After hanging up her apron to battle breast cancer, Skye Faithfull has returned to renew Balthazar, the venerable Perth restaurant where she started her career. By Anna Christensen
“I first came to Balthazar 10 years ago, when I was a second-year apprentice under Scott Brannigan. After I qualified, I went off to travel and do other things, then when I came back Scotty asked me to be his sous chef. His food style is very farm-to-table, which was great to soak up. He was a farm boy, and he has this wealth of knowledge of the produce before it even gets to you. My style of cooking is completely different. It’s approachable but I always like to have something a bit quirky, something for people to talk about. I get my mum to grow a lot of stuff for us too that you can’t get from the suppliers.
“I was Scotty’s sous chef for three years, until he left to open [Fremantle restaurant] Bread in Common and I took over as a head chef. But six months in, I got sick and had to take time off.
“I was diagnosed with breast cancer, so it was a whole year of chemo and radiation, and I had three surgeries. It was a long year, but you just have to survive. You either pick that or you pick dying. And, I mean, it wasn’t the world’s most awful year. I got to go to everybody’s birthdays for once! I moved around the corner from my mum. I got to surround myself a lot more with my family and friends. You don’t see them so much when you’re working 80 hours a week.
“After my treatment, I knew I had to take it slow physically and mentally, so I worked casually with a few people, like Lisa [Schreurs-Stone] from Mrs S. Then I went back to Balthazar to help relaunch it.
“We all came in for dinner before we took over and had the same opinion that there was no liveliness or fun. It was too stuffy. We wanted to relax it a bit, and make sure people were here to have a good time.
“I try to feed people the way I like to eat. If a customer wants four entrees, one after the other, why not? If someone came in and ordered dessert first, I would say, ‘no problem.’ We split plates; we help make people make their own degustation. We’re really accommodating.
“I don’t think I act like a man in any way but I am a strong woman. If someone had an issue with me, I would show them where the door was.”
“It’s not the same as when I was as an apprentice and lunches were pumping. It was the mining boom, and people from the stock exchange were just rolling out money. You’ve got to accommodate financially for what’s happening in the world.
“I think fine dining is a bit over. Look at a place like Noma—one of, if not the best restaurant in the world. I don’t even think they have tablecloths!
“You don’t want to lose those customers who come to be wined and dined, but you also have to look to younger customers and embrace a more female-friendly style of cooking.
“I was a head chef at 25. As a young woman, hiring the right people is so important. You can’t pick people that want to bring you down, have massively different opinions to you, or don’t want to work for women. I don’t think I act like a man in any way but I am a strong woman. If someone had an issue with me, I would show them where the door was!
“My advice to people wanting to break into the industry? Ask the right questions and write everything down! Get cookbooks. Read them. Look at what other people are doing. Keep teaching yourself as you let other people teach you.
“I haven’t thought anything past what I’m doing right now. I want to get to my five-year remission before I make any big plans. You do have that tiny bit of constant fear that you might get secondary cancer. Because if do, that’s it—you might have two years if you’re lucky.
“I try look after myself a little bit more. If I’m sick, I’ll take a day off. Before, I would just come in and work through. I try not to do more than 70 hours if I can. But it’s not so hard if you’re enjoying yourself—and when your staff enjoys themselves too, it bolsters you up.”