We caught up with the talented 32-year-old to talk winning big with The Corner Dairy, childhood memories and helming one of Perth’s biggest new openings, beachside brasserie Gibney, opening early next year.
Chef James Cole-Bowen, fresh off the back of leading The Corner Dairy to take out the WA Good Food Guide 2024 Best Bar Dining award, has been announced as the new head chef of Gibney, Kailis Hospitality Group’s ambitious new Cottesloe brasserie, set to launch in March next year.
Expect sophistication, premium seafood and meats, classic plating and preparations, and stunning views of the ocean. Cole-Bowen, previously of Le Rebelle, Lulu La Delizia and esteemed establishments in Melbourne, brings know-how and a distinct eye for produce and the kind of flair that adds just enough interest to timeless classics to show them in a new light. We caught up with the chef post-awards to talk finishing up at The Corner Dairy, inspiration and what comes next.
You’ve just finished up as head chef at The Corner Dairy, but you went out with a bang, taking out our Best Bar Dining gong at our annual awards night. How did winning an award with your old team feel?
It was a beautiful way to finish my time at TCD. We have all come a long way since we opened, and all learnt a lot along the way. It’s a very stacked category with lots of my favourite venues in it and we’ve always been a pretty casual place – we specialise in craft beer, we don’t have table service, there might be a footy game playing in the dining room. Underdogs you might say.
We’ve always had that mentality and the whole team has been working very hard this year, and we all just focused to get better and better everyday, to give the best hospitality experience possible, so it’s great to be recognised for everybody’s hard work and dedication.
We really enjoyed knowing that The Corner Dairy had won off the back of such impressive food, then seeing the big announcement about Gibney a week before the ceremony. We couldn’t be more excited for you and the next chapter of your career. Tell us about your first sit-down with George Kailis.
I had never met George before. But in these big life-altering situations I’ve always followed my gut feeling, and it’s always been the best compass for me. George is a true visionary and after meeting him and the team at KHG I knew that these are the people I want to surround myself with and this was the right move for me.
I’ve always loved Perth, it’s always felt like home for me. I was born in Melbourne and was working there pre-Covid, so when I came back, I knew that although I was happy to be home again and was content with what I was doing, I’ve always been hungry for more and there would eventually be a time where I would have to consider the possibility of moving away again to progress in my career. Opening a restaurant like Gibney and to do it in Perth is a real dream come true for me and I can’t wait to bring it to life.
You have a love of design, so it’s no surprise you and Kailis have hit it off considering how much design factors into his venues. Where have you found common ground in this area?
Yeah I think we clicked straight away. We are both super detail-oriented people, and understand a lot of the same reference points when It comes to restaurants or design. I remember sitting in Vin Populi and I was just was looking around the whole night thinking, “This room is incredible, whoever did the design did a great job”, so I was very excited when I found out it was Rezen Studio who are working with us at Gibney. I don’t know if it’s just me getting older, but I’m increasingly into interior and furniture design. I find myself scanning the cooking section at bookstores but ending up in the architecture section… I can’t get enough of old Bauhaus and Mid-Century design books now.
Let’s talk about music – what do you listen to when you’re prepping for a big service?
It’s kind of all over the place, I love music and can appreciate all genres. It could be Bob Dylan or The Cure or even System of a Down. Usually in the day it’s whatever gets everybody singing, then it could switch to drum and bass after service to push on with the clean down.
If Gibney was a musical genre, what would it be?
Tell us about growing up in Perth’s northern suburbs. What were some of your early memories a child? And how did you fall in love with food?
We lived in Kingsley when we moved here, which was a great place to grow up. I played a lot of sport as a child and would spend most of my time riding around with my friends on BMX bikes just doing kid stuff (we didn’t have phones haha). We never had fancy holidays overseas or anything like that, but would often go down to Busselton on summer holidays which I always loved.
