Louis Tikaram Says 'Yes'
Louis Tikaram is one of Australia's finest chefs, and he's got one hell of a story too.Last month the Sydney born father of two dazzled guests at our Port Adelaide Brewery for a bespoke 'Chef Series' dinner.
Flames were flung, belts were turfed, and as is often the case down here on Baker Street, a coupla beers got smacked back as well.
We caught up the following morning with every intention of yarning about the event, but after a few pints, wound up going deep on our respective industries, his journey as a chef and why it's so important to keep saying 'yes'.
I hit record as he touched on his speech from the night before, which made reference to his mate Jake Kellie (who is finishing up a four month 'guest chef' spot with PL) and how their friendship had a unique bearing on the evenings success...
Sorry Louis mate, can you repeat that, you were saying about your speech?
Yeah, so basically, it was really amazing. Normally one of those speeches you know, we'd talk about how the event came together, but I was just really honest.
And I was like listen, 'one of the most amazing things about this colab is that Jake and I have known each other for a while, but we really became good friends while I was based in LA and he was based in Singapore, and we both met in Hong Kong doing a dinner with another group of friends.
'Now I'm in Brisbane, he's in Adelaide, and here we find ourselves again around an amazing table of guests, who are enjoying our food.'
That's really the glue in between our friendship, it's the customers, and people bringing us together because they wanna have an experience unlike anything else.
Jake Kellie & Louis Tikaram at Pirate Life Brewery
Everyone had an amazing time last night. It must be nice to have reached a point in your career where you're such a desirable commodity - travelling, sharing you're love of food with people around the world.
Well it's funny, I started out washing dishes in Mullumbimby and that just led to cooking. Even when I started working in good restaurants no one cared who the chef was, you were just the person behind the swinging doors.
It was all about the fine service and the white table cloths, those sorts of things. It's really amazing to see the shift within restaurants you know, now people are so interested in the story behind the chef.
Yeah, there's something similar happening in our industry too. Were you equipped to deal with that shift - when all of a sudden people started looking in?
Ha! Well look, now I train my crew in exactly that. Cooking is only fifty percent of it now. There's so much that comes with it you know, and sure you have a lot of really amazing chefs who don't really want a part of that - and are hugely successful - so its not a must I spose, but it is a great way to break up the repetition of being in the kitchen.
Must be nice to step out from behind the stove and have your mug wind up on social media - that's definitely the case for a lot of our brewers. They're on show now. Our industry has become sexy.
It's like we were talking about earlier, you could liken it to a beer can itself. Back in the day there was no real graphics on cans, there was no thought at all, that's just what it was, it was a vessel to hold a liquid.
That was a can's job. And now look at it.
It's like jazzing up a forty four gallon drum, why would you? Or a shipping container, 'let's paint it something different to that burnt orange'...why would you?
(laughs) well, we're not just selling beer anymore. When you stand in front of that bottlo fridge, you're not only picking what you want to drink, you're choosing how you want to feel.
Yeah, it's funny, the one thing I noticed about Pirate Life from walking in and meeting everyone, I feel like its not how you appeal to beer drinkers, its how you appeal to non beer drinkers.
It's like, how do you draw people in, or appeal to people who would normally walk straight past.
You guys are saying, 'hey you, give it a go, beer isn't what you think beer is, or beer drinkers aren't what you think beer drinkers are, this is what's up.'
I could see the nuances in the brewery, at the bar, in the merch shop, and it was like, 'hey, beer is cool!'
People used to think of beer drinkers like Homer Simpson, but beer is funky, and fun, and tasty, and zingy, and zesty, and adventurous...
You know, when someone walks into our brewery and says they don't like beer, we take it as an invitation to convince them otherwise.
That's like what I do in the kitchen, if it's one customer, one day, if I can just have them try something they've never had before and they like it, that's like a win.
Do you mind talking about your lineage? I get the feeling it influenced your cooking in a big way.
Louis + Lobsters
Sure, well growing up my nickname was fruit salad. My father is Fijian, his father is Fijian-Indian, and his mum is Fijian-Chinese. My mum is half Irish, half Scottish.
Growing up we just never knew what was gonna be on the dinner table. You know, Chinese, Indian, Fijian, and we didn't have a television until 1996, so the dinner table - that was everything.
It was the entertainment, the catch up, then you'd finish, wash the dishes and go to bed.
The dinner table was where I really started to appreciate food and learn how to cook as well.
