home, and in Sydney and Mexico for Noma pop-ups. Allen’s decision to go home was sudden: his parents had both been diagnosed with cancer and he wanted to be close. (Mother Anna, a retired nurse, and father Roger, a retired paediatrician, are now in good health.)
“I first met Hugh when he was 16,” says Bennett, remembering Allen’s days as a teenage apprentice chef at Vue. “I noticed a real talent, not just in food but the way he related to people. He doesn’t panic. When you’re a really good communicator and a willing partner in search of knowledge, you can be a great chef.”
Bennett had stayed in touch when Allen left Vue de monde for Noma, and brought him back into the fold upon his return. But the young chef had never had a senior leadership role and the outsized promotion didn’t draw an instant ‘yes’.
“I told Shannon I wasn’t sure, I’d just come back, my parents were sick,” says Allen. “But he said, ‘Nah, we’ll get you all the support you need. You are talented and creative, it needs someone to make a new mark.’ He didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” Allen started gently, making minimal changes as he settled in. Being largely unknown was a positive. “I slipped in under the radar,” he says. “It wasn’t a huge ‘guy from Noma is taking over’ thing. I could wiggle my way in. We built a good culture, found a groove, slowly gained confidence.”
He knows he’s good... But that confidence is a result of his crazy work ethic.
The pandemic stole momentum but even so, Allen’s reign has already been an extraordinary success. Bennett’s trust and his protege’s talent and industry were acknowledged at last November’s Good Food Guide awards, when Vue de monde regained the third chef’s hat it last held in 2017. The restaurant scored 18 out of a possible 20 and the review noted that “with chef Hugh Allen at the helm, it delivers beyond expectations.” Perhaps even more remarkable than the accolades and indeed the food is how it feels to be at the restaurant. I’ve been at Vue in previous years when the brilliance seemed born of tension. These days the mood is quite fun: unhurried, engaged, outward looking. “Hugh has a mixture of calmness, cheeky energy and youthfulness combined with real maturity,” says Shannon Bennett. “He’s a team player with a lovely demeanour, a leader but they’re not forced to follow him.”
Bennett, 47, was steeped in shouty chef culture when he opened the first iteration of Vue de monde as a 24-year-old.
“I see some of myself as I was then in Hugh but I also see some of him in me now,” says Bennett, who has just hopped out of the Byron Bay surf when we connect one afternoon. “At his age, I was gung ho. I would have loved a bit more of his maturity.”
Young and Hungry
What is it like to be Hugh Allen? Is he as laid-back as he seems, as relaxed as the fringe he keeps pushing back, as inessential to the kitchen’s daily workings as he suggests when our interview runs long and Saturday lunch service begins? “Do you need to get to the kitchen?” I enquire, as ladies and gents are ushered to kangaroo-leather-bound tables for their first palate cleanser. “No, it’s fine, I’m just a mascot,” he laughs, self-deprecatingly.
But a person doesn’t land Hugh Allen’s role without vision, chutzpah and hard work. The nine-year-old sizzling wings never aimed himself at anything but a chef’s life. The idea didn’t come from family; there was no crumbing of schnitzels at his mother’s hip. “Cooking was always a rush,” he says, painting a picture of a busy middle-class home in North Melbourne with two working parents and three energetic sports-mad boys. “Spaghetti bolognese, fajitas from a packet, shitty takeaway pizza on Friday nights watching the footy.”
Allen also watched food shows on TV. “He was very into The Cook and The Chef, Jamie Oliver, Ratatouille on repeat,” remembers twin brother Fraser. “He never picked up novels but he read cookbooks and had notebooks for recipe ideas.”
High school wasn’t a natural fit – “I was misbehaving, had zero interest” – and after Allen did a week’s work experience at Rockpool Bar and Grill, he was hooked and left school soon afterwards, launching into a career as a chef at just 15. “I loved it,” he says. “I loved prep [preparing food], smashing my times out, packing it away as beautifully as possible, working really clean. It gave me a high every time.”
Robbie Bell was a senior chef at Rockpool. “He had that ‘yes’ attitude,” says Bell. “He was always keen to learn, get involved. Some guys are scared to go on the fish section, say, scared to screw up because they can’t face the pressure. Hugh would give it a crack, make mistakes, laugh it off.” Bell saw something. “There are those people that desperately want it, love it, live it,” he says. “He had that pure interest, always with that bubbly, smiley personality.”
Behind the smile you find the steel. “If I am stressed about something no-one would have a clue,” says Allen. “I want to be the biggest chef in the country. I want to make a mark globally. I’m always asking how I get to that point. I definitely have not reached my ambitions. I am competitive.”
Brother Fraser might have been better at football but he’s happy to admit Hugh’s marron curry is the best thing he’s ever eaten. “He has a certain air about him,” says Fraser. “He knows he’s good, but that confidence is a reflection of his crazy work ethic.”
On his days off, Allen might be found walking his parents’ dog with his girlfriend, also a chef; wandering an art gallery or garden for inspiration; or playing tennis with chef mates in a tournament that he makes sure I know he’s leading comfortably. “My serve is my strength,” he says.
Fellow competitor, chef Stephen Nairn – a Vue de monde alumnus now leading two-hatted Omnia and Yugen Dining – acknowledges Allen’s chops as a tennis player. “We have fun but he’s a fierce competitor,” says Nairn. “Yesterday, he was getting beaten four-nil and Hugh was so angry, he somehow managed to come back. He’s the cheeky-chappy nice guy but he can get serious.”
Hugh Allen’s next move will be opening his own restaurant, part of the group that owns Vue de monde, while retaining oversight of the flagship highrise dining room. “I love Vue but I didn’t start it, I’m a chapter in it,” he says. “I want to do something from scratch, something that people would travel to visit like Noma or [Spanish innovator] El Bulli. I have big, big aspirations.”
His mentors believe 55 floors up is only the beginning. “He’s at a different level,” says Robbie Bell, now owner of charcuterie producer City Larder. “There aren’t many chefs in the world who go deep, who have true philosophy.” Bell reaches for a musical metaphor. “You can throw Ed Sheeran a few chords and he’ll knock you up a pop song,” says Bell. “You can’t do that with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Hugh’s dishes are like the MSO: ideas, big picture. He’s going to be a treasure.”
Shannon Bennett saw, trusted and pushed, and though he’s no longer involved with Vue de monde, he remains in close touch with his successor. “He can go all the way, reach for whatever he believes is the ceiling,” says Bennett. “He can be number one.”