Peter Doyle – tasting success

Written by Dominic Rolfe

It’s unlikely Peter Doyle will forget his first moments as a chef. If he ever does, all he needs to do is peer down at his index finger. When the new apprentice landed a job at the Argyle Tavern in 1972, after shopping himself around for two weeks, his head chef told him to cut the carrots. Doyle had a brand new French knife but no idea about slicing veggies. He stood the carrot vertically and began. “The knife went straight through the carrot into my finger,” says Doyle, “I got this huge gash just below the nail. They squirted a bit of powder on it, wrapped it in a bandage and said carry on. It took six months to heal because it should have been stitched and instead just flapped around for ages.”

Sydney diners should be grateful that the perfect u-shaped scar he still bears didn’t kill his career before it had even begun. “It was a really busy and super basic menu,” says Doyle, “it only had roast pork, roast chicken, roast beef, that sort of thing. But the four or five guys I started with were professional and really friendly – I was taken with the job straight away.”

Looking back on over four decades in the business, Doyle, who is Executive Head chef at the lauded Sydney restaurant, est., says it’s hard to explain that when he began most menus consisted of “pretty much the same 25 dishes. Nothing had moved for 30 years.”

Not that Doyle had an inkling of the historical stasis – the boy from Cronulla barely knew what “a la carte” meant. “I didn’t have a grandmother that I’d learnt from, I didn’t really cook growing up,” he says, “but then I started reading books like Mastering The Art of French Cooking by Julia Child and that opened my eyes to a big wide world of cooking.”

As it turned out, the callow chef and keen surfer, was hitting the water at exactly the right time. “I was lucky to have started in the sort of dark ages,” says Doyle, “Towards the end of my apprenticeship, nouvelle cuisine happened. It really was an exciting time, when the first revolution of product became evident.”

After 18 months at the Argyle Tavern, stints at the Macquarie Inn and the Newport Arms, and trips through Africa, France and Europe, Doyle landed at Chanterelle, where he would hone his classical techniques. Six months later, he left to open Turrets in the Castlereagh Hotel with his wife Beverley. “We did lunch for 20 people every day,” he says, “I worked in the kitchen, Beverley worked out front – it was amazing.”

Unlike the expensive fit outs that attend most new openings these days, Doyle took over the lease for $1500 and was dead broke. “I had to borrow $300 from my Dad to go to Paddy’s Markets and buy the first day’s ingredients,” he laughs. “It was a great learning curve and it really taught us the basics of business. Mind you, it’s never been that good since as you banked nearly fifty percent of the takings each week. The margins are a lot slimmer these days!”

At Turrets and, subsequently, Reflections in Palm Beach, Le Trianon and Cicada in Potts Point and Celsius, Doyle relished the opportunity to show his individuality. “I think our whole era of young chefs wanted to own restaurants because they wanted to express what they thought a modern good restaurant was,” he says, “All of sudden you’re on your own and you have to shape up a menu. But you’re reading and absorbing a lot of things so you sort of knew what you wanted to do … and you just hope it was right!”

Even though Doyle’s notions of having a career that would allow him to surf in the morning were swiftly quashed, maintaining balance in his work and life has always been important. “Almost every day, you wonder if it’s all a bit crazy,” he says, “And while some people think it’s a badge of honour to work 100 hours a week, I just say, ’OK, come and see me in five years!’ You’ve got to keep a balance.”

These days the glories of owning his own restaurant are more than ten years behind him (“My day off is more relaxing now!”) but that joy of being in a big kitchen still fires his passion. “What drives the industry is the energy, the creativity and the imagination of the people doing it,” says Doyle, “It’s great being in the kitchen surrounded by young people. The camaraderie in the kitchen is the same as it ever was.”

as featured in May 2015 Voyeur magazine

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