Declan Rhodes, former chef at North Bird, looks back on his formative gigs, and ahead to his own WA venue.
Declan Rhodes is a name not known to many diners in WA. Other than a short stint as head chef at North Bird Wine Store and Bar, Rhodes – a local boy still in his twenties – has built his career far from home.
“I was scrubbing dishes for a year or so and worked at some pub,” he says of his first hospitality gigs in WA. “I thought, I’m not really going to really excel [here], so I finished my apprenticeship and about a week and a half later I was on a plane to London.”
Rhodes aimed high on his arrival, handing his CV into the likes of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and The Ledbury. He didn’t land a job at either, but Australian chef Brett Graham steered him towards a job at Texture, Agnar Sverrisson’s now-closed Michelin-starred Scandi fine diner in Marylebone. (Rhodes also worked as a private chef for a Russian billionaire, a memory he brushes off with a laugh – stories for another day, perhaps.)
It was back on Australian soil, at Vue de Monde, where Rhodes’ career really took off, buoyed by those formative experiences in Europe. “It was the most life-changing experience,” Rhodes says of his two years at the Melbourne institution. Rhodes describes how Chris Marshall, his head chef, took him under his wing, before Rhodes was promoted to sous-chef after just 11 months.
The job might have come with pressure, but Rhodes revelled in it. “You’ve got, say, 15 commis chefs that you’ve got to look over, you’re running the kitchen for Chris when he’s downstairs doing his orders and stuff. He pushed me to my limit,” he says. “He’s a guy that really loves this industry, really cares about training chefs properly and he’s created some really, really strong chefs.”
Hardened to the realities of kitchen life, Rhodes’ return to Perth has thrown up new challenges that he’s sure will translate into his next moves.
Hardened to the realities of kitchen life, Rhodes’ return to Perth has thrown up new challenges that he’s sure will translate into his next moves. “I needed to learn the basics of running a restaurant: invoices, paying suppliers, all that kind of stuff,” he says. “You work at all these fancy places and you don’t actually see that side of the business. I worked at Vue de Monde for two years and everything is perfect and smooth, but you don’t actually get a grip as a sous-chef of what makes the business run: your menu costing, your percentages, your staff rostering. That’s what I was really missing out of my career. That’s what North Bird gave me while going back to cooking half chickens and making fresh pasta and stuff like that.”
His tenure at North Bird may have been short lived, but coming home has been a revelation. “I gained a whole appreciation for WA from moving away,” Rhodes says. “When you’re here as a young kid you don’t appreciate it: the weather, the ocean and the produce. A lot of people say the food is a bit behind, they say that fine dining won’t kick off – I want to prove that wrong.”
Talk turns to his own venture, with Rhodes dreaming of “a Momofuku Ko-style concept”, that takes in inspiration from his time at Vue de Monde yet remains typically WA. In his ideal restaurant, there’ll be 12 seats, with chefs doing all the serving. It’ll be fine dining, sure, but without the pretence. “I’m a country boy,” says Rhodes, who grew up on a Narrogin sheep and wheat farm. “I’m not fancy. It’s very rare you’ll catch me wearing shoes. I drink Emu Export. I love my fishing. Some would say I’m a bit of a bogan. I don’t give a fuck, that’s who I am.”
“I want to help push things forward with casual fine dining. Where you get an eight-course meal and you don’t have to pay like three hundred dollars, and you know, you can also have a Swan draught or something with it,” he says. “It’s very important for me to do in my life what’s true to me.”