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Jonathan Barthelmess Talks Life Beyond The Kitchen & Advice For Aspiring Chefs

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Jonathan Barthelmess has been toiling away in the restaurant business for eighteen years, both at the helm and as a distinguished kitchen maestro behind the scenes.

It’s little wonder, then, that the 33-year-old Sydney chef and restauranteur has received accolades from all corners of the foodie circle for his culinary work.

And if that’s not merit enough, Barthelmess has also managed to spawn two vastly different restaurants in a city with a discerning taste and a reputation for chewing up stagnant eateries and spitting them out.

D’Marge sits down with the co-owner of The Apollo and Cho Cho San to find out his tips for surviving the kitchen heat, how to succeed as a Sydney restauranteur and the pressing question on every man’s mind: what to do with that left over lamb in the fridge?

MH: What is your definition of good food?

JB: Easy. Good food to me must be simple, tasty, clean and most importantly, produce driven. Enjoying fine produce for me involves eating a fig when it is season, or eating local fresh asparagus instead of imported. The presentation aspect is leaving the ingredients alone and letting the produce truly speak for itself.

MH: Coming from a Greek family, is it safe to assume cooking was always in your blood?

JB: Yes it is definitely safe. I grew up with it as my grandfather was also a chef so it was only natural that I would follow that path.

MH: And what were you like as a kid?

JB: As a kid I was actually obsessed with surfing. Funnily enough it’s one of the reasons I became a chef – so that I could surf during the day and work and cook at night to make a living.

“You must learn your craft inside and out…you must be able to do every job in the restaurant before you can even contemplate running one.”

MH: What’s the toughest thing about being a chef that people don’t realise?

JB: In my mind nothing is hard if it’s what you love to do. Being a chef is a lifestyle choice and it’s my choice. Having said that, it is entirely different to what everyone else does in terms of work hours.

When everyone is out having a good time – birthdays, weddings, celebrations – you are usually working. It can also be exceptionally difficult to hold down a relationship if your partner is not already working in the industry.

MH: What would be your proudest achievement to date?

JB: Definitely using my profile as a chef to raise money for charities and to help other people. In the past we have participated in the Dine Smart Program for StreetSmart. It’s where we ask diners to make a small donation to StreetSmart on their bill.

It’s definitely one of my prouder moments where I’m happy to admit that last December between Cho Cho San and The Apollo, we raised over $11,000.

And just last week The Apollo participated in Supper Club for Camp Quality – Australia’s biggest dinner party which brought together more than 1,800 charity-minded people across 150 of Australia’s finest restaurants.

MH: I take it the food wasn’t too shabby then?  

JB: Our guests dined on a feast at our chef’s table matched with 2 Magnums of Piper Heidsieck champagne and some terrific Robert Oatley wines. But the point was being able to help paint a better life for children living with cancer.

MH: What’s the most expensive thing you’ve ever had the pleasure of eating?

JB: That’d have to be white truffles and the best quality Wagyu in Japan. In Italy, I ate white truffles shaved over a beautiful risotto at a 2 star Michelin restaurant and it set me back around AU$140. It was amazing and worth every dollar.

The best Wagyu I’ve had was at a Shabu Shabu restsurant in Ginza; the beef was out of this world but I’m not sure how much the Wagyu was. Our dinner bill ended up at AUS$400 per person.

If we’re talking independent of cost, the most memorable thing I’ve ever eaten is probably freshly made mozzarella in Campaigna, straight from the producer.

MH: What should a man cook if he wants to impress his date?

JB: I can’t give that away! You need something fail-safe, so definitely something that you have done one hundred times before. I would start the night off with a cocktail and then I would cook something like a grilled piece of fish with some interesting salads. I would not be cooking with blue cheese or offal.

And I would definitely stay away from cooking a steak because everyone likes their steak cooked differently. Remember, you don’t know what your date likes just yet. I would however cook her The Apollo’s Saganaki – it’s a form of Greek pan-fried cheese.

“Once you understand how extremely difficult it is to run a restaurant and you still want to put all your money on the line, go for it.”

MH: So I’ve come home from work to a piece of lamb in the fridge. What’s best thing I can do with it?

JB: Easy question. Rub plenty of salt, pepper and oregano onto the lamb and cook it on the BBQ. Once the lamb is roasted to your liking, dress it with olive oil, lemon juice and a splash of yoghurt. Cut up an iceberg lettuce, and use the resting juices to dress the salad. Dinner is ready to go.

MH: You went from Greek to modern Japanese cuisine with The Apollo and Cho Cho San restaurants. Where does the inspiration for your food come from?

JB: I’d have to say I’ve been mainly inspired from my travels. I truly love the simplicity of Japanese cuisine; its produce driven and focuses on the main elements of food. This is something I have focused on for my whole career no matter what cuisine I’m cooking whether it be Greek or Japanese.

MH: Running one restaurant is no walk in the park let alone running two in such a competitive market. What advice do you have for those aspiring to get into the industry?

JB: You must learn your craft inside and out. You need to work back of house and front of house and you must be able to do every job in the restaurant before you can even contemplate running one. I’d say you even need to run someone else’s restaurant first and surround yourself with mentors.

Once you understand how extremely difficult it is to run a restaurant and you still want to put all your money on the line, go for it.

MH: Chefs have their own favourite eateries after knock-off. What are yours?

JB: I have three at the moment. They’d have to be Fratelli Paradiso in Potts Point, Frankies Pizza in the CBD and the ever-popular Golden Century in Sydney’s Chinatown.

MH: Where do you want to take your food in the future? Any upcoming secret projects?

JB: The short story is I am constantly trying to make my food better every day. And upcoming projects? Nothing we can tell you about just now, but you will be the first to know.

MH: You’ve been noted as a rather stylish chef. Birkenstocks or Crocs in the kitchen?

JB: Neither! My trusty Spring Courts do just fine.

MH: We hear you’re a fan of IWC watches.

JB: I love IWC’s philosophy; as a watchmaker they are as passionate about their craft as I am about my food. Their watches are also stylish, elegant and precise – all the qualities that I strive for in my profession.

MH: If you weren’t a chef, you’d be… 

JB: I would be doing something else that I’m in love with. Being a chef is not just a job for me, it’s a part of my life. If I wasn’t a chef I would be doing something else that I would have the same attitude towards such as design or music.  Those are my other passions but there’s definitely nothing I love more than cooking.

MH: What did you spend your first big paycheck on?

JB: I am still waiting for it…

Photography shot exclusively for D’Marge by Phillip Papadis

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