From Parramatta to Paris - the making of a top chef

When Katey Shaw won the Potentialist of the Year at last year’s Gault&Millau Awards, she described it as a “once in a lifetime opportunity”. The accolade marked yet another milestone in her quest to become a chef, which started when she was only four years old.

By Erin Ogilvie

“I am the youngest of five,” Katey tells us, “and when I was still too young for Mum to go back to work, we would be in the kitchen every day, making scones, cookies, jams, lollies. We would then go to the markets on Saturday and Sunday, and sell them. It grew my passion and made me want to be a chef.” 

Katey says that she always had an inclination towards desserts, though her pleasure doesn’t come from the consumption. “I prefer the excitement of creating something different, giving it to someone and seeing the expression on their face when they try that first bite. That's my real passion. I love experimenting with new desserts.” 

She tells us about a dessert she created at home, named a ‘Katey Strawberry Crush’. Strawberry Bavarois at the bottom of a glass, compressed pepper strawberries with mint, basil, and lime syrup, a toffee disk, and strawberry puree with sodium alginate added to it. “You crack the toffee disk and the sphere breaks and puree goes over everything. It was a play on strawberries, showing how different they can taste with different ingredients." From everyday experiments like this, Katey has inevitably earned the title of sole dessert chef in their house. Their favourite? Her Mississippi Mud Cake, made with Jack Daniels Bourbon.

She is the only member of her family who has ended up in hospitality. "Mum taught all of us how to cook, though with me she could see I had a spark for it. I wanted to know what was going on in every dish, how everything worked."

After graduating from James Meehan High School, she began a Commercial Cookery Apprenticeship at South Western Sydney Institute of TAFE. “I knew I had to just get my toe in the door, and got my placement a little place in Parramatta called Sabatini's.” When the head chef suddenly resigned in the third year of her apprenticeship, Katey began running the kitchen of a 65-seater on her own. “I didn't have a dish hand or anyone to help in the kitchen,” she says. “I had to prep the kitchen, cook the food, then clean up all the dishes. It was a huge builder for me and really made me the chef I am.” She did this for nine months before wanting to move on to somewhere she could focus more on her cooking skills.

She signed with HTN, and two days later had an interview with the Campbelltown Catholic Club. “I sat down with Paul Rivkin and within two hours of my interview, got a phone call that I got the job and would start the next day.” There are eight different restaurants in the Club, from a bistro-style café to a fine dining hotel restaurant, which gave her plenty of variation.  “It’s fantastic because you aren't just in one place, doing the same routine every day. We get to move around from section to section.” 

Paul could see that she was incredibly passionate about pastry and desserts, and encouraged her to start participating in competitions.  “I do a lot of them now and I've learnt so much, whether it’s about keeping my section organised, or proper Mise En Place.” Many of the competitions are run by the Australian Culinary Foundation, which led to her appointment last year as the Chairperson of the NSW/ACT & Regions Young Chefs' Club. Membership is open to any ACF member under the age of 25, a bracket that still includes Katey.  

“They had seen me grow over the years and offered me the position.” She organises one educational event every month to assist the development of the young chefs. “I'm trying to get them out of the kitchen and see the other side of hospitality, that we don't often get to see when we’re stuck in the kitchen.

“We have roughly 150-200 young chefs, and it's an opportunity for them to build their skills and to connect to other chefs.” She says the Club does present job opportunities but it's more about the support system. “It's very hard starting out. Everyone that I spoke to about it being tough said, ‘Suck it up princess, that's the industry.’ So it’s great to have someone who's already gone through it tell you instead: ‘I know it's hard now but it does get better and if it's something that you love, you need to stick with it’.”

Katey is nothing if not a hard worker.  “I work five days a week and am also trying to build my own cake decorating business. I am self-taught but have actually won a couple of awards with my cakes. I won a Gold Medal at Fine Foods two years ago, for Best Decorated Cake in Show, which was the first time I'd ever entered a cake in a competition.”

When asked about her feelings about her impending culinary trip with Gault&Millau, she says she is both nervous and excited. “I've only been out of Australia once, which was last year and only for four days.” She says she’s most looking forward to being in Paris: “It’s the food capital of the world! Hospitality isn't just about producing a nice meal; it's about the restaurant, it's the ambience, the waitress. I feel like France has that worked out perfectly, and I can't wait to have my eyes truly opened.” 

One of the highlights of her itinerary will be working in Pierre Gagnaire’s restaurant. “I love the way he communicates with food. It's like he creates a relationship between himself and the food that he is making, and then puts it onto a plate. It's absolutely phenomenal.” While she says she is “terrified” about whether her skills will be up to scratch: “If I didn't get to pick up a knife in the kitchen, if all I got to do was shadow one of the chefs, I would still be happy. I know that I am going to absorb and experience so much.”

After almost four years, she’s getting ready to move on from the Catholic Club. “My boss, the executive chef, is even asking me when I'm going to spread my wings. I'm hoping when I get back from this trip, it'll be my time to move on to something specifically in pastry.” She started a patisserie course last year at TAFE, though had to take a break as the busy December period approached. “All of my TAFE teachers are so supportive that they organised for me to pick it up again this year and finish off the final modules.” No doubt it’s because they know they have a future star on their hands.

When looking to the future, Katey has a lot of things she wants to achieve – and her eye set on working with one particular Australian pastry chef.  “I would love to work with Anna Polyviou. She won the Pastry Chef of the Year award, and I was absolutely honoured to just be a finalist with her. She's quite an idol to me.”

Her ultimate dream is to eventually run a patisserie by day/restaurant by night venue, with a team of inspired pastry chefs who create sweets for the dessert lovers of the world.  “We would make maybe 10 different types of sweets that are each done perfectly. Each one would have a technique that you can only find at my restaurant.” We’ll be in the queue on opening day.

- Erin Ogilvie, February 2017