Warwick Hilli, Executive Chef with former Sous Chef Simon Bulger, Kingston Heath Golf Club, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Image courtesy Kingston Heath Golf Club.
Warwick is one of the few chefs I have worked with that didn’t have a family figure that influenced his culinary passion. He discovered it by chance at a class in high school. He worked very hard at a young age, and it is no surprise that he runs the prestigious Kingston Heath Golf Club kitchen. ~ Diana DeLucia
GK: Tell us about your passion for food.
I went to Baxter Tech, an all-boys technical school, and about halfway through they changed to co-ed. Home Economics was added as a subject, and my mate and I decided we would take it as a subject, and I found that I was excellent at it. I quickly went from being the idiot who sat at the back of the class to the teacher’s pet at the front. In my junior year, I earned honors in Home Economics with a grade of 99 AA, so I thought this might be a good career choice for me.
I interned at the Pier Hotel in Frankston, Victoria and that was quite the experience. It was a fascinating place back in the 1980s, and I spent a whole week making steak sandwiches and crumbing prawns and calamari.
I didn’t cook much at home as I come from a very English upbringing, and the food was very standard fare at that time, nothing exciting. I left school in my junior year in 1985 as I decided that I wanted to pursue a culinary career. I started as an apprentice chef on Lygon Street, Carlton, Victoria at La Spaghettata Restaurant, an Italian family style restaurant, and I stayed there for two years. I learned about long hours and hard work from the very start of my career, learning how to deal with the pace and pressure which was so valuable in this business. During my four year apprenticeship, I realized that I should move around and work in different places, so I worked in three or four different establishments.
GK: Were they all in Melbourne?
Yes - Melbourne, Mornington Peninsula, and the Wineries. I had developed a reputation as a hard worker and never had to go anywhere with a resume. At the beginning of my career, my girlfriend Sarah, now my wife, and I both worked overseas for a year. She worked in Food and Beverage, and I was a cook in the kitchen in some pretty good establishments in Europe and London.
GK: Tell us about London.
Two days after we landed in London, we started working the summer season in Wales. It’s the busiest time of the year in southern Wales on the Pembrokeshire Coast. We worked at a hotel called Broad Haven, and it was funny as we traveled halfway around the world, and we get to this place, and it’s full of Aussie and Kiwi chefs! Everyone was doing the same thing.
I worked in Coventry in England for the Peugeot Car Company cooking for executives. One morning I delivered my resume to an agency and got a phone call back that morning because the head chef at Peugeot had been playing racquetball and broke his arm in an accident. The next morning, I was cooking for all the executives at Peugeot, which was excellent because I came in with a lot of new ideas that excited them. I taught them all some Aussie words because they got quite spun out by my accent. They were enthralled by the term “snags.” What do you call it? Snags. Sausages. Snags!
GK: When did you start working in golf clubs?
When we returned from our year overseas, we relocated back to the Mornington Peninsula, Victoria and around the corner was the Peninsula Country Golf Club, a beautiful golf course that was a WOW place for me. I wanted to get a job there and submitted my resume, and about a month later, I got a job there as a casual chef. Peninsula is where the whole private golf club thing started for me, and I quickly learned that it’s a different world in the private golf clubs. I enjoyed cooking for the members of Peninsula who looked after me so well, and they instilled the real passion for working in golf clubs. There was a Welsh chef there when I started, and his food was fantastic. I learned so much from him, and Ron Davies and I went from casual chef to sous chef to head chef at Peninsula over a period of ten years.
GK: How did you find your way to Kingston Heath Golf Club?
I was sad to leave the Peninsula Country Golf Club in 2009 because it was a great establishment. However, when I saw the position of Head Chef advertised at Kingston Heath, I knew that it might be a good career move for me. I was also hoping to work again with Andrea Watson, who had also worked at Peninsula Golf Club and had moved to Kingston Heath a few years earlier. I had great respect for her work ethic, and we worked together so well. At my interview at Kingston Heath, I met Andrea and the new General Manager Gregg Chapple. After a second interview, I was offered the position as Head Chef.
GK: What do you like about working in the private club business?
Private golf clubs give you a sense of belonging. Everyone looks after you, and I feel like I owe the members a ton! I’m dedicated both to the members and my kitchen team every day at Kingston. I mean, look at the golf club now. Why wouldn’t you want to work here? It’s beautiful.
GK: Tell us about the Australian Masters.
Three months after I started here, we hosted the 2009 Australian Masters, and Tiger Woods was headlining, and it was just absolutely crazy. We had a brand new clubhouse that was still being built four days before the tournament started, and I was taking the plastic off the new deep fryers in the satellite kitchen! When the previous head chef left, there was a significant turnover of staff, and there were only two staff members here when I joined, so I had to find new staff quickly.
GK: How did the tournament go? It sounds like you had a very tough situation to handle.
The tournament was fantastic and was such great fun. All the stars and planets lined up, the club opened, everything worked, and it was immaculate. There were crowds everywhere. At one point, I was standing in the player’s lounge, and there was Tiger Woods. [laughter] I’m thinking, “Yeah, this is amazing.”
Kingston Heath also hosted the 2012 Australian Masters with Adam Scott for whom I was honored to cook. The following year, it was great watching Adam go on to win The Masters at Augusta National in the USA. We are all so proud of Adam in Australia.
To be successful in private golf clubs, you have to be able to satisfy the members by giving them what they want. You can’t just give them what you want because that’s not going to work. We are predominantly here as a golf course, a daytime golf course. Many of the clientele here at Kingston Heath just play golf. We are a world-renowned Golf Club, not a country club and don’t have accommodation, tennis courts or country club amenities or ala carte restaurants. The members are not planning to eat three-course meals and play golf. The majority of our day is spent working in the Club bar kitchen, which is a fast-paced lunch service offering members freshly prepared items such as salads, sandwiches, grilled fish, burgers, and pasta. We also have a substantial influence towards healthy foods.