My dad's got five brothers and sisters, so each one of them would cook every night, and then my grandmother would cook on Sundays.
All of them had different styles. So you know, food was just a massive part my life, you could say I didn't choose to be a chef, I just sort of got pulled that way.
Still, it takes a certain kind of person to pick up on the positives around you and run with them. You could have just been like, nah, I'm going cruising with my mates instead.
Well, let's just say growing up in Mullumbimby there were certain distractions. Let's call them distractions, we'll keep this G rated.
Ha! or not...
We lived on a hundred and ten acres up in Main Arm in Mullumbimby. The family moved there from Fiji, both my brother and I were born here, then we moved back and forth between Australia and Fiji.
Back then your parents could take you out of school for a year, and no one would ask any questions.
Now, my daughter is in kindergarten and she's having lamb tagine for lunch, and I'm getting report cards every week. And I'm like what?! I didn't even wear shoes to school!
Hahaha, yeah I get those report cards as well. Tell me a bit about Fiji.
Back in the day, dad would take us all around the island, he really wanted to show us where we were from.
We went to my great grandmother's village in the northern island in Vanua Levu where it's really uninhabited.
You know, seeing that pig on the spit (which was turning over flames in the beer garden at the time) I remember being in village and just hearing squealing for like fifteen minutes, and then a man would bring back a wild pig, strap it up and gut it, blood would go everywhere.
That was just living.
Then we would go down to the river and fetch seaweed, come back and scrape the coconuts, no power, no electricity, no nothing.
When we were like nine or ten, we had to take a boat or a bus into the interior of the island, and then go through carrying kerosene and flour, you know, sleeping on the ground.
I think that's where the appreciation for food came from. It was everything.
So were you a bit of a lad as a teen? Or did you just say, screw it, I'm gonna be a chef, and start chasing it.
Yeah once we were back in Main Arm, I loved to surf, I loved to hang out with friends, if we wanted to go anywhere we'd either hitchhike or mum and dad would drop us off.
I just wanted a car. I needed a car. So they're like, 'well you have to get a job.'
The only place that would hire me was this Thai restaurant washing dishes.
It was a Thai woman in the kitchen, me washing dishes, and another guy. And I loved it. And then one day, the guy that was in the kitchen with the Thai woman didn't turn up, and she was going, going, going, you know it was a Friday night.
So I just started helping her. And she says, 'oh, you know how to cook?' And I was like, 'yeah, I know cumin, coriander, turmeric, I cook with my grandma all the time.'
So she said I could work in the kitchen. I think at first she just saw cheap labour, but she got another dish washer and I started to cook. This was in a town called Ocean Shores, near Brunswick.
Anyway one day I went into Byron (Bay), I was hanging at the Beach Hotel and I met a chef mate of mine.
I said that I was working in a Thai restaurant, and he said, 'if you want to cook Thai, there's a restaurant in Sydney called Longrain, and this guy is doing amazing food.'
I was only seventeen at the time, and you know, you said before, did anything happen in those later years, well you can see all the scars on my face, lots of drinking, drink driving, obviously Mullumbimby, lots of weed, you could see this kind of spiral.
It was the wild west out there. No public transport, no buses, no trains, no taxis, no skate parks, no youth centres, nothing for kids, just partying and drinking.
This scar (points to his temple) was the big one for me. I was drink driving, went through an intersection, a car ploughed into us and my head went through the window.
I woke up in hospital and said, 'I want out.'
Good thing you woke up.
The Pass - PL style
Well yeah, the doctors said 5mm and that was my eye. That's when I bought the car using money from the Thai restaurant, my brother was already at Sydney Uni, and I just packed the car and drove to Sydney.
He was living near Chippendale at the time, he asked if I was gonna get a job, I said 'yeah yeah.' So I put my stuff down, parked the car, and the next day I went into Longrain.
I'm from Mullumbimby. I'd never been into a restaurant in my life. I mean I'd been to a restaurant, but not a 'restaurant', I'd never seen a real chef before. I'd never seen chef whites.
So I head into Longrain, Surrey Hills, big city, I went inside and said, 'hi, I'm here to see Martin,' and they go, 'do you have and appointment?'
I was thinking, the guys a chef, why do I need an appointment? So she says, 'ok, let me see.'
Then Marty rolls around the corner with a tea towel over his shoulder, you know, this was 2003, cheffing was pretty hectic, and he says, 'yeah, what do you want?'
