Meet the Chef: Louis Couttoupes of Onzieme Restaurant
Photography by Lean Timms
Interview by Harriet Davidson
Louis’ story to becoming a chef, to later owning his own restaurant, is slightly different to the usual. It started in Paris. Coming out of a career with Australia’s Public Service, the now chef and owner of Canberra restaurant Onzieme, found himself in the 11th arrondissement amongst a group of international chefs deeply engrained in the bistronomy scene of 2015. Letting the farmers and producers dictate what was scribbled on the restaurant’s blackboard menu that day is just the beginning of what Louis has carried with him from those Paris days.
We spent a crisp Canberra winter’s morning with Louis and his partner at Canberra’s Onzieme as he revved up the wood-fire oven and his clay hot pot to make his duck cassoulet, the recipe he’s shared with the journal. Along with this beautiful dish, he tells his story of making his way into kitchens, what inspires and drives him, the lasting impact spending time cooking in France has had and where our food and restaurant industry is at today. A truly inspiring chef and cook, it’s a joy to have Louis and his story on the journal.
On a slightly less conventional journey to the role of a chef…
To be honest it all happened quite by accident. I mean, I had always liked cooking, but I don’t think that’s particularly novel for a chef. It’s probably more accurate to say that I liked eating and tasting food. I was always fascinated by the processes of cooking and being a chef. I wanted to be one when I was younger, but I think I grew out of that and went to university instead. After about 8 years of working in the public service, I realised that it wasn’t what I wanted, so I quit in 2014.
The following year I went to Paris with my girlfriend and we found ourselves in this bistronomy scene that I had never come across, with its epicentre in the 11th arrondissement. There was a group of young chefs from Australia, the U.K., the U.S., Sweden, Japan, and they were all cooking super seasonal, creative dishes based on what was at the markets that morning. They wrote the menu every day on a chalkboard and would start again the next day. It wasn’t what you would describe as French food because it drew on those chef’s personal and professional experience, which meant that nearly anything goes.
I was fascinated by the constant creativity and the way they seemed to improvise and come up with dishes on the fly that tasted so good. We made friends with one chef in particular at Au Passage, Ed Delling-Williams. They happened to be looking for a chef, and after several wines, my girlfriend suggested to Ed that I come and work to learn more about cooking. She had always known I liked cooking but could see that without any training there was no real structure or direction to what I was doing. She kind of pushed me into it. I felt more at ease and more confident in what I was doing in the first week in that kitchen than I did in all my time in the public service. I went in every day for three months to learn everything I could.
When we returned to Australia, I wasn’t really sure how to turn what I had learnt into a cheffing role. I was 31 without any real work experience. I ended up taking a job washing dishes and prepping at Canberra’s Bar Rochford when it opened in 2016, taking whatever shifts I could during service and waiting tables on weekends. About mid-2017, Nick Smith (Rochford’s owner), offered me the head chef position and we really started to focus on trying to make Rochford a food destination as much as a drinks one. It took some doing but we got there and managed to put Rochford on the map when people were starting to take more notice of Canberra’s food and wine scene.
Cut to 2022; I signed a lease for Onzieme in Kingston, in the inner-south of Canberra. My girlfriend, my dad and I spent the next six months building the restaurant, and what is now 11e Bar à Vins—our little wine and cocktail bar downstairs.
On going down a less traditional path into a kitchen without the formal training…
I have a really clear memory of sitting down with Ed after the first week of Au Passage and he asked me why I was doing all of this. Did I actually want to be a chef? I think up to that point I hadn’t really thought about it. I was enjoying learning, but did I want to be a chef? He said everyone I would be working next to would be younger than me with way more experience, so I would have to work harder than everyone else, and learn faster. I think being a bit older than most chefs maybe helps because my younger party days are behind me. I knew what I wanted to do and what I had to do to get there. My advice? Read everything you can and take every opportunity to absorb and improve.
I think not having any formal training can be both a blessing and a curse. I feel like it sometimes frees me up from the constraints of what formal training might teach chefs about what you can and can’t do, or what you should and shouldn’t do in developing dishes. But at the same time, it can be frustrating when I’m trying to figure something out and it just won’t work, and knowing that having those foundations of formal training could get me there.
On what Onzieme is all about…
Onzieme is an hommage to the bistronomy of the 11th, hence the name. I always thought that the eclectic approach to creating the menu would translate well to Australia, as we have such a broad range of cuisines. We write the menu up everyday to reflect what we're getting from our suppliers and what’s in season. But it’s about more than just the food for me. A great meal has always been about more than food. It’s the company, the surroundings, the wine, the atmosphere. I really wanted Onzieme to be a place where you could come for a special occasion, to catch up with friends, or just for a relaxed Tuesday night. And somewhere you could come often and always find something new on the menu, and something different by way of wine to try. We focus on natural, minimal intervention wines from producers that have the same overall approach to their processes as we do in the kitchen: unconventional, sustainable and fun.
