Meet the Chef: Rhiann Mead at Bennelong
The strong feeling of sense and acknowledgement of time and place that comes over you as you walk into the grand room that houses Bennelong is a remarkable way to begin a meal. And this feeling is carried through the entire dining experience, so hugely through the menus championing the region’s top producers and growers all the way to the dessert that Head Pastry Chef, Rhiann Mead, along with her team, have created, tested and tasted for a remarkable end to a meal.
It was a true treat to visit Rhiann in the breathtaking dining room and speak with the talented chef about her story and how a stint at London’s Harrods Food Hall on her gap year played a pivotal role in leading her to where she is today: heading up the pastry section of one of the country’s most renowned fine-diners. We spoke with Rhiann about how the industry, along with the career of a chef, has shifted since she set foot in it ten years ago and on a more personal level, what drives, recharges and inspires her in a job that’s notoriously gruelling. A Muscovado chocolate tart was in the making as we visited the brilliant woman behind the sweet side of Bennelong - a recipe of hers she’s shared with the Journal so you can bring a slice of Bennelong luxury into your homes.
Rhiann wears an IN BED 100% linen apron in Toffee.
On the beginning of life as a chef with the renowned restaurant group, Fink
I started working with Fink in 2016 at Quay as a demi-chef. It was my first job in a restaurant kitchen, and I immediately fell in love with the atmosphere, the pressure, and the wide variety of chefs you work alongside. Three years later, I was running the pastry section. I felt like I still had so much to learn (and still do!) from Executive Chef Peter Gilmore and, having always wanted to work under Rob Cockerill and his leadership style, I transferred to Bennelong in the role of Head Pastry Chef – this is where I am today!
On what exactly it means to head the pastry section at Bennelong
In my role as Bennelong’s Head Pastry Chef, I run the pastry team and assist Bennelong’s Executive Chef Peter Gilmore in developing his menu ideas. The menu at Bennelong requires a huge variety of pastry skills and techniques, from piping and baking to chocolate work – all of which keeps every day interesting for me and the team.
On becoming a pastry chef
I was originally enrolled at university to study physiotherapy but took a year off prior to travel. I was working retail in the Harrods Food Hall in London when I fell in love with patisserie. I hail from a very small town in Queensland, so this world of chocolate and patisserie was something I’d never been exposed to before.
One of the chefs who had a concession at Harrods, William Curley, noticed my enthusiasm (or I harassed him so much) that he made a deal that if I worked in retail for him for three-months, he'd take me on as an apprentice in his kitchen. I spent the next four years there learning from a team of amazing chefs. It was honestly an opportunity I’ll never take for granted and consider myself so lucky to have been moulded by some of the best pastry chefs in the world.
I’m drawn to pastry for the precision and detail required. I find it almost therapeutic to have to concentrate and follow a recipe so precisely. I love the unlimited creativity in pastry, as well as the science behind the recipes.
On leading a kitchen
One of my chefs at the time, Alistar Birt, had an incredible way of leading the kitchen. He’s incredibly patient and genuinely wanted to share his knowledge and teach chefs new skills. He told me you should never need to yell to get someone's respect, and I always hoped one day I’d be able to lead a team like him.
I’m drawn to pastry for the precision and detail required. I find it almost therapeutic to have to concentrate and follow a recipe so precisely.
On what drives Rhiann day-in and day-out
Being a chef requires a great deal of physical and mental strength. In one day you can go through the extremes of emotions and exhaustion, but I absolutely love what I do, there’s no other explanation; I don’t think you could do the job without that love. The job satisfaction must be worth the social sacrifices, lifestyle, and physiotherapy fees.
I can’t imagine fitting in in any other industry – I feel like my personality is a good fit for hospitality. I’m incredibly lucky to be part of the team at Bennelong; the whole team is very tight knit, and genuinely like a family. In pastry, we’re all on the same wavelength so working with such a passionate and talented group of chefs is a constant drive. I feel like I’m constantly being challenged, learning new skills both in the kitchen and in management, so every day I feel like I’m becoming a better chef.
On unwinding and recharging
I love nothing more than having a cup of tea and reading a few pages of a book to unwind after service - it’s an escape into a different world and I feel like it’s the best way to kill off the adrenaline post-service and take my mind somewhere other than work.
I’m incredibly guilty of trying to squeeze too much into my days off, so I need to get better at just slowing down. I love spending a lot of the time outside, going to the beach, or for a long walk somewhere, catching up with friends over food and squeezing in some runs or gym time.
On Rhiann’s morning routine
My morning routine varies depending on how much sleep I've gotten the night before, but I love trying to wake up early, get a coffee and do a bit of the coastal walk. Depending on energy levels I’ll either do Pilates at home or go to the gym, then make sure to have a big breakfast. I used to set my alarm at the latest possible time before I had to leave for work, never have breakfast and constantly be rushed. Nowadays I’ve found that giving myself a bit of a morning routine has a much more positive effect on my mental and physical health, and I find myself in a much better mindset for a big workday ahead if I’ve started the day prioritising myself.
On the role producers and farmers have in creating dishes
In Australia, and particularly at Quay and Bennelong, the focus is really on fresh produce and seasonality. I’ve learnt to taste each fruit and adjust recipes to work with the produce. We have some of the best produce in the world available to us, with so much variety due to the different climates. I’m lucky to work in a kitchen where we have very special relationships with the farmers and get to try unusual produce that constantly gets my mind working - like the abiu fruit that tastes exactly like crème caramel!
