Award-winning Aubergine chef Ben Willis chats Canberra Good Food Month
On the eve of Canberra Good Food Month, Aubergine restaurateur and chef, Ben Willis, sits down with foodservice to talk success, inspiration and the festival.
Why did you want to become a chef?It was something that I fell into really. I was doing home economics at school and kind of liked the thought of seeing where it could take me. Travel was always on my mind and it helped me do a fair amount of that.
What is your philosophy to food?
Seasonality and using local produce has always been important and second nature to me. I know it's clichéd but it’s what we’ve been about over the last 10 years. We make changes to our menu daily as the produce determines, based on quality and quantity. We also grow very small amounts of niche ingredients but I’m not all that interested in growing to supply the restaurant completely.
Who has been the biggest influence on you as a chef?
Bruce Poole of Chez Bruce in London. He has no time for trends or fancy chef’s techniques. He’s a chef’s chef. It was always about ingredients and flavour working for him. The menu changed daily with whatever was best available and in season and that is something I still do today.
What does success mean to you?
Happy staff, customers and family mostly, and surviving the pressures of daily life in a tough industry as a happy person myself. Daily life with two restaurants is high pressure. It’s tough trying to keep so many people happy all the time, and it’s easy to forget about yourself. I like looking back to see how far we have come as a team and how much better we are at what we do today and managing that.
Why was it important for you to get involved in the Canberra Good Food Month?
Knowing the local market so well, it seemed like a good idea to help by offering my support. Canberra only gets a limited chance to host these sorts of events, and I’d like to be a part of its continued success.
What events are you involved in and what do you have planned for diners?
I’m hosting the Young Chefs event held at Aubergine on Sunday March 4th and The Marco Pierre White Dinner at The National Portrait Gallery on Sunday March 11th. Both are very exciting for different reasons.
The young chefs event is special for getting an insight into the minds of the chefs that are toiling away in the background of their restaurants, unseen and unheard, and seeing what ideas they can come up with all by themselves without the burden of having to fit into a particular mould.
With the Marco dinner, it’s me cooking up some Marco Pierre White classics and people getting to rub shoulders with an industry giant. I have no doubt it’ll be a career highlight for me personally, as my career really started by cooking his recipes. He has had such an impact in kitchens across the globe well before Facebook, Instagram and Twitter came along.
What piece advice from your training days do you still follow?
Proper seasoning, it’s a dying art. Modern cooking is becoming driven by people more interested in how their food looks on Instagram than how it tastes or eats as a complete dish or meal.
What do you predict are the next big trends in Australian dining?
Simplicity and a move back to the classics done well.
Over your career, how has the average Aussie diner's tastes changed and evolved?
Mostly people are well educated and adventurous and are out to try something new. I think most people like their food to be lighter yet have bolder flavours. The biggest change in the industry though for me would have to be the huge increase in dietary requirements. It’s a massive change to the game for us and is something that takes a lot of work every day to cater for to a standard that our customers expect of us. You almost need a degree in nutrition now. It really affects our service when you have a run sheet full of dietaries.
Canberra Good Food Guide runs March 1 to March 31. For further information, please visit goodfoodmonth.com/canberra/canberra-2018.