Finding work-life balance as a chef

From a young age, I knew I was born to cook. I sat my final school exams at the age of 15, signed out of high school and filled in my culinary apprenticeship papers a few hours later. Within three years, I was cooking aboard Sydney’s Captain Cook Cruises, on board vessels ranging from privately-chartered yachts to ships carrying 700 passengers. It was a steep learning curve with little room for error. When catering out on the water, if things don’t go to plan, you can’t simply turn back to the dock to fetch more produce.

I must have done a decent job, because I was soon offered a position at Brisbane’s Hilton Hotel. Under the wing of legendary chef Rick Stephen, I learned what makes the difference between being good and being the best; discipline and an eye for detail. I was only 19 years old at the time and let’s just say there were a few occasions when I’d cook all night, finish work and party all morning! But I quickly realised that to get something out of this career, I’d have to put everything into it.

I threw myself into the job, working long hours. But, it wasn’t long before I was working with some of the country’s best chefs. The hard work paid off; Hilton presented me with a High Achiever Award and Eat & Drink Magazine featured me as one of Australia’s top up-and-coming chefs.

But while I was mentally enjoying pushing myself to the limit, it was physically unsustainable. Month by month, my health declined until unfortunately my body reached breaking point.

It took me a full year to recover. Nowadays, I’m much more mindful of the need for work-life balance – for myself as well as my culinary team. There has always been a lot of camaraderie between chefs, and we hate letting each other down. It should be possible for us to work our dream job and still have time for family, hobbies and all the other good things in life.

I think inflight catering is one of few industries that offer chefs a balanced lifestyle, as well as the creative stimulation we crave. I’ve been at dnata catering Australia for 13 years and my role has evolved so much over that time. We’ve gone from catering for a handful of international airlines to nearly fifty, making us the nation’s leading inflight caterer. Throughout this journey, I’ve never been bored; there’s always another challenge around the corner.

I enjoy defying the ‘plane food’ stereotype, pushing the boundaries of what can be practically produced in large-scale volumes and offering passengers a fine dining experience. The meals we’re creating today wouldn’t look out of place in a high-end restaurant, and I think that comes down to our focus on fresh produce and innovative cooking techniques.

There is no such thing as a ‘typical day’ in my job. In any given week, I might find myself visiting a potential supplier in Brisbane, presenting a new menu to an airline in Sydney and experimenting with the development team in our Melbourne kitchen.

It’s a demanding role, but I have learnt over time the only way to be able to maintain a busy schedule is to work smarter instead of harder; managing my time more efficiently and prioritising tasks, instead of charging headlong at every challenge. I get asked regularly what I do to tune out after a busy week – surprisingly, I cook! You might think it would be the last thing I’d choose to do after thinking and talking about food all day, but creating in the kitchen is my favourite way to unwind – my therapy.

About Robert Smithson

As General Manager of Culinary, Robert Smithson oversees product, menu design and training for dnata catering Australia, while also driving culinary innovation. Before stepping into inflight catering, he held Executive Chef positions at Invercauld House and Southern Cross University and worked alongside some of Australia’s most renowned chefs at Brisbane’s Hilton Hotel. Robert also appeared on MasterChef New Zealand as a guest mentor and was published in Great Chefs of Australia in 2012.