Food was never a huge inspiration growing up, and even up until when I started my apprenticeship, I didn’t exactly know what I was in for. I was probably was just trying to get my parents off my back and get a job! I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do but I’ve always been good with the creative side, with art and playing music and building things with my hands in the garage or taking things apart and putting them back together, that sort of thing. So cooking wasn’t the obvious career choice at first. But I got really lucky with my first job with my first head chef, Dave, and sous-chef, Michael, who had both trained a lot of great apprentices before me. They both taught me a lot and after a bit of time in the kitchen, maybe a year or so, I found that being a chef did in fact tick all the boxes for me that I was looking for in a career. That’s when I really fell in love with food and went down the rabbit hole.
You’re in the Northbridge area now – where do you eat around there that inspires your cooking?
I’m kind of spoilt for choice now in Northbridge, it has every type of food you could want to eat, but my favourite places to eat are usually Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese or Chinese. I’m not sure if eating those cuisines directly inspires my cooking per se, although come to think of it, I know the whole VHT shop layout better than my local supermarket, so I’m sure it actually has without me realising it!
How flexible will you be with the menu evolving at Gibney? Do you think sometimes you need the customer to direct the conversation? Did you see that at The Corner Dairy, that the guest directed the script to an extent?
I think you always have to be flexible, and we will most definitely be evolving over time. The brief is “sophisticated brasserie grill”, and we will be leaning toward classic flavours and lot of nostalgia, following in the footsteps of all the great brasseries that came before us all around the world. I feel very much at home with this style of cuisine and we are excited to bring it to Cottesloe where we can showcase the best WA has to offer.
If I think back to before we opened The Corner Dairy, we wanted to be a casual neighbourhood bar with a big focus on independent craft beer and Australian wine, but we also wanted to have restaurant-quality food and not have table service.
As far as the customers directing the script, what we wanted to create hadn’t really been done before in Perth and there was definitely pushback from people who would much rather us do traditional pub fair. I even pulled the burger from the menu after the first-ever lunch service where it was probably 90 per cent burger dockets, which at the time was a bit of a “flip the monopoly board kind of moment”. That could have been the end of my job at TCD on day one.
Despite this first service, where we could have just continued to cook hundreds of burgers, I’m very fortunate that Tom and Sam Hart believed in me and trusted me with the menu direction, letting me do my thing. We have so many different demographics coming through the doors, a lot not even coming for the food at all. It definitely took the first year to find a good balance to keep everybody happy. Two years on, the business continues to grow because we stuck to our guns.
Opening a new venue can be intense – what do you do to relax and keep your balance in check?
Balance is a hard thing to have and is subjective from person to person. I think if you really love what you do and get to do it with people you like spending time with, it never really feels like work.
The industry has changed a lot since I started and the working hours for chefs has come down significantly, so there are definitely more hours in the week to spend time doing other things outside of work that make you happy, which is very important. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my mind and body and the sustainability of being able to work at a high level for a long time.
I try now to eat a lot better and I spend a lot of my free time on my physical fitness and mobility.
Although I was very sceptical at first, and never thought it would be something I would ever try, practising yoga was something that was introduced to me in Melbourne by a chef-turned-yoga-instructor at a restaurant I was working in. We would move the tables from the dining room and roll out yoga mats one morning every week. I highly recommend it to any chef – give it a go. I have also started to cold plunge and sauna which I have found to be very beneficial.
Other things like not sleeping enough and over-caffeinating was definitely commonplace for me for a long time, but now I’m obsessed with getting good sleep and have cut my caffeine right down. All of these things, though basic, have made me feel a lot better mentally and physically and I believe it will allow me to keep doing what I love for a long time.
Entering the pre-development phase of opening Gibney, what will the next six months look like for you?
It will go very fast. I will be taking a little bit of time off now to travel and spend time with my family and friends. Fortunately, I’ve been involved with a number of restaurant openings so far in my career so I’m prepared for the amount of the work involved that goes into one. I will be working a lot with our team at KHG on Gibney as well as writing menus and developing recipes in the test kitchen. I also want to use my time to visit a lot of our producers and suppliers that we will be working with. Once Gibney is fitted out, I’ll work closely with the kitchen team on how best to orchestrate our vision, then of course I’ll focus on finally opening the restaurant.
Gibney is set to open in March 2024.
Interview: Georgia Moore