In Australia, and particularly at Quay and Bennelong, the focus is really on fresh produce and seasonality.
On inspiration and menu development
I’m inspired by the balancing of seasonality with classic flavours, and thinking about what the goal of the menu is - what experience do you want the person eating to take from it? What memories do you want them to have of your dish? How do you hope they’ll describe the dish to friends and family?
It’s always a lot of trial and error (sometimes hours, sometimes months) but that’s all part of the fun and learning in developing new menus – particularly so when you are doing it alongside one of the greats in Peter Gilmore!
On a culture shift in kitchens
Absolutely – there has been a major shift in the industry. Thinking back to when I first started in kitchens a decade ago, being a chef was literally your life - working 18 hours a day, 15 days straight. The worst thing was we took pride in being over worked and had a certain ego about it, we thought it made us ‘real’ chefs having to tough it out.
The kitchen culture is so much healthier now, and it’s funny to see how the day-to-day flow is more productive even though we’re working less hours. Back in the day it was normal to finish a late dinner shift, go to the pub until 4am and be back in the kitchen at 8am. Nowadays everyone takes their health more seriously and would rather wake up early for the gym rather than stay out all night. Personally, my mental health has improved significantly in the past few years, and it’s great that speaking about mental health as a chef isn’t a taboo anymore, it’s encouraged.
On a career in the kitchen
I think the hospitality industry is finally being respected for all that it is and the wonderful career that it can be. If only I could count the number of times I was told being a chef wasn’t a real career and questioned why I didn’t get a degree at university. Nowadays there’s so much awareness of the skill and dedication needed to be a chef, that the industry is really thriving and attracting those interested in making a career out of it.
On the back of Bennelong’s plush chair is an IN BED 100% linen napkin in Pine.
On produce that’s thrilling
We’ve got fresh pistachio on the menu at the moment, and I’m obsessed with them. It’s such a long process from shelling to the final product, but it’s so worth it for the end result. The colour and the taste is incredible. We’re making creams and milks from the fats, it’s so versatile and we’ve only got it for a limited period due to seasonality so that’s something that’s really exciting to me. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat store bought pistachio again.
On what’s cooking at home
I don’t spend a lot of time at home so my go-to meals are pretty basic. I love making bagels and have usually got a stash at home to snack on - with hummus and cucumber is my favourite! My guilty pleasure of a go-to meal is spicy instant ramen, but I’ll usually elevate it with some mushrooms, greens and whatever meat and eggs I have lying in the fridge.
Favourite kitchen tool
My favourite kitchen tool is a plain piping bag. I love that you don't need a nozzle to create beautiful shapes and decorate with a piping bag. I think piping by hand is becoming a bit of a lost skill; so many molds are available now you can skip the piping process completely, but I think it's a skill every pastry chef should have. I also love a small pair of scissors and always carry them on me, I struggle with my workflow unless there’s a pair tucked into my apron pocket.
Favourite food books
My favourite cookbook is ‘Patisserie’ by William Curley. I might be a bit biased, but that book is my recipe bible, always my go to, the recipes are easy to follow for chefs and home cooks alike. My favourite memoir is cliché but definitely Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Kitchen Confidential’. It’s so nostalgic and relatable for chefs, and something I can reread a hundred times.
Bennelong Muscovado Chocolate Tart
Recipe makes approx. 20 petite tarts (5cm diameter)
Chocolate shortcrust pastry
|Vanilla pod (split and scraped)
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees
- Cut the butter into small, even cubes. Leave in the fridge to chill.
- Sieve the cocoa powder and plain flour into a mixing bowl with the salt.
- In a small saucepan over a low heat, dissolve the muscovado sugar in the milk with the scraped vanilla (be careful not to overheat, about 20 degrees).
- Pass mix through a sieve into a bowl with the egg and yolk.
- Using the paddle attachment on a medium speed, start mixing the butter and flour until sand-like texture. Careful not to overmix. Add the wet ingredients to the mix and paddle until almost combined. Finish the dough by hand to ensure no overmixing.
- Roll dough thinly (roughly 3mm) between two sheets of greaseproof paper, rest in the fridge for 30 mins.
- Cut dough with a ring cutter, line, and trim tart shell. Leave to rest in the fridge for another 30 mins.
- Blind bake tart shell at 180 degrees for 14-16 mins, or until cooked. Cool at room temp.
|Unsalted butter (room temp)
- Bring the caster sugar to a golden caramel.
- Take off the heat and deglaze slowly with the cream.
- Add muscovado sugar and stir until dissolved.
- Cool to 40̊c then whisk in butter and salt.
- Place into a piping bag and refrigerate until use.
|Dark chocolate (I prefer Valrhona Manjari 64%)
- Boil cream and glucose.
- Pour over chocolate and stir into a ganache.
- Transfer to piping bag.
- Pipe muscovado caramel to halfway up the tart shell.
- Pipe warm chocolate ganache in the remaining half.
- Refrigerate for 5 -10 mins to until ganache is just set. Enjoy!
Rhiann wears an IN BED 100% linen apron in Toffee.