Our kitchen is predominantly driven by wood and charcoal cooking, so those flavours play a really important role in how I cook. I inherited a wood-fired pizza oven with the lease, so that gets a huge workout every day. Most of our vegetable dishes go through it as well as slow-cooked meats, and all kinds of stuff. I got so into that kind of cooking that I had a sort of mini-hearth built so we can cook directly on open coals.
We write the menu up everyday to reflect what we're getting from our suppliers and what’s in season. But it’s about more than just the food for me. A great meal has always been about more than food. It’s the company, the surroundings, the wine, the atmosphere.
On the influence France and its’ restaurant culture has had…
It’s weird. I wouldn’t be cooking, and certainly wouldn’t have opened Onzieme, if I hadn’t spent time in kitchens in Paris. But none of my experience cheffing I would describe as particularly French; not in any traditional sense of the Escoffier hierarchy or French cuisine. The French approach to food and dining out certainly puts a strong focus on the overall experience of food and dining in restaurants, even if neither the restaurant or the chef is French. For me, the emergence of bistronomy in Paris joins that with the accessibility of really incredible seasonal produce at the markets. Everyone that’s had that experience of shopping for produce in French markets knows the excitement of tasting four different varieties of strawberries in the height of summer, or buying cheese directly from the farmer once a week. I think that has been a really important factor for me in how I approach kitchens: allowing the quality of produce to drive the menu and the dish rather than the other way around. If something is unavailable at a certain time of the year, I won’t put it on the menu. Similarly, if there is something in season for only a few weeks, I’ll make sure that it’s on the menu for as long as it’s around, whether it’s from customers bringing me produce they’ve grown, or produce I’ve foraged on my days off.
Everyone that’s had that experience of shopping for produce in French markets knows the excitement of tasting four different varieties of strawberries in the height of summer, or buying cheese directly from the farmer once a week.
On what drives day-in and day-out in an often grueling industry…
I recently started watching that show “The Bear”. It’s probably the best on-screen depiction that I’ve seen of what being chef is actually like behind the scenes. It captures both the joy and the pain of cooking; the elation of having really nailed what you’re trying to achieve, or a really great service, along with the constant pressures of running a business and the toll it takes on your personal life. I think what people don’t realise behind the glamorisation of chefs is that it takes an enormous toll emotionally and physically. The hours aren’t particularly conducive to relationships or work-life balance, and the effect of that on partners and families is really tough.
I love being in the kitchen though, interacting with customers and talking about produce or growers or wine. There is this constant element of discovery and experimentation that I love sharing with them, whether that’s explaining the provenance of a key ingredient, or perhaps what the inspiration for a dish is and how we were able to achieve that. That is, I think, what drives me.
On unwinding and evening, post-service, routines…
To be honest, we’re still so new that it’s been all-encompassing. There aren’t many hours in the day when I’m not thinking about the restaurant, even when I’m not there. When I used to have days off I’d love to be outdoors: fishing, gardening, foraging. They’re all still food related I guess, but I find them so relaxing.
When I get home I always try to have a cup of tea and chat to my partner. We get so little time together that isn’t at, or about, the restaurant that I try to make that time every night. I’m not sure I’m all that good company after a long shift, but it’s still important to have that time.
On what inspires…
My partner is easily the most important influence on my cooking. She has an impeccable palate and is by far my harshest critic, so I will often bounce ideas off her and she’ll tell me whether it has legs or if I’m an idiot. I have no doubt that without her I wouldn’t be cooking today.
I think travel and reading are the other two main sources of ideas. Whenever I travel I taste everything I can and go down rabbit holes of how to adapt this or that to a restaurant dish. I’m still trying to incorporate ingredients and flavours from a trip to Myanmar in 2019 on the menu. Similarly with reading, I have an embarrassingly large cookbook collection that I think of as a library. If I get an idea in my head that I’m trying to refine or tweak, I’ll pull off every Spanish or Moroccan or Caribbean cookbook I have and scour it for anything that will help.
On the importance of relationships with growers and producers…
Those relationships are crucial to running a restaurant. Positive relationships with local farmers or butchers gives you insight into what they have coming up. I’ve learnt so much by talking to my butcher as he breaks down a shoulder of beef and explaining what he’s doing. Through that relationship, I started using a cut of lamb from the leg that is usually just diced for kebabs that’s textural, flavourful and affordable. You can’t get that through faceless interactions and ordering systems.
Positive relationships with local farmers or butchers gives you insight into what they have coming up. I’ve learnt so much by talking to my butcher as he breaks down a shoulder of beef and explaining what he’s doing.