GK: How did the members feel when you started to make changes to the menu?
Previous chefs at Kingston Heath always did what was asked of them. One of the things mentioned during my interview was that Kingston Heath members wanted the food to reflect the same quality of the beautiful new clubhouse. I changed everything and perhaps went too hard too soon, but it was a learning curve for me. The members now view many of the new dishes as staple menu items at the club.
Slowly, we’re changing their eating habits, and it is working. Some members will come and enjoy a game of golf, and just want a sandwich, which is fine. But some will say, “Look, I’ll have that salmon steak.” It’s not a money issue, but more about what they feel like having at the time. We’ve opened their eyes to fantastic cuisine, and we have to keep it appealing and appetizing. The members will certainly tell you quickly if something is not right!
GK: Do the members communicate their appreciation of the cuisine you are producing here now?
For sure they do. Many of them are very educated, especially with the wines. We’re a great wine club well known for Shiraz. It’s amazing how many bottles of wine we go through each week. We’re not a beer and pie club. Our members know their food and their wines.
GK: You must hold some great wine dinners.
We’ve held some fantastic wine dinners with the big South Australian wineries, and I enjoy creating the menus for these events. We also do smaller Cellar lunches where the members bring their wines from their cellars, and we match the food with the wine.
Since I left Melbourne and Australia 14 years ago, the awareness of food in general in Australia has elevated. Public relations people who have visited from New York tell me that Australia is taking over from the United States in the fine dining arena. How has that affected the private golf club kitchens?
Melbourne is the capital of Australia when it comes to melting pot cultures, and the food is fantastic. That’s the beauty of Melbourne. Eventually, that filters down to private golf clubs. As an example, when I first started at Peninsula, we were committed to raising the level and interest in food. People always looked at golf kitchens and restaurants and said, “Yeah, golf clubs serve meat pies and chips.” That was the stigma, and we wanted to change that at Peninsula. We enhanced the food level to where the Peninsula became renowned for it.
In a lot of the private golf clubs in Victoria and Australia, the level is just, “WOW.” We now have the resources and the tools to do a great job. I’m lucky to work here because food and labor costs do not necessarily govern me. It’s about giving the members what they want, so we can be creative and use exotic ingredients with which you might not normally be able to work.
GK: Warwick, do you play golf?
Yes. I do play golf, and I love it. I don’t have an official handicap because I don’t post my scores. If I kept a handicap, it would probably be between 25 and 27. I have a good hole, and then I have a bad hole. I could play a lot more golf here, but my priority needs to be in the kitchen looking out for the members.
GK: How well do you work with General Manager Gregg Chapple?
Gregg is an incredible leader. While I certainly work some long hours, I guarantee you it seems like he’s always here! He certainly has a busy schedule especially because Kingston Heath is well known. He works hard and leads by example which filters down to all of us, so our team leads by example too. I’m not a religious nut, but I use the word “blessed” to explain my feeling about working here at Kingston Heath. That’s the way I see it, and I wish our staff could understand what a superb place Kingston is. Sometimes they don’t realize it until they leave and then appreciate what they had here. I always feel so lucky when I come in here, even if I’ve done a 70 hour week because of how Gregg and the club look after me so well.
GK: You have worked quite a few major tournaments, do you enjoy them?
I have been very fortunate now to be a part of three major tournaments here at KHGC.
2009 Australian Masters
2012 Australian Masters
2016 World Cup of Golf
The WCOG was by far the biggest in catering numbers for the team at KHGC. Not only did we have the Players and Members to cater for, but this time we also had the Commissioners room, and the Caddies had their catering as well, we turned the golf shop into the Caddies lounge all week. We had a massive team of chefs and support staff in various areas around the club, from wood-fired pizza on the terrace to a seafood buffet with ice carvings, to pop up cafes on the lawn.
My job that week was to oversee all areas of catering, from the menu planning, daily ordering of stock and staffing requirements. The daily cooking and serving of various buffets, a la carte, to casual terrace dining was headed up by my Sous Chef Simon Bulger and his two senior chefs Michael Scutt and Julian Grudzien, under them were teams of cooks, kitchen assistants and kitchen hands.
I can still remember the Friday morning of the Tournament we had hundreds for breakfast in four different areas, it was non stop for hours, it was only 9 am, but it felt like we had worked the whole day! Then I said to everyone "quick we need to clean down and get ready for lunch," luckily the bar kept us fuelled with excellent coffee.
I slept at the club that week because I did not want to drive home every night, considering we were all in the kitchens at 5.30am most mornings going through till 6 pm, but it was so much fun, we saw the world’s best golfers in our club.
All the staff and management did an outstanding job that week to deliver such a high quality of food and service.
After the WCOG we settled back into looking after our members and guests, we are a small catering team of myself, Simon Bulger my Sous Chefs Sandra, Darren, Margarita, Julian, and Rick. We are all focused on giving the members and guests an exceptional level of service.
As you can see I like to promote Australian produce, we have some many interstate and overseas guests each year, so we come up with ways we can give them a taste of Australia from using native spices on meats, to wattle seed in desserts.
GK: Anything else you would like to share?
I want to thank my wife Sarah for supporting my career both now and in the past. I am often here 12 plus hours a day. We also have three beautiful children, Laura 19, Max 17 and James 11 and Sarah is a great mother to them.
I feel like it is a privilege to work here, and I am very content here. I can’t see myself working anywhere else.
Tastes of Quail, recipe by Warwick Hilli. Image by Diana DeLucia.
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