Executive Chef Warwick Hilli, Kingston Heath Golf Club, Melbourne, Australia
Tell us about your passion for food.
I went to Baxter Tech, an all-boys technical school, and about half way 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.
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.
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!
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.
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 a 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
FULL INTERVIEW available in Golf Kitchen book