To gain perspective on something, sometimes you need to step away from it. After forging a successful career in Australia under the enviable tutelage of David Thompson and Neil Perry, Ross Lusted decided that he wanted to be more than just a protege. So he set aside his apron and spent the next decade studying the intricacies of different cultures and their cuisines, from Croatia, Montenegro and Japan, to Singapore, Mexico and the Amazon. Since returning to Australia and opening his own restaurant, The Bridge Room, with wife Sunny in 2011, Ross has become one of the country’s most celebrated and awarded chefs – and this time it’s because of his own distinct culinary vision.
I’m originally from South Africa … but I moved to Australia when I was ten. We spent a lot of time on a farm in South Africa when I was a kid, but I most remember things like the smell of sugar cane and going fishing on the beach. My dad had a nuts-and-bolts business and a lot of the guys who worked for him as machinists were Cape Malays, so there was always Malay food around. It’s not like it made me have an epiphany that I was going to become a chef, but later on in life when I looked back to where my influences came from, things like cooking on charcoal, lamb on the spit and the spices and flavours of that time really come to mind. And when I started cooking Thai food with David Thompson, I remembered the smells from when I was a kid – the coriander in South Africa is Malaysian coriander, which is different to the Indian coriander that most people cook with, and it’s very distinct.
I had a very successful cooking career in Australia … but in 2000 I realised I wanted to do more than just visit places overseas – I wanted to live in them. Having cooked Thai food with someone like David, I got to work with the master, but I felt like I was only scratching the surface. I needed a point of reference. I had the recipes and the understanding of the layers of flavour, but I wanted to taste the real thing myself and I wanted to know how Thai people lived and how they cooked. If I’d opened a restaurant in Australia then, I’d be known as the chef who worked with David Thompson or Neil Perry – it’s very hard when you work for successful chefs to really formulate your own ideas and to have your own identity, because you’re always being compared. So I decided to take a couple of years
off and go to live in Asia.
I thought I knew a lot about Asian food … but I only knew a lot about Thai food. When I would sit with Cantonese chefs who I worked with in Singapore and watch their processes, I realised that there was a world we didn’t even know about in Australia. The Asian palate is so different from ours – it’s very conditioned. With Western food, there aren’t that many highs and lows in terms of acidity, texture, heat and flavour, whereas in Asia it’s extreme. I just became addicted to discovering it all – and I was learning more by being out of Australia and travelling.
I’d worked for the chairman of Aman Resorts … Adrian Zecha, many years ago in Brisbane when I helped open Ziggy’s. We kept in touch over the years and he invited my wife and I to stay at one of his resorts in Bali. When we got there, he asked if we wanted to manage the hotel and so we ended up spending the next few years travelling the world living in remote destinations and developing new Aman hotels. I opened 15 of them and I think I worked on 25 in total. The more we moved, the more we travelled and I really learned to look at food differently.
Having lived in so many different countries … during the past 12 years – and I didn’t cook during that period – I started to formulate ideas about my own identity and what I’d learnt in my travels. I felt like I was learning more by not cooking and basically seeing a cross-section of how the world eats. It was at that point that I thought maybe it was time to open another restaurant, and we decided to go back home to Australia to do it. I liked the idea of being so closely linked with the growers and fisherman like you can be in Sydney. There was a site on Bridge Street that I’d been trying to get on and off for ten years, and had always dreamed of having. Whenever I came back to Sydney, I’d go to talk to the guy to see if he wanted to sell but never had any luck. Eventually he just got sick of me and decided to sell it to me!
I think I’d become more of a customer than a cook … People like Neil Perry really taught me how to be a restaurateur. There are chefs and then there are restaurateurs, and, for me, spending time away from the kitchen makes you look past the kitchen door, so to speak. You actually become a customer and you think about things like whether a chair is uncomfortable or the wrong height, or that the toilets aren’t great, or why a restaurant doesn’t take reservations. You become more aware of the other side of it. I know the cooking side more than ever, but the restaurant side is the experience, and that’s part of the whole package. So my time away gave me more attention to detail in understanding what people are looking for.
Success is … in the moment. The fact that we’re still in business makes us successful, I think. And to be awarded by your peers in Sydney is a fantastic thing, but the truth is you get the award and the next day you continue and you’re back at work. The one thing I would say about success is that it’s measured on so many different levels and I could say that I’m nowhere near as successful as other chefs because they have their own TV shows. But I think that, ultimately, success is what you perceive it to be.
I have a whole other life … outside the restaurant. I studied sculpture and so I’m a sculptor and I also paint, and design ceramics. If I’m not doing those things, I find that my cooking becomes a bit frustrating. I try to spend a lot of time with people outside my industry – creative people who do very different things that I find really inspiring.
It’s so hard to get people into this industry … Everything the youth have available to them today is phenomenal – all the information online and libraries full of books. But then there’s also the pressure for them to succeed and stand out from a crowd, which is quite difficult. There’ll be young chefs who come in and understand that it’s really hard work. But a lot of them think that it’s really like MasterChef and you get in the kitchen and it’s all happy days. But restaurants aren’t like that. Training is really critical. There are many distractions for young people today and what I would like to do is take young talent and really nurture it, like they do in America.
My advice to young chefs is … to read. There’s so much you can learn on the internet, but get your head in the theory books and really educate yourself and understand why things do and don’t work. It’s like being an artist – how do you paint a picture that’s original? You’ve just got to paint a lot of pictures until something happens, and it’s very much the same with cooking. You’re the one who has to craft your way in life.