Wisdom: Ian Curley

The executive chef of The European restaurant in Melbourne on the value of training, the value of staff, and who your real worst enemy is

Ian Curley

Ian Curley

Back in Coventry, it was the school of hard knocks. When I was a young guy I worked in a factory canteen and washed the dishes, but I liked the buzz, the camaraderie. A guy in there said to me, ‘If you want to work, just learn to cook. You can travel the world’.

I had worked in hotels and some small restaurants but I was always told what to do. In Australia I got my first head chef position and I learnt a lot of things doing that. It was critically acclaimed and very busy. The image takes over—you’re the hot new chef. I started believing my own press.

But I didn’t actually feel I was that good. I always felt in myself I could do better. That’s what drives me. I’ve never wanted to be mediocre. I never worked to be the sous chef. I always wanted to be head chef. I’d rather be really bad or really good.

I’m very organised. A lot of people say I make a very hard job look easy.

The difference between hospitality and a lot of jobs is you have to give an answer instantly. You have to make a decision quickly, otherwise you lose business. If I get offered a consultancy, I know straight away if I want it.

For our part, in this business we’re not profit driven, we’re top line driven. It’s hectic running a kitchen that runs 24 hours a day, but we do it.

It’s no longer good enough running a restaurant that opens for lunch, closes, then opens again for dinner. They’re finished. At the top end where they’re offering it all—bistro, take out, functions, consultancy—you have to get your staff to adapt. They need to make the sandwiches, sell the T-shirts, whatever is required. There’s been some high-profile closures and that’s because the owners stuck to one business model.

At The European group we’re expanding. Looking at the business in different way. Of course we want to make money, but we want to do things that are different. You have to have a reason to open a restaurant.

I just bought a little wine bar that I’m opening to my specifications. There won’t be anything else like it. It won’t be generic.

I’ve got 40 staff. Every single one of them would like more money and to work less hours. But I treat every single person on an individual basis. My breakfast chefs all have kids and are married. They want a day shift and they don’t have to be ‘the best’. It’s all about their families. But I also have chefs who want to move up, move overseas, so I treat them differently. I don’t lose staff as much as other people. They know when I’m pissed off—I won’t tolerate laziness—but we work hard together and we form a team.

The staff know what they’re worth. You’ve got to give them a reason to come to work. They have to work for someone, we should make it worth them coming to us.

We are our own worst enemies in the hospitality industry. We present the picture of it as being hard and difficult and we wonder why we can’t find good staff. If you’re a chef you can have it all. Australia has been really good to me. Over here, if you work hard, keep out of trouble, make smart decisions, you can build a really good life for yourself.

What matters the most is I’m the father of two girls. Too many times in hospitality people don’t see their families. Our industry is full of people who burn the candle at both ends. My whole aim in life is to make sure I look after my family.  Everythig else pales into insignificance. That’s your real job.

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