Annita Potter, Homecoming Queen
After 20 years cooking in top restaurants around the world, Annita Potter is back home and the toast of Sydney as NSW’s freshly minted Chef of the Year. In a frank interview with food journalist John Lethlean, Annita tells of her slow and uncompromising rise to the top.
Annita Potter was virtually unknown in her homeland before 2022. Annita who? Chef of what? Exactly.
Then Good Food named the Perth-raised modern Thai specialist its 2023 Chef of the Year, topping off rapturous reviews of Viand – her first and only restaurant, ever – by Terry Durack at the Sydney Morning Herald and myself as the former national restaurant critic at The Australian.
In a quick turnaround, Potter is very much on the horizon, following the lead of those super-talented Australian chefs – like her mentor David Thompson – who have spent nearly all their career living and working abroad.
Despite the pre-opening hype of her considerable achievements in London, Bangkok and Hong Kong, Potter launched Viand in Woolloomooloo in March 2022 wearing the hair shirt of a naturally modest and unknown commodity in her newly adopted home of Sydney. Viand would sink, or swim, organically.
Visiting Viand earlier this year the place had a refreshing air of DIY about it. No big budget, outside investor influence here. Potter and her partner Mark Wotherspoon even poured the slab themselves.
“There’s no part of this restaurant I haven’t touched with my own hands,” Potter said at the time.
As a reviewer familiar with Thai food from the southern islands to the northern borders, the craftsmanship and nuance of Potter’s cooking was – to me anyway – immediately apparent. And, when I asked her about the preparation of some of the dishes, I was staggered by the amount of work that goes into every dish.
Here’s a taste of my review: “An intriguing, layered salad combines a kind of fried prawn ‘crackling’, poached prawns, coarsely cut shallot and green mango with lush mint and coriander and a tangy/garlicky dressing, all crowned with roasted red chillies. The heat is gentle: balance – everything with Thai food – is perfect. Eat with rice.”
And my conclusion? “If my job is to introduce you to amazing talent, consider it done.”
Potter fled Perth at 19 after her apprenticeship. Instead of east, the young chef went north to Paris and stayed away most of the next two decades.
“I think it gave me depth,” Potter explained. “And grounding. Coming from Perth, not that there’s anything wrong with coming from Perth, I sincerely wanted to be a very small fish in a very big pond. I needed to be beaten around a bit. I was a pretty tough kid.
“But at the point where I left, I didn’t see myself progressing to where I wanted to go. I have very high expectations of myself, a lot of which I’m yet to match.
“I had a tough upbringing and for me it was about matching the expectations of friends and family. Try harder, try harder. It certainly made me one tough broad in the overall scheme of things.”
And the disadvantages of heading abroad?
“Language barriers would be the strong one,” Potter replied. “Connecting with people. The toughness of figuring out how things work in different countries. The two go hand in hand but they’re more life skills than professional skills.
“Paris was a very tough time in my life. I was saying… what the heck am I doing? I didn’t know the language and I didn’t take the trouble to learn it before I left. One day it clicked, but there were so many times that I could’ve given up.
“Finding friends was difficult. It’s awfully lonely on the road. But I was lucky to fall into the grasp of (Australian expat chef) David (Thompson) who kind of just took me in. For all that it was tough, there was a whole lot of good.”
When it was time to return home, Sydney was always the destination, but the late-COVID timing of her restaurant concept drew plenty of critics.
“There were people high up in the industry and they all said to me ‘you’re crazy… do not do this. Don’t,” Potter said. “They were all worried about me self-funding the restaurant, and not being well-known in Sydney.
“I’ve kind of always been unknown. It’s not foreign to me to be unknown. I was an international unknown. I was working for David Thompson for 10 years, unknown. It didn’t really faze me.”
Lucky for Sydney, Potter ignored the doomsayers.
“With Viand, I had no choice. I don’t see how else I could’ve done it,” Potter said.
“Do I go and work for a big restaurant group as a sous chef after all the things I’ve done? That would be defeat for me after pushing myself for basically my whole professional career and then to come home to Australia and take a job that really wasn’t using all my skill and knowledge.”
After decades of working in other people’s kitchens, Potter was ready to “do it my way”.
“I wanted to create the sort of place that I like to dine in,” she said. “A place to go out for dinner and settle in for the whole night.
“We don’t turn tables. When did it become normal for diners to be crammed in and kicked out just as they’re getting comfortable? Something has been lost in hospitality.
“I want people remember the dining experiences of a different time, when going out for dinner was an experience.
“I’ve only got 10 tables downstairs and one upstairs. I wanted to give people plenty of space, and time to relax. It’s how I like to dine when I go out.
“Just sit down and let me look after you.”
John Lethlean has written full-time about restaurants, food and hospitality people since 1996 at The Australian, The Age, delicious. and Gourmet Traveller.