Impress with: Darren Robertson
The commercial kitchen is an unusual workplace: the conditions are gruelling, the hours long, and the heat intense. But feeding hungry bellies often extends beyond your place of work to your home, your children, your partner and your own stomach. As such, the work/life balance is intrinsically blurred around the edges. For chef Darren Robertson, that blurring is an important part of the inspiration.
“In the restaurant game, anything you cook at home tends to have a knock-on effect in the restaurant’s kitchen,” he says. “You can’t change one, without an impact on the other.”
Chef and co-owner of the Three Blue Ducks, found in Bronte, Rosebery, Byron Bay and Brisbane, as well as part-owner of Rocker, in North Bondi, Darren’s culinary path has perhaps been shaped by circumstance more than by design.
The Three Blue Ducks, a collection of restaurants actually co-owned by six, is the epitome of modern Australian cuisine – the food you would imagine every tanned, beach-going, healthy Aussie enjoying – fresh, healthy, colourful. Rocker, also influenced by the beach, takes a few more cues from Darren’s homeland of England.
And yet both are a departure from where his cooking began. Darren trained in Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK before making a name for himself in Australia as the head chef at Sydney’s fine-dining restaurant Tetsuya’s. In many ways, it was that prestige and pedigree that actually became the catalyst to try something entirely different.
“When I left, I had no idea where to go or what to do,” he says. “I was worried everything was going to feel too much like Tets. I wanted to get away from that, particularly in terms of not copying or being pigeon-holed, and so I found myself doing the polar opposite.”
Darren did some pop-ups and a series of ‘Table Sessions’, secretive word-of-mouth events in art galleries and restaurants, before one of those dinners landed him at the Three Blue Ducks in Bronte. The dinner was a big success and became the catalyst for the café evolving, Darren forming a partnership with the original ducks to open as a restaurant by night. As the café evolved, so too did his cooking, and, the opportunities.
Tree change by the sea
Opening the Three Blue Ducks on an 80-acre farm at Byron Bay has perhaps been the most formative, not just in terms of his career, but because it’s also coincided with the growth of his young family.
The Ducks crew moved to Byron, and they were invited to be part of the farm co-operative, joining an ecosystem with a series of symbiotic relationships: from farm to restaurant to shop. It’s a brilliant example of how a culinary community can work. There are different allotments, each run by different farmers, who in turn supply produce to the restaurant. It’s a system that has again changed the way Darren thinks about food.
“The idea is to use every leaf that comes off the farm; the skins, stalks, everything. We get to see produce in all its states,” he says. “And using every part of a plant invokes creativity.”
Rural and relaxed
Darren’s relocation to the tranquility of Byron not only allows him to indulge his passion for surfing, it is well timed. Our growing interest in provenance has correlated with a dynamic shift towards more regional restaurants. This year there are more rural restaurants celebrated in our guides and top lists than ever before.
“A lot of the more exciting things are happening out of the cities now,” says Darren. “Restaurants such as Brae, Igni, and Fleet are all receiving recognition. People are prepared to travel for a food experience.”
The move to the farm, and the renewed focus on health and nourishment, has also been enhanced by Darren’s two young sons, and encouraged by his partner, meteorologist and TV presenter Magdalena Roze, who has authored her own cookbook, Happy and Whole.
“Mag’s interest in healthy vegan food has influenced what I’m eating and cooking,” says Darren. “I used to think vegan was uninspiring, but that’s changed. And my kids have changed my view, too.
“In a commercial kitchen, it’s easy for the process to become a little automatic, you’re doing things so quickly, always chasing your tail. Having kids has helped me slow things down, and also question why and what I was doing. It’s allowed me to enjoy cooking a lot more.”