CONVERSATION WITH A CHEF | ASHLY HICKS, GARDEN STATE HOTEL
By Jo Rittey
Ashly Hicks is king of all he surveys in his role of head chef at the very fancy multi-level restaurant and bar, Garden State Hotel, in Flinders Lane. With a strong work ethic and a driving passion for food, Ash has propelled himself to great heights over a career that started when he was 14 and saw him, by the age of 29 in the role of Executive chef at Circa. He could be forgiven if his success had gone to his head, but Ash has his feet firmly on the ground, a desire to build strong relationships with those around him and keep learning and evolving his style.
How long have you been a chef, Ash?
I’ve been cooking since I was 14.
Was that kitchen handing?
No. Straight in. My first job was at McDonalds while I was doing my apprenticeship. I was only there for a little while and then I got a job straight out of my apprenticeship just before I was 15.
So you always knew you wanted to cook?
Yes. It was weird. I don’t come from a culinary background. My parents weren’t cooks or anything like that. I don’t have any romantic stories about getting into it. We didn’t dine out or anything. My parents just worked really hard and I think that’s where I get my work ethic.
One day in Grade 7 I just decided that I wanted to do it and pursued it from there. The worst thing about that is that when you go to high school you have to do Home Economics to do any cooking. At my school you had to do six months of sewing and six months of cooking. So it was half a year of pain and half a year of doing what I wanted to do. It’s not easy carrying out a pair of boxer shorts you’ve made while the boys are doing HP or whatever when you’re in Grade 9 or 10.
It’s a big sacrifice for the cause.
I kept pursuing it. I was an absolute nightmare at school and I knew cooking was what I wanted to do, so we found the local TAFE and I left school at the end of Year 10 and went and did that.
So you went to TAFE and then what happened?
I started my apprenticeship in my hometown down on Bayside in Cleveland. I did that and then moved to another restaurant. I finished up my apprenticeship and as soon as I’d finished that I bought my ticket and went to London. I was 20. I didn’t know anyone there.
It’s a big move.
It is. But I was so young and…dumb, I guess. I didn’t think of any consequences. Within a few days I had a job there. I started working for Gordon Ramsay at one of his places in Knightsbridge.
Did you see Gordon Ramsay?
Probably twice. When I was there it was ’04 so it was when he only had his restaurants in central London so he wasn’t quite as big as he blew out to be.
Was he still doing the yelling thing back then? Was that passed on through the people who worked above you?
There was a stigma attached to the group. I didn’t really like that it was done for the sake of doing it; you work for this group so you just have to be like that. There was no real reason behind it. I left after three months and went and worked for a much harder chef, Tom Aikens, and I did over a year and half there at his restaurant, Tom Aikens, in Chelsea. That was a pretty amazing experience. I learned a lot. There were no recipe books. Everything was shown and you had to watch. There were no structured lessons. The food was incredible. I think at that time we got eighth in the world. It was crazy but it was good fun. It was hard work. It was really amazing.
What would be your preferred style of cooking?
I like using the European fundamentals, but coming from Queensland as well, I like a lighter style and there’s always going to be some sort of Asian influence in there so you’re always using that to lift the dishes or to use certain ingredients to season instead of relying on salt and pepper. That’s my style. But that always changes. It’s still evolving. That’s the best thing about this job I guess.
Garden State is really big and you have different zones and putting out different styles of food in each area so how do you manage all that? It’s a big job.
It is a big job. I’ve got a good team. I’m super fortunate. Most of my team has been with me before. They came with me from Circa. I’m very lucky. That’s how these things happen. It’s not just one person who manages it.
Do you prefer the style of kitchen you’re in that’s away from the public eye or do you like the open style where you can see what’s going on?
A bit of both, I think, is the ideal mix. You want to have some stuff behind the scenes but I do like the engagement you get from the guests when the kitchen is open. It changes the perspective of things.
Where do you get ideas? Do they come from books or what other people are doing or your own repertoire?
Everything around me. Lots of reading at home. Lots of research and then talking to people. The main thing is the relationship you build with the suppliers. Everyone says that but it’s the communication you get about what’s coming around. They won’t communicate to you what’s good if you treat them like shit, so you have to be nice tot hem if you want to progress.
14 is an early age to start. Are you still happy in this career?
Yes. I wouldn’t change it. What I do is me. It’s not just something I do; it’s me. I don’t really know any other thing to do and I don’t really want to know. There’s so much I can do within this industry that excites me for the future. I don’t second-guess my path at all.
Would you encourage young people to get into the industry? Do you need to be a certain type of person?
It does take a certain type of person, especially with the older style of management of kitchens. It’s a bit different now.
I want people to come into the industry. It takes young people to change it and mould it. It’s so competitive and it’s so exciting and there is so much going on, especially in Melbourne. I want more people to come and do it. I don’t want it to faze out. It’s in its prime now. It gets a lot of coverage and a lot of people want to know where their food comes from. It’s not like 20 years ago when the food just came out of a sliding door and went onto the table. It takes a lot more work and respect from us but it’s better for us. We are more recognised now as chefs. It’s good.
Garden State Hotel
101 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Jo Rittey is a freelance writer who wants to live in a world where apostrophes are used correctly and smiles are genuine. When she’s not roaming the streets of the northside in search of great food, she likes getting lost in beautiful films and having wildly enthusiastic discussions with chefs.