Shannon Bennett pays homage to classical fine dining in a modern context, having altered his approach in the kitchen from heavy European influence, to more of a celebration of what’s on our doorstep. As MasterChef’s 10th season draws to a close, we chat to the esteemed chef mentoring the contestants to crowning glory.
I understand you realised your passion for cooking when you and classmate Curtis Stone studied home economics at the local girls school. What was it about cooking that really captured your attention?
Shannon: Making something out of nature gives a massive sense of satisfaction. Yes it is true that we did do home economics together, but we always loved food and we both had a natural instinct for what tastes great. I always have the philosophy of, ‘If I like it then so will someone else’.
You have worked under the tutelage of some of the world’s most esteemed chefs, including Albert Roux, John Burton-Race, Marco Pierre White and Alain Ducasse. What can you tell us about working with some of these iconic characters?
Shannon: They all had the same attitude. Perfection was something to be aimed at but never achievable, if any of these great names had ever reached that goal I am sure they would have a break down because there would be nothing left to get out of bed for. They all led crazy lives that made sense to me and gave me a sense of purpose. There was no conveyor belt these people ever rode, they never conformed to, they mostly are taught and trained to live their lives. I try to follow the same practice.
Having opened your first restaurant Vue de monde, when you were just 24, what advice would you give your younger self looking back?
Shannon: Move countries! I started with two apprentices, my brother washing pots (who is now a commercial airline pilot) and one manger and my mum as the book keeper. We all worked our butts off and were rewarded with pleasing customers and continuous learning that have shaped all our lives since. There is no way around hard work to achieve something special. I would not have changed a thing other than yelling less at Jason and Adrian, my first two chefs, I owe them a life of gratitude, great guys and the journey they came on was amazing, showed huge commitment. I also would have asked the bank and bought the building I was renting. These days we are teaching young people entitlement before aspiration. Opening a small restaurant today would be a massive worry and challenge, so many constraints and yet food prices have not gone up as much as the cost of running a restaurant.
You have been a restauranteur for almost two decades, what have been the biggest changes to the food industry, both from the perspective of the business owners and the diners?
Shannon: Local ingredients is now at the fore of great food and a great restaurant experience. Aesthetics and great design are now on the back burner which is a shame, but some great places I have recently visited seem to be defying the trend of spending money on fit outs and it works, but I hope the idea of dressing up and visiting a great restaurant for not only the food but the service and ambience doesn’t disappear. I will always never get tired of aspirational dining.
Can you tell us about some of the most memorable cooking moments you’ve had?
Shannon: I cooked for Sylvester Stallone’s wedding at Blenheim palace and that was fun, Marco left me behind accidentally (I think) so I got to meet the man and he organised a driver to take me back to London (I was only 20 at the time).
MasterChef is now in its 10th season and you have become a familiar face on our television screens, especially in recent years as you’ve taken on a mentorship role with the contestants. What is it that you enjoy most about this role?
Shannon: It is the same role I take on at the Vue group. I feel like I am a positive councillor for chefs in the group, I love the idea of mapping out a plan for them to replicate my success and to enjoy the journey on the way, all chefs have a great story waiting to be written. The contestants are no exception, I treat them like I would a first year apprentice in the group.
The talent just keeps getting better year on year, are you ever wowed by the talents of these ‘home cooks’?
Shannon: Yes but more I am wowed by their determination, sacrifice and energy. They are all such role models for the industry.
What can you tell us about the talent this season?
Shannon: I think the boys are showing their strengths early, so I for a change I am working on mentoring some of the female talent. Cooking is confidence, so as the show moves along you notice confidence builds in a lot of the cooks. Samira is a great inspiration, I love the countries she has lived in and how she has adopted some of the culture in her cooking from living in the countries.
Between your job as owner and operator of a number of restaurants and cafes in Melbourne, and MasterChef, do you have much time to cook at home?
Shannon: Every weekend, I write for delicious magazine, these recipes are all about accessibility so I practice these ideas on the family, I love doing this, makes it real fun and satisfying. One pot dishes with minimal washing up is always the aim!
Having six young children, it must be tricky to satisfy all palates, what is your winning go-to meal at home?
Shannon: Adding layers to a dish, one kid likes plain pasta with steamed broccoli and I start there and then build layers into my dishes and occasionally a bit of storytelling gets me over the line to get them to eat a dish or even bribery!
Have your kids adopted your love of cooking?
Shannon: Not yet, would love them to be involved in the industry, great discipline is learnt working in hospitality. I recently ran into a former chef, for who is a now a doctor and he mentioned the years working in the kitchens gave him the confidence and discipline to pursue the dream of being a doctor.
What does a typical day in the life of Shannon Bennett look like?
Shannon: 5.30am start, gym or a run both involved running with the dog, then drop off the kids at school and the day finishes anywhere between 6pm to 11pm depending on the day. Great thing now is I try to take Sundays off and get a chance to relax. The big goal for the second half of the year is to get the VDM soccer team going again with a few outside the group players also involved. The days of not testing a skinny chef are over!
Originally published in Profile Magazine