Jake Nicolson – Executive Chef, Ghanem Group

As executive chef for Brisbane-based Ghanem Group, which owns and operates 9 premium Australian venues, Jake Nicolson knows a thing or two about ensuring food is more than just, well… food. We recently spoke to Jake about what he brings to the table in Australia’s evolving culinary scene.

Nine. It’s the number of years Jake’s been with the Ghanem Group and the number of venues under his direction. So it goes without saying that the need to stand out and constantly do things differently is par for the course.

When asked what inspires him to keep coming up with so many menus for different venues, he was quick to deflect attention. “It’s not just a one-man-band. When we create restaurants, it’s a combination of trends, what directors want, traveling to and immersing in different cultures, research, eating, reading, experimenting.”

Jake’s culinary countrymen also serve as a major source of inspiration. “As chefs, we always push outside comfort zones and learn from our own experience; but looking across at other chefs in the industry, they’re also doing really exciting things. There’s a lot of Australian chefs now being acknowledged as best in the world, so we only have to look in our own backyard.”

He has a long list of names at the ready, including Lennox Hastie (Firedoor); Josh Niland (Saint Peter); and Dan Hunter (Brae). But there’s an extra special mention of Alla Wolf-Tasker (Lake House, Daylesford) whom Jake refers to as his “culinary mother”. Coincidentally, she’s also the chef he’d most like to dine with and the chef he looks up to the most. The fondness and respect he holds for Alla is abundantly apparent.

“Artisan producers, new farming practices… I like to stay on the cusp of all of that as it evolves. As a state judge of the delicious. Produce Awards, I love that my role allows me to travel and meet people (producers, farmers, suppliers) who are at the forefront of new innovative techniques. Being able to deliver something that’s exceptional beyond what people would have at home is incredibly important,” he says.

The same can be said when it comes to choosing beef products for his venues.
“We look for unique brands that aren’t necessarily at the local butcher or run-of-the-mill steak restaurant. We want to represent a farmer or something that’s truly unique. Quality and supply need to both be on offer. Products like Beef City Black and Thousand Guineas Shorthorn – that’s a uniquely Australian product that stands out, and there’s consistency in texture and quality. With Australia being so young, it’s important we develop our own culture and style, including our own beef.”

Beyond that, Jake insists the provenance of the produce he uses is another important ingredient. “I’ve been lucky enough to go to feedlots, to know farmers at a grassroots level. The connection between farmer, feedlot, plant – we have that connection. It’s important to have that understanding of origin; believing in a brand is important. Our customers expect a certain level, so we need to trust our suppliers share that same ethos.”

It’s clear that Jake is extremely passionate about not just his role as a chef, but about the restaurant industry at large. We couldn’t resist the opportunity to probe about where it’s all tracking and what trends he sees emerging. “There has been a big focus on instagrammable and viral food – biggest/craziest donuts, croissants, burgers, etc. But food is becoming more expensive, so it’s not just about the wow-factor now, it’s about the experience. We are seeing a resurgence in fine dining. Because it’s about using food to bring people together.”

And we can’t think of a better reason to enjoy good food than sharing it with good people.

Perhaps it’s no surprise then that Jake’s advice to others is to learn and listen to everyone you possibly can. “Take everyone’s opinion into consideration but also make your own opinions. Find out what works best for you and stick with it. The key to success is how much you can make others enjoy their life, their time. If you can be someone who makes people smile, that’s a good way to live.”

This same mentality feeds into Jake’s food philosophy as well. He says, “…to me, food is about bringing people together around a table, helping them enjoy time together, enjoy something different, and making people happy.”

The local/sustainable factor also plays a big role in Jake’s approach to food. He’s self-aware about how stereotypical that sounds but insists it’s “still part of my ethos”.

That’s why, when it comes to sourcing beef in particular, Jake will continue to stay local. “Australian producers understand our land and we get the best out of it. The high demand locally and internationally is a credit to how good Australian beef is. Australia is very good at feedlot programs…the quality of grain and grass, and the knowledge that goes behind the programs allows us to produce beef that’s world-class.”