From the English countryside to Sydney, chef Darren Robertson sharpened his culinary craft under the famed three-hatted Japanese kitchen of Tetsuya’s.
Not long after, Robertson took on his own project and opened Three Blue Ducks in 2010 with a bunch of mates. Since then the cafe in Bronte has been heralded a resounding success for putting out real food alongside its exquisite coffee for locals.
Now, The Farm – Three Blue Duck’s second location – has bowed in Byron Bay, whisking Robertson away to north coast NSW, along with his new fiancé – the stunning Magdalena Roze.
D’Marge caught up with Robertson to find out his definition of ‘real food’, the one time he fed The Chili Peppers and what settling back into country life is like.
“The only way to learn is to make every mistake in the book and then move on. I never went to business school or anything.”
BF: So, how are you adjusting to rural life?
DR: Well I grew up in Kent (UK) in a little town called Deal, which is coastal. So it’s not too dissimilar to where I am living now. It’s where I first cooked, in a little seaside restaurant. Actually, I met someone at The Farm recently who was from Deal. It’s such a small world.
BF: You’re a bit of a Deal celebrity then?
DR: No. Not at all (laughs). I came to Australia to work at Tetsuya’s Restaurant in Sydney – and for me it was a big deal, this world famous restaurant. But even my own mother didn’t understand what I was doing – for years and years and years.
She thought I’d moved all the way to Australia to work at this little Japanese restaurant, like a sushi train. It wasn’t until Tetsuya’s did a gig on ‘Masterchef’, which then aired in the UK, that she – and the rest of the town, I guess – could see what I was doing as a chef. But to be honest, I think people back home have better things to do with their time!
BF: Tell me about a typical day on The Farm?
DR: It depends. If it’s a weekend, I’m up at like 5.30 a.m. and I’m prepping the BBQ, which I cook throughout the day. On Monday, the team and I usually discuss what happened on the weekend – both here in Byron and at our Bronte location.
Tuesday, I’m usually in the kitchen preparing bits and pieces. Wednesday the other two chefs and myself sit down with the local farmers and discuss what’s coming up: what’s being planted in the ground and any problems we have. Essentially, we’re just trying to iron out any creases.
BF: So The Farm is really a holistic approach to food?
DR: Absolutely. Our chefs work four days in the kitchen, one day in the field. They want learn and be in the kitchen as much as possible, but they’re also passionate about growing produce, composting, worm farms and irrigation. It’s about learning life skills, from the beginning.
BF: You’ve come so far since your first kitchen job. What kickstarted your passion for food?
DR: I washing up dishes back at the seafood restaurant in Deal and one of the chefs overheard me saying I wanted to be a photographer. He showed me this cookbook called ‘White Heat’ by chef Marco Pierre White, which had all these amazing black and white, grainy photos.
I took it home and read it one night. And something clicked. Here was this really cool chef with long hair, casually smoking a cigarette (laughs).
In all seriousness, it was the first time I actually saw the kitchen as a creative outlet. It’s easy to perceive the chef as simply doing a job – putting things on plates with no thought – but the book showed me just how much deeper it is.
BF: Coming from the UK, what attracted you to Australia?
DR: I’d been working with a few Aussies in the kitchen back home and they would often bang on about Tet’s (Tetsuya’s) in Sydney. My boss at the time made a few calls and a trial came up to work under Tets (Tetsuya Wakuda). I jumped at the chance and literally flew out four weeks later.
BF: Was it a big change?
DR: Well, I was a sous chef in the UK and at the time I thought I was the best chef on the planet. Back home, everyone was kind of cooking the same food. For me, it wasn’t that exciting. So, I arrived at Tet’s and there was all this Japanese seaweed, soy and miso and I didn’t know anything about it. It was a humbling experience – starting again.
Scrubbing oysters and washing lettuce again. But getting to hang out with the Aussie and Japanese guys at work and going to yum cha on my days off, it was mind-blowing. So different to the UK where I was cooking traditional cuisine and eating fish and chips and bacon and egg rolls at home.
BF: Have you cooked for anyone famous?
DR: Tony Hawk. He came into Tets a few years back. He was super friendly and like ‘hey y’all’ as he strode on in. He was such a dude too; rocking skinny jeans, a tee and the rattiest pair of Chucks I’ve ever seen – literally falling off his feet. But he wasn’t bothered.
And then at Three Blue Ducks, Flea from the Chili Peppers actually queued up to eat breakfast during our Sunday morning rush. Our girl on the door taking names for tables had no idea who he was – until he said his name. But, he was cool about. And he must’ve enjoyed cause Anthony Kiedis came the following week.
BF: How did the entrepreneur in you develop?
DR: To be honest, it’s something that I’ve picked up along the way. I learned, for example, how to advertise a product from my time at Tets’ setting up stalls in the Pyrmont marketplace. In the beginning I was horrible. I had no signage and no customers.
