The Getting of Wisdom

By Susan Skelly. First published in The Robb Report, November 2017.

Embrace fear. Know how much debt you can live with. Be honest about what you don’t know … Gritty advice from mentors can be a career game-changer. We ask four trailblazing women about passing the baton

Christine Manfield

From primary school teacher to hatted chef, Christine Manfield blazed a trail in fine dining via her Paramount and Universal restaurants in Sydney and East@West in London. But cooking technique is just a small part of what she teaches the next generation.

Young chefs mentored by Christine Manfield will know everything there is to know about the thinness and thickness of flavour, the idiosyncrasies of spice, and the construction and layering of look-at-me ice cream.

They will also know the importance of looking at the terms of a lease or the conditions of a space, and how such things often gauge how they’ll get on with the landlord. She’ll make them think hard about whether they want financial backers or total control, about what level of debt will tip them over into being unable to sleep at night.

They’ll understand that to stay relevant in the digital age, where there is no expectation of loyalty or longevity, they’ll need many strings to their bow. Manfield has written eight sumptuous books, produced a line of spices, takes tours to places like India, Bhutan and Cambodia, judges, caters, makes guest appearances at pop-up restaurants, takes classes, and is a mentor for Women in Hospitality.

Mentees will come away knowing that their staff is a restaurant’s heartbeat. A cherished inner circle will comprise head chef, general manager, sommelier, accountant and public relations whiz kid.

They will, of course, be as proficient with social media as they are with perfecting a nam jim (dipping sauce). They must have a database from Day One. Social media, says Manfield, drives your profile and in turn your business.

“I closed Universal four years ago and put myself out there immediately as a fringe dweller who can just jump in and do something,” she says. “The whole pop-up phenomenon I tapped into at the right time. You are drawing on the energy and enthusiasm of younger kids who are so willing to try new things. There’s a lot more collaboration with this generation – it’s an established way of behaving. There’s none of that ‘This is my sanctuary’.”

Barbara Alexander, who cooked alongside Manfield at nearly all of her projects and is now executive chef at the Napa Valley Cooking School in California, had this first impression on Manfield: “Chris greeted me with a pixie haircut, a cheek-level chef’s jacket, Doc Marten boots and fishnet tights … that’s all. I had never seen a chef dressed with such grit and cheekiness. She was busy on the phone and gave me a handwritten list of ingredients to collect – galangal, bird’s-eye chillis, tamarind, all completely foreign to me. I knew this was going to be an experience.”

Manfield’s own mentors include Phillip Searle, of Sydney’s Oasis Seros, whose chequerboard ice cream (pineapple sorbet and star-anise ice cream bordered with liquorice gel) was legendary, and Catherine Kerry, the Adelaide caterer who made Petaluma restaurant a foodie destination.

“With Phillip it was all about the discipline, serious discipline; he was an incredible perfectionist. He often used to say, ‘Tini – that’s perfect, but you can do better’. Push, push, push. It really instilled in me the importance of establishing your benchmark.

“With Catherine it was very much the best ways of doing things – the correct way of serving something, of laying a table. She’s huge on etiquette, the classics, the basics. She is super organised and confident about her beliefs and modus operandi.

What Christine Manfield taught me…

BARBARA ALEXANDER executive chef, Napa Valley Cooking School, California: Be open to learning | Be prepared to evolve the business model | Be fluid; there doesn’t have to be hard and fast rules | Treat kitchen staff like family – valued and appreciated | Surround yourself with focused, fun people who all have the same goal: to peel away the minutiae of the daily ‘grind’ of running a restaurant, to expose the passion and talent.

THI LE, owner/chef, Anchovy, Melbourne: No mandolines – everything hand-sliced very finely | Use your palate; balance in flavour is all-important | Be financially self-reliant | Invest in mature-age apprentices who bring a different perspective and discipline | Never take no for an answer.

Other women in the article: Layne Beachley, Belinda Hutchinson, Patti Miller.