On what’s thrilling produce-wise at the moment…
I’m loving the Murray cod coming out of Aquna farm in the Riverina, New South Wales. It’s such a sustainably produced native Australian ingredient that is just exceptional quality. It works really well at Onzieme, cooking it over red hot coals. The smoke really latches on to the natural fattiness of the fish, and the skin crisps up so mouth-wateringly well, its like crackling.
On whether we’re seeing a culture-shift in restaurant kitchens towards a more balanced and healthy workplace…
Yes and no. I think things have changed since those truly brutal days, but I also feel like there is a lot of lip service around the changing culture in kitchens that isn’t always backed up by actions. I still hear a lot of horror stories of harassment, bullying and really awful things that go on. A lot of the time it’s swept under the carpet or passed off as just how things are in kitchens. I don’t buy it. I think it’s good that these conversations are being had, and while there have been some significant improvements, there is still a long way to go.
I’d like to see chefs putting as much emphasis on providing a positive and respectful workplace as they do on the food they produce. Leading by example rather than fear, and understanding that intent and impact aren’t always the same thing.
I’d like to see chefs putting as much emphasis on providing a positive and respectful workplace as they do on the food they produce.
On the need to shift the way we shop, eat and engage with food as Australians….
Convenience and cost have become the main drivers of our consumption. And I get it. People working longer hours with bigger financial commitments, if you can find something that takes half the time, cost and energy to prepare, why wouldn’t you? But we should be conscious of the effect our decisions as consumers have on the world around us: the environment, the people growing, producing, and processing our food.
On food access and costs in restaurants…
The past couple of years have really recalibrated how restaurants price their food. For every price-hike for fresh fruit and vegetables as a result of Covid-19 supply chain issues, flood affected growing regions, or fuel costs, that restaurant is also paying that increase and has to either absorb the hit or increase their prices.
When you’re at a restaurant, don’t just think about how much that piece of lamb cost the chef when you look at the price on the menu. Consider the cost of how much it cost to pay the chef that prepared the dish a proper wage, the rent, the carbon footprint, the power bill, the regulatory and licensing fees, and the fact that the owner probably has a mountain of debt to pay off. And then think about how the breakdown of that dish is going to cover all of those things.
On a favourite kitchen tool…
I bought myself a little clay stove and a single hot pot a few months ago. They’re such cool little things to cook on. They’re great for a couple of little skewers, or braising meat and veggies. And perfect for camping, too.
And a favourite food book…
Best book has to be Bar Tartine by Cortney Burns and Nicolaus Balla. It’s such a good source of knowledge for making things from scratch and extracting flavour through different methods. It’s more than fifty percent technique rather than recipes, but is so inspired. A brilliant book.
An Onzieme take on duck Cassoulet
A mid-winter dish on the menu at Onzieme, this take of Louis’ on duck Cassoulet is equally comforting and humble as it is elegant. You’ll need to start the bean-soaking and the duck confit the day before. We devoured this dish on a cosy night at Onzieme with UNDER Bakery bread and salted butter. A perfect meal.
Recipe (Serves 4)
Soak 200g of dried cannellini beans in cold water overnight.
At the same time, for the duck, first cure the duck legs (one leg per person). To make the cure, mix together a combination of half salt and half sugar mixed with a spice mix of blitzed star anise, all spice, coriander seed, cinnamon, cloves and orange peel for 4 to 6 hours. Ensure to completely cover the duck legs in salt-sugar cure. Once cured, rinse duck and pat dry. In a pot, cover the legs with duck fat so they’re completely submerged and place in an oven set at 90C degrees for 6 hours until lovely and tender. Let cool before placing in refrigerator overnight.
When ready to cook the dish, drain the soaked beans and remove the duck from the refrigerator to temper. Finely chop one medium brown onion, three cloves of garlic and one stem of celery. Heat vegetable oil, or duck fat, in a deep pot and add in the onion, garlic and celery, seasoning lightly with salt and stirring. Don’t let them brown.
Add in finely sliced speck, or any smoked ham—we use smoked duck at the restaurant to add the smokiness, and to intensify the duck flavour but both of these alternatives work well.
Add the beans and cover with either duck stock, or a good quality chicken stock. The beans should be just submerged. Add in two bay leaves or a few sprigs of rosemary and simmer on low until the beans are tender. Check for seasoning, perhaps adding a touch of salt to your taste.
When ready to serve, line an oven-proof frypan (cast iron is great) with baking paper and over a medium heat, cook the confit duck legs skin-side down until starting to brown. Flip them over and cook in a hot pre-heated oven for 5 minutes until skin is nicely crisp.
Finally, mix in a few cubes of butter to the bean mix and a handful of chopped parsley. Taste for seasoning before adding beans to your dish and placing the golden duck leg on top.