7-10 Sep 2020
Melbourne

The Book of Alvarez

Fred’s Danielle Alvarez has figured out the kind of chef she wants to be.

Danielle Alvarez doesn’t usually read this kind of article. You know the one, where we talk about where a chef grew up and how she’s inspired by the rhythm of the seasons. The Fred’s chef might skim a story before a collaboration, when she’s meeting someone new: “I guess if I’m going to work with them, and I have to do a bit of reading up on, so we have something to chat about,” she admits.

The standard profile on Alvarez goes like this: born in Miami to a family of Cuban expatriates, who escaped the island after Castro’s coup. Shelled eggs at the French Laundry before taking a position at Chez Panisse, where living legend Alice Waters took Alvarez under her wing. Headhunted by hospo tycoon Justin Hemmes, who built her a provincial French restaurant in the middle of Oxford Street. Now, she’s a member of the latest wave of hot young chefs. And, if you didn’t notice, she’s a woman. Fewer women are chefs.

Parts of that bio are intensely important to understanding Alvarez. Other parts, not so much. Her heritage, for instance, is an exciting story but bears little relevance to her culinary career. “In all honesty, I would think if you have ten sentences to say about someone, I feel like that’s probably the least important information,” she says thoughtfully (her default mode). “It’s always good to know someone’s heritage, and I think it might tell you that I know a bit about Latin culture or that I’ve lived somewhere else, et cetera, which is a good thing to know about a person. Sure. But does it tell you the kind of chef that I am now? Not at all.”

If you look, however, into Alvarez’ education – both inside hospitality and out – you’ll see the classical thread that runs through her contemporary cuisine. For her, the critical moment in any chef’s story is the moment they figure out what kind of cook they want to be. “I like to know where they really felt like they knew the kind of chefs they want to be,” she explains. “There’s usually one mentor, or place, that really shapes them into the kind of chef that they are, and as much as we evolve and food changes, I think the kind of chef you are often really comes from that experience. For me, that was Chez Panisse.”

For those who haven’t been, Chez Panisse is a proper institution. First opened in 1971, Panisse is the genetic forerunner of every ‘farm-to-table’ restaurant that’s opened since. Its founder, Alice Waters, pioneered the kind of structural changes to the way a restaurant operates that are still cutting-edge: direct relationships with farmers and producers, menus driven by the seasons, biodynamic, sustainable and organic produce, even shorter working weeks to help staff live creative lives without going insane. And that’s without even mentioning her skill as a chef.

“Chez Panisse really operated as a family more than an organisation. Anyone who spends significant time there is always thought of as part of the famil Panisse, as they say,” Alvarez explains. “Alice has been nothing but generous with me, giving me advice and encouragement, and also being honest about things as well – telling me, “I don’t think that was a good idea.””

Obviously, Water’s influence is all over Fred’s. Her rustic French inflexion can be seen in dishes such as the lamb a la ficelle, which Alvarez dangles on a string over a bed of glowing embers, or the simple side of heirloom lettuce which is served with nothing more than a radish and spray of vinaigrette.

And, like Waters’, Alvarez’ cooking career grew from a fascination with the arts. After abandoning an architectural degree, she studied Art History, and worked for a time in galleries and museums. She liked it, but it somehow lacked soul. The creative and cultural direction Alvarez was seeking she found, instead, in cooking. “The kind of cooking I’m into is a lot about different cultures. I want to learn about the old ways of doing things and how we got here,” she says.

The other thing that Alvarez began to learn at Chez Panisse was how to be a leader – or at least the kind of leader she wanted to be. It wasn’t one exactly like Waters, but certainly, one who helps younger chefs to grow. “There were amazing people in my career that aren’t really named chefs, but that offered me the same sort of generosity in knowledge,” says Alvarez. “And I think the only way to really pay respect to that is to pay it forward.”

Fred’s, which is part of the larger Merivale group of restaurants, has a more formal management structure that other restaurants. And, it employs a reasonably large staff. While the romance of creating dishes is often discussed, the day-to-day work of managing people is a critical part of any head chef’s job. “It shouldn’t have been a shock, but while my day to day now is still so much about the food, it’s also so much about people management,” says Alvarez. “Having one on one talks with staff and dealing with personal issues, and that’s across a very big team, especially where I’m at in Merivale.”

Rather than being the ringleader of a circus, Alvarez seems more like the driver in a Formula One team, constantly assessing her machine’s performance and eking out marginal improvements. “The environment I’m in now, I’m driving for constant improvement, change, evolution,” she says. “In that kind of environment, you really have to address things head on and tackle them, and move onto the next because otherwise you get stagnant.”

But ultimately, for Alvarez, the role she wants to play is not dissimilar to the one that Waters played for her. “I want to be someone who mentors staff and teaches them,” she says. “If they don’t already know what their passion for food is when they arrive in the kitchen, I want to help them find it and get them on a good path to achieving that, because I think – life is short.”

That ability to continue the millennia-long conversation about food and culture is probably also the reason that Alvarez agrees to do stories like this. She believes that, with her visibility in the vanguard of young Australian chefs, she might be able to attract other young talent to the profession (or more specifically, Fred’s). “I think at the beginning, I didn’t really think that I was worthy enough of that attention, so media always made me a little bit uncomfortable,” she admits. “I now understand a bit more the importance of it, not just for the business but for myself and my own growth, and putting my stamp on something.”

While the rockstar status of contemporary cooks might be a little perplexing, Alvarez understands that it’s increasingly a position of real influence. So, she might as well do something with it. “I think it’s a natural progression for chefs and people these days is to have a really strong social awareness and understanding of where food fits into that; the way our cultures behave, the way we treat each other, the way we treat the planet” she says. “Because it’s an extremely powerful thing, if you can sort of steer the narrative in a certain direction. I think you could change everything with food.”

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