For Dioni Flanagan, head chef at The Currant Shed in SA’s bucolic McLaren Vale, sharing good food is “one of life’s greatest pleasures”. Flanagan brings more than a quarter century of experience to the kitchen, transforming the fresh produce of the Fleurieu Peninsula into fresh, flavoursome mod Oz-meets-Asian food, meticulously matched with the wines of the region. By Merran White.
“As a child, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen and really liked baking. We had a beach shack on the coast and we’d go fishing, then cook the fish, pickle the crabs and sit around eating and playing cards. Food was a big part of my childhood.
“By year 12, I was hugely interested in cooking. After high school, I got a job in a French/German patisserie, then did a pastry chef apprenticeship, ending up on that side of the industry for 13 years.
“In 1997, I started working as a pastry chef with Cibo, an Italian restaurant with pastry shop attached.
“As a pastry chef, you’re ‘a creature of the night’; it’s very demanding on your lifestyle without much recognition for what you do—although that’s changing with chefs like Adriano Zumbo. When I started in restaurants I saw the other side of cheffing: all those highly driven, creative people—how much fun they had; the energy of having a good team around you. It made me want more interaction—so I enrolled in more courses and went to the ‘hot side’.
“I’ve had some great mentors. One was Thai/Malaysian chef John Tan; I’d eat at his restaurant and his flavours were amazing. I said, ‘If I show you some pastry stuff, will you show me your cuisine?’ Soon I was working there a day a week, helping him open a pastry shop while he taught me Asian cooking.
“Then I started running my own kitchens, first at function centre Carrick Hill, then Wine Underground, Panacea, and Mantra on King William, a wine-based establishment. I got to know lots of sommeliers and learnt from them about balancing food and wine.
“I needed work-life balance, though, and when a job at Penny’s Hill winery’s The Kitchen Door in McLaren Vale came up for someone strong on pastry, I took it. I was sous chef there for five years, ran the kitchen for six months, then went to D’Arenburg winery. I’ve been at The Currant Shed 15 months, with sous chef Joey Taylor. We do lunches and, through summer, small weddings.
“I think it’s important young chefs realise the job involves sacrifices: you may not get to every party.”
“Creating a team is a huge part of the job. You’re working with people who need to be constantly stimulated and challenged, so part of the head chef’s role is encouraging your kitchen staff’s talent and creativity, getting them to come up with new things and not be stagnant. I keep my own ideas fresh by eating out and interacting with customers.
“My partner is also a pastry chef so we do lots of cooking together. We also do lots of gardening. I like getting back to the roots of it—learning about where food actually comes from.
“As a chef, I’m into fresh ingredients and here on the Fleurieu Peninsula, we’re in touch with terrific farmers and growers, and source locally whenever we can. Most of our customers are tourists and they like that.
“I think it’s important young chefs realise the job involves sacrifices: you may not get to go to every party. That said, you have to find a way to fit life around that commitment and not get too tied up in the work lifestyle, so you can really enjoy it.
“It’s an intense environment if you let it get to you. Some chefs are like nutty professors—out of what seems like chaos they produce the most amazing stuff. I’m a Virgo; I like to have systems so everyone knows where they’re at.
“For me the most challenging thing is criticism. I rarely get a complaint. If I do, I deal with it before the customer leaves the restaurant.
“The most rewarding part of the job is people, and the creativity and joy involved in cooking for them. Having friends never say ‘no’ to a dinner invitation at our place is a plus!
“After all this time, I still love cooking. It’s one of the great pleasures in life. And some of the simplest foods are the best. If I had one meal left, it’d be comfort food—not Michelin-starred cuisine.”