Fresh from finishing his three-year apprenticeship, now chef and former commerce and math student, Tom Chuimento, is gearing up to begin plating up seven course degustations and that alike at Wollongong’s only hatted restaurant, Caveau.
It has been and interesting road to cookery for Tom, starting out as a kitchen hand at Diggies while studying full-time at Wollongong University.
However, the kitchen was where he would eventually end up and now finds himself today, rather than adding up sums and breaking down mathematical equations – unless, of course, it is to do with recipes for the many dishes he puts together on a daily basis.
After moving on from Diggies to join Little Prince and then Lee and Me and His Boy Elroy, Tom trained with many chefs, who have both inspired him and have helped equip him to be in the position he is today – that is, with and understanding of how to use food and appreciate it. Every bit of it.
With visions of one day opening up his own restaurant and cookery school down the track, the next chapter of his career at Caveau is just around the corner.
Tom took some time out from a day of prep at His Boy Elroy to sit down with me for a chat about his food journey.
Before deciding to become a chef, you were studying at university, correct?
Yes. I did a degree in finance, economics and maths, and did one in straight maths.
Why did you decide to change careers and become a chef? Was it something you always wanted to do?
Growing up in an Italian family, I was always around food. If you put a question in front of me, I can’t just write the answer, even if I know it.
I can’t do book work. It’s not my thing. I’m more of a hands on kind of person. I started working in kitchens whilst I was at uni as a kitchen hand and picked it up really quickly.
I realised this is something I should look at. I started doing my apprenticeship at Diggies and was doing uni full-time, working 50 hour weeks plus uni for a couple months. I just burned out.
The chef I was working with at the time wasn’t the most inspirational, so then I left there and went to work at Little Prince picking up glasses and ended up back in the kitchen with Jimmy Calloway (now at Four in Hand), who is one of the most passionate chefs I’ve worked with.
He showed me what it can be like in the industry if you’re actually passionate about it and do it the way you want to do it instead of letting other people dictate how you feel about it.
Are there any others chefs you’ve look up to, or cookbooks that inspired you?
Not so much books. I didn’t really get in to that until later on. But when I got the job at Diggies, I got it through Mick Edwards, who runs Heritage [Kitchen]. He was the first person who taught me anything and he was and is a very knowledgeable chef.
I also worked with Yon from Sandygoodwhich and we had the same kind of understanding of food – making it from scratch.
Working at Diggies, we would make our own Bresaola. It was awesome, and he was also another chef that I learnt a lot off, in a traditional way of looking at food.
Are you glad you started your apprenticeship later and do you feel you were more mature when you did as opposed to if you were say, a teenager?
Definitely. Not so much the apprenticeship part of it, just anything in life. I think with society these days there is such an opportunity to change careers. It’s so easy. People think they have to make a decision and stick with it, but you can change.
Being older changing in any profession you’re going to be more mature. At TAFE, I’ve got all these 18-year-old kids with me that don’t take it seriously and want to muck around.
That’s all well and good and I would have been the same if I started my apprenticeship at 18. But at 25 going in to any different industry you’re going to have a mature approach to how you do it.
You’ve worked at Diggies, Little Price, Lee and Me and His Boy Elroy. Do you think moving around has helped by having to adjust in terms of the style of cooking, cuisines and even way of service?
You definitely learn bits from different places. Like, Lee and Me is an awesome cafe and I loved working there, but at the end of the day you’re poaching eggs, so there is only so much you do.
You’re poaching 400 eggs a day and that’s the job, pretty much. It’s fun for a while but then you get good at is and it’s like, ‘now what?’.
Where as I’m looking forward to going to work at Caveau where the menu changes so often that you get to learn more and more each week. Instead of once every three months.
I think working in difference kitchens is something you pick up in the space of a week and it’s all the same. Making different food, that’s the new challenge.
What will your role be once you begin full-time at Caveau?
I’m not really sure. Just chef, I think. He’s [Peter Sheppard, owner and head chef of Caveau] at the top and everyone is under him. It hasn’t really been decided just yet.
And you’ve already been doing a bit of work experience at Caveau?
For over a year now, I’ve been doing one day a week or one day a fortnight. I haven’t for the past couple of months because I know I’ve got a job.
I think being more mature has given me the ability to figure out where I want to work. I’ve always had the view that if you want to be good at something, first learn the fundamentals and then work with the best people, or learn from the best people.
Fundamentals of cooking is French cookery and the best restaurant in Wollongong is Caveau. I want to work there because I want to be good and if I’m going to be good, I want to work there and to get a job there you have to prove you want to be there.
What type of cuisine do you like cooking with the most?
I don’t have a favourite.
Think about it… If you have a favourite vegetable, say carrots, and you do a roast dinner, you’re always going to put carrots with your roast dinner.
Carrots are great but you’re forgetting about many other vegetables. If you have a favourite you’re going to be purely focused on that favourite. When creating a dish you don’t want to limit yourself because you want to be as creative and make that perfect dish.
If you use the same thing every time you’re not thinking outside the box, and there might be something outside the box that would work better.
Have you been on many food related trips?
I’ve been to Melbourne and go to Sydney a bit. I quite enjoy going out for nice dinners. If I’m going to go somewhere I like to go somewhere really nice.
The last place I went for dinner was Gastro Park up in Sydney and it was the most phenomenal dinner I’ve ever had in my life.
I’ve booked to go to Melbourne again in July and I’ll be going to Home-Vue De Monde, Shannon Bennett’s place. I’ve always really liked his food, so I’m really looking forward to going there.
What’s the end goal? To open up your own place?
My dad bought a farm down in Berry and I’ve had this image in my head for a while now of doing a boutique bed an breakfast, with six rooms people can stay in and a restaurant that does breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Having a nice sized veggie garden that can supply a lot of the produce to the kitchen and having animals that supply produce as well. I think people are wanting to know more and more where there produce comes from and how it gets to their plate.
I’d love to have gardening classes or cooking classes for kids and adults to be able to show people cooking is really simple. If you want to go to the highest level, then yeah, it’s difficult and gets intense, but people tell me it’s hard to cook at home.
Well, I could show people how to do things at home that would improve their cooking tenfold. I think to actually show somebody would be the best part for me – taking them out in the morning picking carrots, beetroot, getting fresh goats cheese and then making a salad with everything we just picked – fresh.
Cooking the carrots, cooking the beetroot and showing them it’s actually really simple. I always have this argument with Rob, who I worked with at Little Prince, another influential chef.
We used to say, ‘who is the better chef: the one that takes the steroid filled, wilted produced that looks five times bigger than it should and cooks and amazing dish with it or the the chef that takes produce that is organically grown, fresh, looked after and does very little with it, but still tastes as good?’
Being a good chef is looking at not only good produce but bad produce and being able to do something with it.
At Little Prince during prep all the food scraps would get thrown into a bucket and we would make lunch out of it. I think that’s the whole idea, using everything.
So, in the challenge would you prefer the average produce or the fresh produce?
It’s an interesting thought. A lot of people think fresh, fresh, fresh. If you take a fresh carrot and simply shave it, it will taste amazing.
If you get that average carrot and you roast it for ages with some butter, honey, some spices, what is keeping that carrot tasting better than the fresh one?
Being able to do that and know those techniques and to apply them, that’s a real skill. It’s about understanding what to do with the produce you’re given, rather than wanting to only eat fresh produce.
Thanks for your time.