So I just come straight out and say, 'hi, I'm Louis, I just moved here and I wanted to have a job as a chef.'
And he says, 'what? No.'
So I went back the next day. Same thing, he says no, I walk out and say, 'screw it, I'll go back tomorrow.'
Went back, he comes out and says 'you're a persistent little (explicative) aren't you?' And I said, 'yeah, I wanna work here.'
He took me in that day, bought me my first set of knives, my first uniform. I ended up working there for three and a half years that time. Four years after that, I went back and I was Executive Chef.
As an apprentice there I was cooking Thai food, I worked my way around the whole kitchen, then Marty took me to Melbourne, we opened Longrain Melbourne, then came back to Sydney.
This was when molecular gastronomy was at it's peak, 2006, 2007, and there was this chef named Brent Savage opening up a restaurant called Bentley, just up the road from Longrain.
He used to come into Longrain a lot, we got to talking one time, and he says, 'you know, I'm opening up, if you wanna come and work, you come and work.'
So I went and joined the opening team there. That's where I became really good friends with Dan Hong, he was the sous chef at the time.
From Bentley I went and worked at Tetsuya's. After that I went and travelled around Europe.
Were you earning good money at the time?
At that time we were earning around five to six hundred dollars a week, working ninety to one hundred hours.
You ate and drank at work all week, so you just needed enough pocket money you know, but that was the driving force, that's what we talk about with all the guys now.
Why would any normal human being put themselves through that? It was because we had a really tight knit group of friends, we found a little crew.
We would never complain or bitch, we were the opposite, we loved it, we pushed each other, we worked hard, we hung out, and that was that.
Four chefs in a truck
You talk about all of this with a level of assuredness, like you never doubted yourself. You just did it. Was there ever a feeling of 'I can't do this?' I don't really get that impression from you...
Yeah I never look back. I dunno, maybe it comes from astrology. I'm year of the ox, and I'm a Taurus so I'm a double bull. They say that I never back down, that I'm stubborn.
Everything I've set my mind to, not to sound like a dick, I've always just accomplished.
Don't worry, you're amongst friends here. So we've come this far, how did you wind up in LA at EP & LP?
Yeah, so after about two years away travelling, I landed back in Sydney and wound up working for Longrain again.
While I was there some guys came into the restaurant and said, 'listen, we love this food, we've got a site in LA...'
I thought they were just having a few cocktails, but they hit me up again and were like 'do you wanna come have a look? Just let us know, we'll fly you over to check out the site.'
So I flew to LA, went to a playoffs game, did this and that. It was a real pinch yourself moment you know, I was from Mullumbimby.
I flew back and chatted with the owners of Longrain, I was really transparent with them. I've always been into skateboarding, hip-hop, basketball, and now to get an opportunity like this.
Must have been a dream. So you rock up in LA...
Yeah, when I got there it was cement, steel poles and plywood. We built the restaurant. I didn't know anyone. No one. Zero. And no one knew this type of cuisine either.
I teed up with a kitchen consultant and said, 'I probably need like fifteen good chefs, but what I really need is a good sous chef.'
He was like, 'mate, I'm not gonna lie to you, you're not gonna get a good sous chef. No one knows who you are.'
I took that as 'challenge accepted' and we ended up getting rid of him. I didn't need someone like that telling me yes or when.
Well, they did fly you out after all!
I ended finding someone through a friend of a friend, he was a killer dude, LA born and bred, Phillipino guy, knew the food.
And we just started from there.
I'll be honest with you, the food didn't take off. I had these two guys come and sit at the chef's table, I was cooking, we had a big bar around the kitchen and they sat down, and I started serving food.
This guy, he was a chef, he said, 'you're ballsy man,' and I go, 'huh? what do you mean?' And he goes, 'mate, this food, this neighbour hood? You're ballsy man.'
Mate we were at the corner of Melrose and La Cienega and I'm serving lamb neck lettuce wraps, you know, dip it in the chili jam, get the herbs, get it going.
The restaurants around me were like...fig and olive. Anyway, so the team were like, 'what are we gonna do?' And I said, 'look, I'm not gonna move here, leave a job I love, and not cook the food that I love.'
So we stuck with it, slowly, slowly, and then it just went off.
Did you guys have a marketing crew?
Yeah, it was all about that constant hustle on the PR front. The owners were really smart, they invested into that.
