Troy Rhodes-Brown: passion on a plate

Many thought Troy Rhoades-Brown was crazy. It was 2009 and the global financial crisis had taken hold. Share prices plummeted, markets froze and economic uncertainty pervaded. It was a precarious time to launch your first business, let alone a fine-dining establishment within the already busy Pokolbin food scene.

The then 24-year-old chef made the bold decision to open Muse Restaurant with his wife, Megan, in the popular Hungerford Hill winery with a contemporary menu. ‘‘I’d never worked in a restaurant serving contemporary food,’’ recalls Rhoades-Brown. 

‘‘I went from traditional Italian to French and jumped into the deep end.’’

It was a bold move, but the Valentine-raised chef was sensible. ‘‘We had a very grounded perspective,’’ he says. The couple did not have any backers – their decision – so  there was no costly makeover of the striking Broke Road site with its expansive open kitchen designed to accommodate 12 chefs. Their biggest outlay was $30,000 for new dining chairs.

The two weeks between opening Muse and finishing up at Roberts at Pepper Tree, where Megan was manager and Rhoades-Brown had risen from fourth-year apprentice to head chef, were the most stressful of his life. And the most frightening.

Rhoades-Brown lost seven kilograms from his trim frame. ‘‘I couldn’t eat,’’ he says, well aware of the irony. ‘‘There was so much pressure. There’s this realisation that you’re not just supporting yourself, you have all these other people relying on you.’’

Fast forward  3 years and I am listening to Rhoades-Brown explain his original vision – ‘‘French technique with a bit of Italian flair and my own spin on it’’ – while seated at a rustic, whitewashed timber table in the lovely Provence-inspired surrounds of his newest venture, Muse Kitchen, which forms part of the one-year-old $2.5million Keith Tulloch Winery off Hermitage Road.

There are no starchy formal table cloths here, just slender vases of sunny daisies –  a stark contrast to  the sleek industrial combination of stone, glass and timber at Muse Restaurant. Megan describes Muse Kitchen, which she helped decorate with experienced interior designer Amanda Tulloch, as ‘‘very Laura Ashley’’. 

Butterflies flit between red and yellow nasturtiums in terracotta pots and manicured hedges border a lush area of lawn crying out for wrestling children. A few metres away, neat rows of gnarled vines are coming to life with spring growth.

Muse Kitchen was recently awarded a coveted hat by the prestigious Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide. It is a milestone shared by Muse Restaurant, which was also recognised by the guide after its first 12 months – and again this year. A figure of $100,000-plus in added business has been bandied around in Sydney as the worth of a new hat, but today there’s no talk of that, though given that the vast majority of Muse diners are food-educated Sydney-siders who regard the guide as a bible, business must be going OK.

It is an hour before the lunch service begins at noon and we have the paved outdoor area to ourselves. With a blue sky, gentle breeze and subtle jazz soundtrack, it is a charming setting. Rhoades-Brown, one of the Hunter’s most exciting and successful chefs, is dressed in a more casual uniform befitting the relaxed approach at Muse Kitchen. Beneath the sleeve of his white T-shirt is the glimpse of a tattoo, his family crest, and he is wearing navy pants, a navy and white striped apron and black Birkenstock clogs favoured by those who work on their feet (at Muse Restaurant it’s all crisp chef’s whites and black hats).

With his tousled hair and boyish good looks, the 27-year-old would be perfect for TV, a popular career move for chefs these days. He is confident, but not egotistical, and he speaks rapidly and enthusiastically, especially about food. 

Rhoades-Brown’s culinary passion ignited when he was in his teens. His mum Leslie cooked the family fresh, wholesome evening meals when he and his older sister were growing up; lasagne and cannelloni were favourites. 

‘‘Mum loves food and loves cooking,’’ he says. ‘‘She would make something different every night. We were well looked after.’’

When Rhoades-Brown missed out on his chosen HSC subjects of food technology and tech drawing, it was his mum who mentioned that Italian chef Pasquale Arena, owner of Merewether neighbourhood restaurant Pasquale’s, was looking for an apprentice. At 15 – he was young for year 11 – Rhoades-Brown left Warners Bay High for the traditional family-run kitchen, which did a brisk trade in risotto and steak Diane.

