Mitch Orr: Out of The Frying Pan

Dec 5, 2022

How does a hotel dining room become Sydney’s “Best New Restaurant” less than six weeks after opening? John Lethlean asks Mitch Orr, the chef behind Kiln.

Mitch Orr’s name has been associated with some of Sydney’s most disruptive dining of the past decade. ACME. Bar Brose. CicciaBella. Businesses with strong personalities, iconoclastic food and formidable kitchens.

So it was perhaps a surprise to the industry this year when Orr signed up to open the signature restaurant on the 11th floor of Australia’s first Ace Hotel in Sydney’s Surry Hills.

Then Orr’s wood-fired Kiln became an overnight success, almost literally.

Image: Anson Smart

Less than six weeks after opening night, Kiln was named 2023’s Best New Restaurant by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide, a decision the editors presumably took knowing full well the scrutiny it would receive so early in the new restaurant’s life.

“I think the first thing I said when we won the award was, ‘this makes no fucking sense’,” says Orr, reflecting on how it felt to win one of Australia’s hottest dining gongs in November.

But as the news settled in, Orr came to believe that “perhaps it does make sense… it’s a really incredible restaurant… the work that the staff have put in, the training they’ve been through, and I think the food is quite unique.

“The dining room is not like any other in Sydney, maybe Australia. I think it’s a really special place. So maybe it does make sense.”

Image: Nikki To

Image: Anson Smart

Kiln is, of course, the chef’s first hotel restaurant. Orr describes it as “a partnership”, forged over a courting period that lasted more than a year.

Orr says his role is to “set the standard” and train the team at Kiln for a least a year before stepping back into “more of a partnership consultancy role” when “everybody steps up”.

Orr says he has been incredibly fortunate to pull together such a great team, given the events of the past three years, the fact that he was no longer working in kitchens, and that his peer group – his employment contacts – were mostly head chef or executive chef level.

He says a break from restaurant kitchens gave him time to clarify what he really wants in a restaurant.

Image: Nikki To

“I always had the idea that one day I’d own my own restaurant,” Orr says. “I never really planned how to do it… (or) thought about what happens after that if that restaurant closes and it all goes to shit.

“So having the last three years off, more or less, has been very good for me. It allowed me to process all that stuff, have that realisation that ‘oh ..?, no wonder I haven’t known what I really wanted to do because I never thought past that point of owning a restaurant’.”

Planning time in the lead-up to Kiln’s opening has also proven valuable, Orr says.

“Working with a big international company, I’ve had to learn how to manage my ego a bit, give control away a bit and not worry about it too much,” he says. “I’m so used to doing things myself, for myself, and having control over it.

“I feel that my food is a bit more mature now. The irony is that I tried to be really approachable with the food we’re doing here and the feedback that we’ve had is that people can still really tell it’s me cooking. Even though we’ve tried not to alienate anyone, my voice still come through.

Image: Nikki To

“I found that very reassuring. Because you go through that period of not working, having a restaurant close, losing your identity and having that imposter syndrome. ‘Do I actually know what the fuck I’m doing’?”

“It’s really, really good to be back in a busy restaurant feeding people.”

John Lethlean has written about restaurants, food and hospitality people since 1996 at The Australian, The Age, delicious. and Gourmet Traveller.

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