The stars aligned again, and I got hooked up with this huge PR company with one of the hundreds of employees, and we just gelled. And it was like magic.
Literally three months after the restaurant opened she was like, 'Louis, I got you on the Today Show. I've been doing this for a long time, the quickest I've ever gotten someone on the Today Show is three years.'
I was like, 'ok.' But for her that was a big deal. I didn't realise the magnitude of that until a few years later, now even more so.
But man, that peak in LA, that epicentre, I would have to dress nicely to go to work cause I didn't know what I was going to do after. I could have been at a concert, some house party...
Sounds pretty epic.
It's funny, I don't feel like I chose LA, it's like LA chose me.
Do you feel that way about just LA, or about the whole journey?
Yeah, the whole Journey. That's why I just go with it.
You don't say no, you say yes.
May sound like an odd question but was LA a desirable place to be?
The one thing I learnt was that LA is a really transient city. 'Everyone' is there and everyone is on the hustle.
One person that made that really clear to me was Dev Patel, you know him? The actor?
He was in Slumdog Millionaire?
Yeah, he was eating at the restaurant, and I went to the table and said, 'sick Aussie accent mate.'
You know, from that movie he was in, Lion? And he's like, 'oh thanks brother!"
Anyway, we ended up kicking it for a minute, like he was cool, and one day he just says, 'hey, I probably won't see you for a while.' And I said, 'no worries, you going to your mum's place for the weekend?'
He said, 'na I'm moving to Scotland, I'll probably be there for like three years shooting this movie.'
And then it's just like, ok bye. And that's just what it's like there. You become friends with someone and they're like, 'oh I'm opening this tech company, I'm moving to San Fran.'
Or, 'I've gotta focus more on my surfing I'm moving to Maui.'
Did you ever feel like maybe you were one of those people?
Yeah, I think that's the whole thing, everyone there was like that, just wafting around. Another really good mate of mine, he was a skater, he just up and left for Hawaii.
I'm a pretty emotional guy, when I love someone, I really...you know. And that's one thing I took from LA, it's so fast paced.
But what an amazing city, loved it, I never thought I was ever going to come back. That forever city. It's eternal.
So you were in LA for at least five years, you had a baby there, at what point did you guys decide to head back Australia?
Well, Uncle Donald was there, and he kinda shook it up a bit, and that was a bit, well, you know...
A really good friend of mine from Sydney came over to LA for his fortieth birthday. Awesome dude, really successful, amazing restaurants.
He goes, 'Louis, I just opened this restaurant in Brissy and it's doing twice as much as here. It's pumping.'
And I was like, 'what? You feeling ok?'
He's originally from Burley, me near Byron, he goes, 'mate you could live there, go down and see your parents.'
This guy, he's like the coolest guy, really amazing restaurants, and for him to say that...
So I came back. And right at that time they were hosting the Good Food Guide Awards (2019) in Brissy and I get asked to do the main course for the event.
I was like, man this is like a thousand of the country's finest chefs, critics and winemakers in this one place! That's what took Brisbane to the next level.
This has just been another amazing chapter in my life, moving to another city, making really good friends, meeting really good producers...
Does it feel good to be home?
Yeah, it really does.
That's one thing I truly love about our industry, the ability to reach out, touch people and make connections.
Yeah that's one of the main things I love about being home you know, so many like minded people. You don't realise you miss it till you come back.
I feel that. So you're in Brissy, you've got two little ones...at some point there'll be another proposition, will you take it when it comes?
Yeah, look I don't think I'll ever stop living my life like that, I just think this chapter will be a little thicker.
(smiles) so, you're happy then?
Yeah. Every day I go to work, the younger chefs go, 'chef, why are you always happy? Why are you always smiling?'
And I'm just like, man I love every day. You know, the one thing I can thank is cooking, cause that's what I love.
You're probably the only person who's ever really asked me was there other shit, you know?
And I've never said this to anyone, but back in those days when I was trying to get that job at Longrain, I had another friend who I knew from Mullum as well, and he was living in Lawson, which is near the Blue Mountains.
When I got rejected two times at Longrain, on that third day, I was in between heading back there and going to work construction.
My mate was like, 'dude, if you want, you can come and do this. It's good money and good work.'
But I just thought that I'd give it one more shot.
And that's the one. It was that point in my life. I was at zero. It could have gone either way.
And now you don't pay for beer. That's a pretty lovely thought, could be the spot to wrap it up.
Thanks so much for your time, was a great chat.