From being recognised as cooking some of the best steaks in the world to pioneering TAFE education in country NSW, award-winning chef Sandy Phillips has come out of retirement to bring his own flavour to Squires restaurant.
> Did you always want to be a chef?
I knew from the age of six that I wanted to be a chef and left school at 15 to go straight into catering school, before becoming fully qualified at 18 and working in exclusive hotels in Scotland and Europe.
I did some advanced training at the famous Locarno Lago Maggiore, Switzerland where I specialised in the highly decorative role of Garde-Manger, which is concerned mainly with buffet style decorative work such as ice and margarine sculpture.
> You are originally from Scotland. How did you find yourself in Armidale?
I first came to Australia in 1972, with my first job being at the Wentworth Hotel in Sydney, which at the time was one of the best hotels in the country.
After another two years of travelling and working around the world tasting and smelling food from the old Silk Road to Europe, I returned to Australia working in a range of places like Lizard Island, where I was the catering manager and as the head chef at the Chevron Hilton in Sydney.
It was from there that I came up to train staff at the Ex-Services Club. While I was only meant to stay for around six months, I found I liked the country life so much, I decided to stay.
> What was it about Armidale in particular that convinced you to stay?
I love the cool climate, which is similar to Scotland, though of course hotter in the summer. It’s up in the hills and settled by Scottish people. I’ve got a place out of town that I’ve named Westburn after my home town in Scotland. I keep a few fallow deer there to keep the grass down, but, no, I don’t eat them.
> You were an early pioneer of TAFE education in cooking. Can you tell us about that?
I established the first cooking course for TAFE in country NSW here in Armidale. It was annexed to the Ryde Food School, and we used to teach apprentices from the Queensland border to Sydney at the Ex-Services Club. I still teach at the Tamworth Institute.
I find it really rewarding to see those students go on to pursue successful careers becoming head chefs and working overseas.
Have you noticed many changes in the industry since you have been in Australia?
Oh definitely. The standard of food in Australia is now recognised around the world, but it was pretty basic when I first arrived.
The European chefs brought a lot of knowledge with them, but now the Australian chefs are recognised in their own right, often winning the Cuisine Culinaire, which is the food equivalent of the Olympics. The other thing is the quality of the produce that’s available now; it really is fantastic.
I recently returned from a food and wine tasting at the Powerhouse in Tamworth, and the quality of the new products such as meat, wine and olives is really phenomenal.
> At one stage the Press said you cooked the best steaks in the world. Can you tell us about that?
I was at the Armidale Bowling Club for about 15 years, and it was during that time that certain magazines and newspapers said that we and the Breakfast Creek Hotel in Brisbane cooked the best steaks in the world. Part of the reason for this is the unbelievable quality of the local produce.
> What’s the secret to the perfect steak?
Again, the quality of the meat is important. I am now using black Angus, and we are also looking at using prime Hereford. You must have a hot grill, and don’t overcook it.
The idea that you only turn once and let the blood bead is a load of rubbish. Of course the degree of doneness is a matter of interpretation. If a customer thinks a steak is too raw, I have no hesitation putting it back on the grill for them.
> What prizes and accolades have you won since working in the district?
I can tell you some of the highlights. I worked at the Newie about ten years ago, and we won the NSW Best Bistro and were placed in the top ten in Australia.
I had Rafters Restaurant in Guyra, which won a plate for best new restaurant, and when I was at Lindsay House we were finalists in the Restaurant Catering Association Awards. Currently, we are nominated for those same awards again at Squires.
> What advice would you give to anyone who wants to become a chef?
Read lots of books and glossy magazines with nice pictures to give you inspiration. Don’t be frightened to experiment and adjust, as improvisation leads to some of the best developments in any cooking.
I don’t describe myself as a chef, but as a food scientist. You have to understand why something is cooking, why it is caramelising, why the yeast is making the bread rise.
You really have to be passionate about cooking. I’ve travelled extensively around the world soaking up the flavours from China to Turkey and wherever. It’s being interested in food wherever you go that makes the difference.
> What can customers expect from Squires?
I have returned to work at Squires after finding retirement rather boring, and I’m really enjoying the return to cooking, which I hope is evident in the quality of the food and service we provide. I don’t like to copy too much what I’ve done in the past.
I like to look for new products, keep up with industry standards and mix it up a bit. We use only the finest produce and cater for a range of tastes and needs such as food intolerances, vegetarians and vegans. Besides what’s on the menu, we are happy to use our ingredients to cook meals to order.
> If you had to choose a last meal what would it be?
> Thank you Sandy.