From washing dishes to Australian Chef of the Year: Tom Hitchcock’s great adventure

Sep 9, 2023

How did Tom Hitchcock go from washing dishes in a bowls club to winning Australian Chef of the Year? The head chef at The Spirit House, one of Queensland’s most acclaimed destination restaurants, has done it all before turning 30, with big plans for years to come, as food journalist Wendy Hargreaves finds out.

Rising up the culinary ranks to head chef at The Spirit House, Tom Hitchcock has proven his skills on the national stage as the Australian Culinary Foundation’s 2023 Chef of the Year.

But the modest 29-year-old attributes his success to one factor: keeping his kitchen staff happy.

“It’s my number one priority as a chef,” Hitchcock says. “I make sure my staff are happy every single day. I even write menus around their capabilities and interests, not the other way around.

“The relationships with my staff and my team are all that matters, and it makes all the difference.

“When I first started cooking, relationships in kitchens were cut and dried. COVID was probably the best thing that happened to the industry because it pushed old mentality out.

“I hire people from pubs and clubs and surf clubs. I don’t mind where they’ve cooked, so long as they have a good attitude and personality.”

Winning Australian Chef of the Year is a long way from Hitchcock’s start in cooking at 14 as a schoolboy dishwasher at a bowling club in the northern Queensland town of Weipa.

“I always knew I was going to be a chef,” Hitchcock says. “It was the only subject in high school that I actually aced.

“I was good at fishing, but couldn’t see a career in that.

“And I remember my mum was at the top of her game as an English teacher, and told me I was the only child she couldn’t teach to spell.”

Hitchcock started his apprenticeship at a pub in Gladstone in central Queensland, moving to the Capricorn Resort to finish his training before heading to the Sunshine Coast to cook at the Twin Waters Sofitel.

He qualified at 19 and went on to cook at the Noosa Beach House with Peter Kuravita, where he found his passion for fermenting foods. Hitchcock also worked as chef de partie at Ricky’s in Noosa before joining The Spirit House, where he worked his way to sous chef.

After a stint with acclaimed chef Cameron Matthews at The Long Apron, Hitchcock was invited to take the head chef role at The Spirit House.

So what’s next?

“In about four years, I hope to have my own restaurant,” Hitchcock says. “I’ve set up the business name already.”

Watch this space.

See Tom Hitchcock in action at Fine Food Australia, where he’ll make a pork blood garum as part of a cooking demonstration on secondary cuts of pork. The session runs from 11am to 11.45am on September 13, 2023, at The Source Kitchen.

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