Drew Dawson is no stranger to Fremantle’s ever evolving dining scene, having headed up the kitchens at Peggy’s and Lola’s. Setting up his own pop-up Off Licence, he’s stripped dining back to its essence with real food and good vibes. Originally from the UK, life has been far from easy, and he talks to WAGFG about growing up between London and Italy, time in the British Army, and navigating the world of hospitality.

Was cheffing always in your game-plan?

I was always obsessed with food but I don’t think I necessarily wanted to be a chef. My parents separated when I was young and I grew up between East London with my mum and holidays with my father in a little country farmhouse in the rolling hills of Cossignano, in the Marche region of Italy.

I grew up fairly poor and don’t remember eating at beautiful restaurants. It was always more about sharing a meal around a family table. We grew lots of vegetables on my dad’s farm and everything that we ate came from the garden. He’d go and pick whatever was the freshest and my stepmum would guide the day’s menu from what we had in the garden. So, I don’t think it was about being a chef at first but more a love of food and the connection with nature and the seasons.

Did that love of food lead you from school to the kitchen?

Not quite. I didn’t like school, so I left as quickly as I could. I liked history and chatting to people, but I couldn’t find any route that I wanted to take. Mum was quick to tell me that in that part of London at the time my life could go one of two ways. If I wanted to stay in London, I had to get myself a stable income but with fairly low qualifications there wasn’t really many options for me.

I ended up joining the army and looking back, a lot of the things that I love in kitchens began when I was in the army. It put discipline and structure into my life. Having grown up essentially in a single mother household, I suddenly had a hundred fathers. Whatever happened I knew if I looked to my left and to my right, the two blokes beside me had my back and when I left the army and started working in fast paced kitchens that was one of the things that I found that was very similar.

Did you leave the army to pursue a career in kitchens?

I don’t remember thinking about food when I was in the army but when I left there was a hole that needed filling. I started out completing my apprenticeship at The Ned, a venue under Soho House & Co in London, and from there I fell in love with kitchens and food. Fast pace, late hours, that adrenaline rush you get in a busy service, and the feeling when finishing and you’ve made it through. I loved everything about the lifestyle.

I was desperate to see how far I could take my career. I enquired with lots of well-known chefs in London that were running one and two Michelin star restaurants and pitched to them that though I was fairly green, I’d work for free. I didn’t really care what jobs I was given, to my detriment. All I wanted was to learn and working for free gave me a lot of exposure I wouldn’t have otherwise had. I ended up doing six months of free work, living on my mum’s couch. I don’t know how I survived, but I look back on it now as some of my fondest memories.

How did the move to Australia come about?

The last job I had in London before moving was on Patrick Powell’s opening team for what was to be his new restaurant, Allegra. I liked it, but I thought, I can’t really see my life here. Pat had worked for Andrew McConnell in Melbourne and said I should give Melbourne a crack. That was enough for me and by the end of the year I was moving to Melbourne. I started working for Eileen Horsnell at Napier Quarter. It was the first time I’d worked for a female head chef and she was incredible. The way she guided and the way she criticized was much more empathetic and emotional; it felt like a much gentler way of cooking.

I worked with Eileen right up until Covid kicked off, when I jumped in the car with a friend and drove around the country. I ended up doing nearly two loops of Australia but on driving from Cairns back over to Perth for Christmas I was in a fairly traumatic car accident. I rolled a Nissan Patrol down the side of a hill six times over. The car was crushed like a tin can.  My hand was on the steering wheel when we crashed and was crushed between the windscreen and the ground. We all ended up in hospital and I flew to Perth with my friend who needed surgery. I found myself here with no money, no car, and my right hand, my knife hand, minced. I couldn’t work, and had no family or friends here.

With a “minced” hand and not much hope in sight, what lead you to Peggy’s?

Truthfully, I was ready to go back into fine dining, but I would have been useless. I couldn’t pick up a knife, I couldn’t do anything. I saw Peggy’s a month or so after it had opened when roaming around in Fremantle and it reeked of Melbourne. Trying my luck, I went in and pitched to one of the staff, but I think they thought I was a vagrant at the time and shuffled me out of the door. But the owner Harry Peasnell followed me out, we had a chat, and connected immediately.  I confessed to Harry that I couldn’t do much apart from wrap sandwiches and pull tickets, but he said that’s all he needed from me at that stage as a head chef, so I got the job. I loved the customers and that we could be so creative with something as humble as sandwiches.

And then there was a next step with Harry?

Six months later, my hand had healed, and I was ready to get back into proper kitchens again. It just so happened that Harry had been offered a lease for two doors down and asked me if I wanted to open a restaurant with him. And so began Lola’s. I ended up teaming up with Gozney and being introduced to their Pizza Collective. I got myself a Gozney oven for home and it made my life so much easier as I could recipe test and had access to their community of pizza chefs and all their knowledge. It was awesome and definitely shaped what I know about pizza today.

Given that you’d loved Peggy’s and had this new opportunity at Lola’s, what was the catalyst to embark on a new journey with Off Licence?

I saw out the opening six months for Lola’s but realised it was time to go and try something for myself. Sharpen up on some skills and have a bit of exposure to different forms of cooking, different chefs, different ideas. I had a fairly strong background in food at this point and I knew how I wanted to cook. When you work for other people it’s wonderful in that you learn new things, but there’s limitations. So, I think the idea of a pop up gave me the outlet to be more creative and to cook in a style that wasn’t related to Peggy’s or Lola’s. I could experiment with people that I didn’t know and get some honest feedback. That was when I started Off Licence as a pop-up kitchen concept.

How did Off Licence take off from concept to reality?

At that time, Patio Bar had just opened. I was bold and went in on opening night and said “who owns this? … I want to cook here.” They said that they weren’t hiring chefs but I instead raised the idea that I wanted to do a pop up and take over the kitchen, which they were all for. We threw in three dates and they asked me “what do you cook?” and I said, “well, I guess I’ll cook pasta.” So that was it. I reckon I made 20 portions of each pasta and we sold out in 30 minutes. One minute Patio was empty and the next thing I knew, there was like 150 people standing there all waiting to order food. For someone who’s not from here, I was pretty pleased with that. No one knows me here and now people are lining up to come and eat my pasta. I didn’t expect that this was going to be the response and it just took off from there.

What do you love about pop up kitchen  culture?

I think a lot of restaurants aim towards a market with disposable income who will buy expensive wines and splurge on a full set menu but that has never been my mentality. I saw an opportunity here to tap into that market where you could look at my menu, order everything and it wouldn’t break the bank. I don’t have to pay rent and my staff costs are minimal so why should I be passing it back onto the diner? For me, Off Licence was more about creating something that people would go crazy about and create a community. I was cooking for a much younger crowd of people, my age, that want to come out and eat and have an affordable dinner that has a bit of a vibe as well.

What can we expect in the near future?

I’m also working in the Nieuw Ruin kitchen alongside Blaze Young. She has been one of my favourite chefs since I moved to Perth and have been on her case for any opportunity to work and learn from her and the team. After suffering a near death experience, you don’t cook the same again after that. I’m cooking every day, like it’s my last. As much as I take from hospitality, I’m going to do my absolute best to give back. I love Perth and don’t want to go back to London. I want to enrich the food scene here to the best of my ability. I love those cool wine bar venues and that’s my next step. At some point when Off Licence gets off the ground more permanently, that’s where I want to go with it. A little bistro with records playing and natural wines pouring, alongside cool, fun plates. You go in there and bump into six of your mates, because that’s where everybody wants to go.

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