‘‘It was such a good training ground,’’ he remembers. ‘‘The food was simple and because it was a family-run restaurant, it was very grounded. I was the only employee who wasn’t family apart from the 60-year-old Yugoslav dishwasher who didn’t know much English.

‘‘In the big, big restaurants, in the big brigades, you get pushed into certain areas, which can be really limiting and you don’t get the exposure [to technique and ingredients] of the smaller kitchen.’’

Three years later he was being interviewed by award-winning veteran vineyards chef Robert Molines, whose eponymous French restaurant at Pepper Tree was the breeding ground for many high achievers, including Lesley Taylor and Peter Bryant. (Molines is now at Bistro Molines at Mount View).

‘‘Robert’s restaurant was the place to be at the time,’’ says Rhoades-Brown. 

‘‘It had such an amazing reputation and was such a great playground to learn how to cook.

‘‘I remember going in for my job interview and I looked about five years younger than I was, and I walked into this kitchen with all these grown-up chefs and there was a brigade, six or seven chefs in the kitchen, and I was used to just one on one. There were zucchini flowers getting stuffed; I’d never seen a zucchini flower before!

‘‘Robert took me upstairs and sat me down and asked me to tell him about my family. And that was the most important thing to him.

‘‘He was an excellent figure for me. We had a great working relationship. He very much involved me in the business side as well; he took me under his wing. Food is in his blood. He’d turn up to work at eight o’clock and you’d be setting up in the kitchen and he’d cook kidneys for breakfast on sourdough with bacon,’’ laughs Rhoades-Brown. ‘‘He’s a character.’’

It was with Molines’s guidance that the eager fourth-year apprentice immersed himself in modern French cuisine and rose through the ranks to head chef under executive chef Daniel Hunt (Molines had departed by then).

Molines remembers a young Rhoades-Brown.

‘‘He came to me willing to learn and he was very respectful,’’ his French accent still strong after 40 years in Australia. ‘‘He was very capable and for him it was a challenge to join a big team, but he was very much like a sponge.

‘‘I say to all my new chefs, ‘You want to have your own restaurant? You do? It starts now then; you learn and you plan’. Troy is very ambitious, but he also understood that there was a lot he needed to know.’’

In 2005, Rhoades-Brown won the Brett Graham Award, which was established two years earlier by the Newcastle-born, London-based chef to support promising young chefs. Rhoades-Brown travelled to Europe to get a taste of Michelin star cooking. He observed precision, innovation, strong leadership – and he soaked it all up.

When he was about to open Muse, he emailed Graham, whose Notting Hill restaurant The Ledbury has two Michelin stars, seeking advice. ‘‘He wrote back and said, ‘Cook for your customers, not yourself, and always maintain basic flavours’.

‘‘It’s so true,’’ reflects Rhoades-Brown. ‘‘What do your customers want? You can put your own flair in it, but it’s about what they want. If they want peas, lamb and mint, give them peas, lamb and mint, don’t give them lamb with elder flower, burnt meringue and orange dust.

‘‘It’s good to be creative and showcase what you can do, but why not try and give people the best peas and lamb they’ve ever had?’’

A professional kitchen is a hierarchical, high-pressure environment, but not every head chef behaves like Gordon Ramsay. It is definitely not Troy Rhoades-Brown’s style.

‘‘Muse [Restaurant] has an open kitchen so it has to be very strict and very quiet,’’ he says. ‘‘I think people are so used to the yelling on TV that some expect to see some form of show ...  I don’t yell. If I need to talk to someone, I can portray a lot through eye contact,’’ he laughs after squinting his eyes and furrowing his brow with mock disapproval.

He is, by all accounts, a strong leader; that rare combination of talent, tolerance, ambition and innovation with the ability to communicate effectively. Says Molines, ‘‘He is exemplary, humble. To lead, you have to be both gentle and direct, and gain the respect of those around you. Troy is a true leader.’’

Through training and commitment, Rhoades-Brown and Megan have built a strong team of kitchen and floor staff, the majority of whom work full-time in an industry renowned for its casual workforce. Loyalty runs deep at Muse.

‘‘We’ve created this huge second family,’’ says Rhoades-Brown. ‘‘Every second Sunday night we all go out to dinner and we celebrate everyone’s birthdays on our nights off. We also work really, really hard. Last weekend we had a wedding on Saturday night and the kitchen staff finished up early because everyone moved out on to the dance floor. They were finished by 11 o’clock [and] I had four chefs wait around until 12.30am to help move the tables for some of the guys on the floor because they’re really heavy. I didn’t have to ask them.

