Great cooking is not just about great ingredients, but also about great skill in putting them together. And there's a fair amount of luck involved. That's if you figure that luck means finding yourself with the right companion, fellow workers and mentors. If that's luck then Donovan Cooke has had plenty of it.
He admits to having "lied [his] arse off" to get an apprenticeship at 'The Savoy Hotel' in London, and to "pulling a few strings to get a job at The Waterside". These establishments are amongst the most highly respected cooking institutions in the UK, and this young man from Hull, whose previous experience had been washing dishes in the canteen of the BP chemicals plants, took to them "like a duck to water."
It was at the 'Waterside Inn' at Bray with Michel Roux that Donovan learnt not just about working hard but, he says, "to really love food and cooking." A manic period at 'Harveys' as head chef for Marco Pierre White brought another piece of luck - meeting Philippa Sibley (now his wife and mother of Donovan III). But the stresses of this job - working 12-14 hour shifts, six days a week - at what was then London's most talked about restaurant, took its toll on the young Cookes. Mentor and great chef, Michel Roux, arranged a stint for Donovan at Cote St Jacques in Joigny, and here he and Philippa learnt to love food and cooking again. Philippa discovered that her talent was as a pastry chef and became renowned for her ice creams. A year working without pay in the kitchen there yielded some great lessons about all facets of patisserie, particularly about chocolate and the use of fruit. She reveals some of these in the Cookes book, Marriages.
Skill and determination are words that keep recurring when you speak about the Cookes. Neither of them had really intended to become great chefs when they started working in restaurants. At home, Philippa had enjoyed cooking with her mother, a skilled cook, and had worked in restaurants in Melbourne before going to London, "but I wasn't really serious about it then, and didn't really know what I wanted to do." For her it seems to have been a series of challenges that she set herself. First being able to survive in London, then getting an entree into the kitchen of Marco Pierre White to challenge his assertion that "girls could not handle his kitchen." After proving not only that she could handle the heat but was doing useful work, the next big challenge for Philippa, and for Donovan, was that of working in a French kitchen with the lack of language and a native prejudice against them as foreigners. She became known there as 'la reine des glaces' -'the ice cream queen'.
The London and Joigny stints were just the beginning. It was not until the Cookes were in Melbourne, working at 'Mietta's', that they really started to do it for themselves. There they had not just to cook, but also to buy ingredients and direct staff. Donovan had to learn about what ingredients could be found in Melbourne and what the local market would accept. He also had to learn how to teach, how to drive, how to convey his sense of taste, how to demonstrate texture, and how to get a team who would not accept less than perfection. Exciting days indeed. Juggling crises and compromises , all part of the path to becoming a chef. It was a baptism by fire because as well as dealing with the large numbers which the restaurant served upstairs and downstairs, they had also to cope with a visiting chefs program that year.
Since then they have opened 'est est este; in South Melbourne, and Luxe; in St Kilda. The restaurant est est est is regarded as one of Melbourne's finest (in the first edition of Mietta's Eating & Drinking in Melbourne it was voted the industry's favourite in its price category, and was runner-up the following year). The food being served there is probably the best of its style in the country. 'Luxe', which was intended to be a bar that serves food, is treated (the partners feel) too seriously as a restaurant. Be that as it may, the food is very good and its cool, minimalist style just what the neighbourhood wants. It too was the industry's favourite in Mietta's Eating & Drinking in Australia 2000, albeit in a lower price category.
Donovan is still constantly at the stoves, Philippa a little less with the birth of baby Donovan. Whilst they remain totally involved in the food at 'est est est' and supervise that at Luxe, their careers as chefs have broadened into the role of entrepreneurs, marketers and authors. Such is the life of a great chef in Australia today.
Michel Roux, Marco Pierre White, French Provincial Cooking, Elizabeth David
Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle, Julia Child
More: Donovan Cooke as featured in Mietta and Friends,Donovan Cooke in the kitchen. Reviews of est est est and Luxe