Getting around other restauranteurs and chatting with my core team also helps. But really, the only way to learn is to make every mistake in the book and then move on. I never went to business school or anything.
BF: So are you more a restauranteur or chef now?
DR: I’m both. I find the business side of things fascinating. The way it allows you to grow and give opportunities to the next generation. The business aspect allows me to take a step back from the food sometimes and look more at those impacted by what we do – whether it’s our staff, suppliers, or the customer.
BF: How would you describe the Three Blue Ducks cuisine?
DR: Our chefs are Aussie, British and Sri Lankan; all these different cultures bringing something to the table. And I despise the food term palate-to-plate cause I think it’s just so overused. So now we simply call our cuisine ‘real food’.
It’s honest, punchy and tasty. All the meals are nutritious and of course, all made from locally-sourced ingredients. The food can be messy too, but above all, it has to be delicious.
BF: What’s your go-to dish?
DR: Definitely a Sunday roast with crackling, spuds and all the trimmings. It’s more a nostalgic choice than anything and it was a go-to dish growing up.
BF: What’s the best meal a guy can make for a first date?
DR: Shucked oysters with a squeeze of lime and nice bottle of champagne. It’s taking something untouched and fresh and its literally foolproof – no cooking required. Otherwise, the perfect steak and wine. Also, very simple.
BF: A meal for the time-poor gent?
DR: Toast? (laughs) I’d say pasta or a one-pot-wonder like a ham hock soup or hearty stew – especially for winter.
BF: How does being a chef affect the way you eat?
DR: I never head out with intention to critique something. Dining should be about going somewhere to unwind; engaging and sharing a meal with the people you care about. I like going somewhere relaxed, with soft music, warm lighting and somewhere to have a bit of fun. I like tasting new things too, but I’m just as happy with a well-topped pizza.
BF: Do Aussies or the Brits eat better?
DR: Australians. They eat loads of fresh produce and have easy access to it. Even when you’re in the suburbs or the city, the freshness is available. And the cuisine in Australia is so diverse.
It’s a much healthier lifestyle compared to the UK, pushed on by sport, surfing and being active. Being sustainable affects the way we consume too. Whether it’s food, farming and even fashion.
BF: What are your fashion must-haves?
DR: Black jeans, plain tees and my army green sweater with elbow patches. I quite like Patagonia gear at the moment. Especially their outdoor casual jackets. And I can’t go past a clean cut pair of Chucks.
BF: What’s the biggest fashion faux pas you’ve made?
DR: When I first moved to Australia my girlfriend at the time would buy me these beaded necklaces. So I went through this massive bead stage. I just thought it was super cool and now looking back…
BF: How do you like to relax?
DR: I spent a lot of time outdoors. Surfing, snowboarding, and road trips. I eat out a lot too and check out other places to eat.
BF: First expensive thing you ever bought?
DR: A silver Land Rover Discovery. But I’m not really materialistic. I like spending money on what interests me, namely food, family and travel. It’s more about experiences.
None of these things – a meal, a journey, a gig – last longer than a few hours because you consume or absorb it, but it’s worth it. I find experiences nurture you as a person, more so than acquiring ‘things’.
“When I was young I was super shy and quiet. My biggest fear was that I’d be stuck in my home town. So, I had to force myself to try new things and not panic.”
BF: So you like going to music events?
DR: Yes. Mags (Magdalena) took me for ramen in Chinatown in Sydney as a treat cause I’d been craving it since living in Byron. All throughout the day she kept dropping hints about something that was to happen later on.
As we sat down to eat, she handed me this envelope with a card inside and on the card was a triangle – nothing else. Then, she took me around the corner and it all made sense – the triangle was the symbol of the band I love, Alt-J. And here they were, playing.
BF: She’s a keeper. So do you miss the spontaneity of the city life?
DR: I love living in Byron. Where I am, it’s a bubbling scene of people who care about what they do – working the land, creating great food. It feels a bit more ‘connected’ than the city. But I love the city – the buzz, the vibe, but it’s really only nice to visit. Being in the country, it’s like coming up for air.
BF: It’s all very cyclical your journey from the country to the city to the country again. What advice do you have for younger lads hoping to succeed?
DR: When I was young I was super shy and quiet. My biggest fear was that I’d be stuck in my home town. So, I had to force myself to try new things and not panic. Society is so afraid of change but it’s never as bad as you think it is or it’s going to be. Then, years on you look back on the life you’ve made and think: “How did all this happen to me?”
BF: Engaged, almost a father and two successful restaurants on the go. What’s next for Darren Robertson then?
DR: Focusing on the baby, which is very exciting. Three Blue Ducks has another book coming out this year, too. But, I’d like to look at merging food and music creating events. Almost, like a farmer’s market with incredible music to listen to while you’re eating.
Essentially, I’m just enjoying the moment that we’re in really. I have a lot to appreciate.