‘‘You set the example though. If we were holidaying every second week, leaving staff in trouble during busy services, people would get jack of it.’’

No one could doubt Rhoades-Brown’s commitment. The night before our interview, he finished up at Muse Restaurant just after 2am after talking through the new menu with his sous chef. He’d started work at 8.30am. Today, he was at Muse Restaurant at 8am and will complete lunch service at Muse Kitchen before being back at the helm at the restaurant for dinner. 

He never hangs up his apron before midnight, which is why the couple decided to relocate from East Maitland to The Vintage, about halfway between the Hungerford Hill and Keith Tulloch wineries.

‘‘I couldn’t do what he does,’’ decides Molines, ‘‘but he is very fit mentally and physically.’’

‘‘It’s impossible to keep him out of the kitchen,’’ says Megan, who is expecting the couple’s first child in late February. ‘‘He’d cook 24 hours a day if I let him. Everyone always asks who cooks at home; of course he does.’’ 

Life is short, which is why everyone should get to experience the thrill – even once – of having a superb chef say the words, ‘‘I’m going to make you lunch’’.

I glance at the always-changing, relaxed bistro menu, which by now is being scrutinised by diners who filed in right on noon. There is a quartet of grey-haired men, retired executive types in Ralph Lauren polo shirts and chinos, a loved-up couple celebrating their wedding anniversary, girlfriends catching up over a couple of glasses of Keith Tulloch chardonnay, and a mum with her two primary school-aged kids.

Among their options are orecchiette pasta with Milly Hill lamb sausage, eggplant, cherry tomatoes, broad beans, lemon and Binnorie goat’s cheese; warm smoked trout and chat potato salad with watercress, caper and eschallot; and Nulkaba chicken and heirloom carrot terrine with celeriac remoulade and toasted sourdough.

Rhoades-Brown eschews fickle trends; you won’t find miso custard on the menu at Muse. Instead, he concentrates on seasonal, regional produce. It is all about quality and flavour, and his creativity has a large part to play.

All the hype about a particular chef won’t stand up for a second if they plate up average food – especially now that everyone is an expert. One could be forgiven for thinking that ambitious home cooks and foodies had taken over the world.

‘‘I had a 10-year-old come into the restaurant a couple of weeks ago,’’ Rhoades-Brown tells me later, smiling, ‘‘and order off the al la carte menu. He gave my dessert an 8 out of 10. It’s $95 for three courses and he’s just had liquid nitrogen-dipped creme brulee with fresh honeycomb. It’s fantastic, it’s great!

‘‘And the fact that more people are savvy? It’s good; it means we all have to lift our game. If you think you can run the same menu in the same restaurant and not make any changes in 15 years, you’re going to struggle. You have to be willing to evolve.’’

Amanda Tulloch, who designed the new winery with its expansive second-floor tasting area looking out to the Brokenback Range, as well as Muse Kitchen, admires the ‘‘elegance of Troy’s food, which is quite fine and detailed, decorative and pretty’’.

‘‘It’s very similar to Keith’s style of wine,’’ she adds. ‘‘If you think of them both in terms of being artists, neither of them are modernists: they’re very much about detail and they have a classical training and thought. They’re very particular. They’re also very balanced, lovely people who get up every day and all they’re thinking about is what they’re creating and presenting. It’s not about them, they are not egocentric people.’’

All four of the entree-size dishes I savour at Muse Kitchen confirm why Rhoades-Brown is so widely respected. The delicate tuna cerviche with chilli, lime, ginger, coriander and grapefruit is enhanced by the addition of carefully placed ruby-coloured pomegranate seeds that burst with flavour when I crunch them. The slow braised Cootamundra goat with freshly made, melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi, burnt butter, sorrel and broad beans is rich and hearty.

But it is the plump pan-fried scallops accompanied by carrot puree and a parsley, white anchovy and raisin butter served in between that floor me. Each smooth mouthful, with its fine balance of saltiness and sweetness, is sublime. 

Rhoades-Brown has created a sensory hit, a priceless dining moment that will forever remain in my memory.

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