7-10 Sep 2020
Melbourne

Chef Zackary Furst’s recipe for success

Zackary Furst has had difficult times along the way, but he knows character-building experiences have set him up for a fruitful career.

Chef Zackary Furst reaches a heavily tattooed arm up to check his babies: four glass demijohns filled with ferments of apple, mead, nashi pear and miso. As the airlocks bubble away, he explains how they will soon be transformed into delicious homemade vinegars used to bolster his sauces, finish meat dishes and add special zing to oysters.

“I’m enjoying making things that are unique to this place and build on its existing character,” he says.

We’re deep in Furst’s office/laboratory/second home – the cave-like bluestone kitchen of Fitzroy’s Bar Liberty, which he joined as head chef in 2019. It’s the first time a non-owner has headed up the kitchen since former Attica pair Banjo Harris Plane and Michael Bascetta and ex-Rockwell & Sons duo Casey Wall and Manu Potoi opened the edgy wine bar and restaurant in 2016. It’s also a vote of confidence in Furst, who is just 27 years old.

Then again, he already has more than a few feathers in his toque, including winning Time Out magazine’s Hot Talent Award in 2018, being a finalist two years running in the Electrolux Young Chef of the Year Awards and making the regional San Pellegrino Best Young Chef finalist list in 2017.

chef chopping vegetables in kitchen

Not bad for a guy who dropped out of high school in Year 10, where he admits to concentrating more on inking his leg with a calligraphy pen than paying attention in class.

“I grew up in a family of five kids in Wodonga where my mum and dad have a catering company called Traditional Catering,” says Furst. “Ever since I was little, my siblings and I worked in [the business]. So, I feel like being in kitchens and hospitality has always been where I needed to be.”

Furst’s first non-family mentor was chef Michael Ryan of two-hatted Provenance, in Beechworth.  “In the beginning I just did the dishes,” he recalls, adding he used to regularly catch the bus to Beechworth after school to do Thursday- and Friday-night service. “Then I graduated to kitchen hand and later the pastry and larder chef.”

This two-year stint left a lasting impression on the teenage Furst: “I got hooked. The first year I was there it received two hats and it was like, wow, this is amazing – not because of me, of course – but this was amazing.”

He pestered his parents to allow him to leave school and cook but his father, who had worked from a young age himself, was reluctant. A tentative “Ok” from his mum was all young Furst needed. In a flash he was on the phone to his brother Jake, a chef seven years his senior and already working in Melbourne, who lined him up a job at The French Brasserie under Gabriel Martin.

Furst says he learnt a lot under Martin but admits he found it difficult to cope in the beginning. “I had a pretty vicious three months to start,” he says. “I was the youngest in the kitchen by seven or eight years, and it wasn’t a big kitchen but it was very busy.”

Furst could see how passionate Martin was and marvelled at his background, which included training with top international chefs, such as Marco Pierre White. “He’s got this amazing, regimented skill and that’s kind of rare to find these days. I really admired it but with that skill comes a lot of discipline and brutal lessons he’s probably learnt in his life about being a chef. And that kind of trickled down to me.”

chef holding a bowl with flour

The lowest moment for Furst came at the bottom of a béarnaise sauce bowl. Although a staple of the restaurant’s lunch and dinner menu, béarnaise was a beguiling, frustrating mystery for the young apprentice. For a month, the 16-year-old was forced to make it again and again by his exacting boss.

Later, over after-service drinks, his cooking skills were roundly dissected and disparaged. It was a significant blow to his confidence. “But at the same time, I used it as ammunition to get better. It wasn’t a deal-breaker, but it definitely hurt sometimes.” Fortunately, Furst found solace and advice from his older brother, who kept him on the “straight and narrow”.

When Martin left The French Brasserie to open his own restaurant, Metropolis Eating House in Brunswick, Furst came along for the ride. Things ended prematurely when the restaurant failed but the experience taught him the importance of good business partners and being well supported as a chef.

Eventually he found steady work at the now defunct Embrasse, under chef Nicolas Poelaert. “He didn’t have a job for me at first, so I came and staged for a week and then kept doing one or two shifts when they needed help,” he says. He went on to become a junior sous chef at city restaurant Brooks, then teamed up with chef friend Peter Gunn, who was running pop-up events.

The connection helped Furst secure a trial at Ben Shewry’s acclaimed Ripponlea restaurant, Attica, where he stayed for two years, before helping Gunn open his bricks-and-mortar version of IDES in 2016.

mussels being cooked in a pan

It may sound like a whirlwind career but Furst has picked up plenty of tips along the way. Number one; always eat at a restaurant before applying for a job there to see if it’s the kind of place you like. (You can pick a chef dining out a mile away, he laughs. “They’re the ones who don’t know how to talk to waiters or order wine!”)

Next, speak with the chef in charge. If you can’t connect at a personal level, you won’t learn from them, Furst says. “You might want to work for the most incredible chef but if they can’t talk to you face-to-face as a person, and they can’t respect you in that sense, you shouldn’t invest with them.”

Finally, stay in a job for at least 18 months, and preferably two or three years. “In your first year, you’ll learn the skills of the restaurant and how it works but after that you’ll start to think about it a bit more: what it’s like on a busy day, what it’s like when a new staff member comes,” says Furst. “You see more of a lifespan of a restaurant and that’s really important – not just as a chef but as a future business owner or restaurateur.

“You need to see the small changes that you might not think are important but can be extremely important.”

Bar Liberty is located in Johnston St, Fitzroy. For more information and to make a booking head to https://barliberty.com/

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