Five minutes with head chef MJ Olguera
6.4 min read
MJ Olguera has a long history of working with Luke Mangan. Originally from the Hunter Valley, MJ worked in the wineries before moving to Sydney. After a stint playing rugby in London, MJ came back to Sydney in 2004 where he started working for Luke at Bistro Lulu in Paddington. He talks to us about the highs and lows of his career path.
What made you interested in being a chef?
I was really bad at school and I didn’t even finish year 10 I never studied for anything. But my Design and Technology teacher saw some potential in me and got me to do some work experience at the local hotel. After I finished my work experience they offered me a job as a kitchen hand, and after that an apprenticeship. If it wasn’t for that work experience I don’t know what I would be doing now.
What was life like for you as a young chef?
At the start, I didn’t know where my career was heading but I put 100% into it because there was nothing else for me. Like every kid, I thought I wanted to be a policeman but you need to study for that and I wasn’t good at studying. So I had to push myself to be good at something.
During my apprenticeship, my boss told me that being a chef meant that you would lose your social life, and it’s true. At the time my friends would be at parties but I would be stuck at work. When I arrived late to parties and everyone else was drunk I felt like I’d missed out. But that was when I started and they were the only friends I had. Throughout my career I’ve met a lot of great people who also work in the industry and they’ve become my best mates.
As an apprentice I was doing 50 to 70 hours per week and as a chef de partie I was doing nearly 80. But I didn’t whinge about. I’d have a knock-off drink, go to bed and do it all again the next day. I think if you want to be successful then you need to do the hours.
What were your goals as a young chef? Do you feel like you’ve achieved them?
I wanted to travel. I’d heard of people to moving to London and working for famous chefs but eating two-minute noodles and working over 70 hours per week. They were horror stories but I still wanted to gain that experience. I’ve now travelled to many different countries as a chef and learned about their food, culture, religion and people.
When I was younger I also wanted to open my own restaurant but now looking to the reality of it, there’s a lot of money you need to invest and there’s a high chance that you may not make it so it’s a big gamble. I’m in a pretty good position at the moment, working for a chef like Luke Mangan who has recognition all over the world.
You have decades of experience as a chef – what keeps you motivated to stay in the industry?
The people you work for and the opportunities they provide you to learn and experience new things are hugely important in whether you stay in the industry. With Luke Mangan I’ve trained at the most famous restaurants in the world, tried the most expensive delicacies and drunk the most amazing Champagne. If he was working on a private function for a celebrity, he’d invite me join in on that experience too.
You’ve been leading the Luke Mangan kitchens around Asia for the last eight years. Do you find there is a difference in the workplace cultures in Asia compared to Australia?
In Indonesia there were different types of customers. You’d get people who had grown up in wealthy families who think they can treat people however they want and you’d also get people who have had nothing and made their own money who are really polite and grateful.
In Japanese culture it’s important to be respectful and polite, especially to those in a higher position to you. So if you’re in a positon at work where your superior isn’t treating you the right way, the Japanese would never say anything about it. They would keep everything in and stay very polite. Whereas in Australia it’s okay to confront those issues.
What have been your career highlights?
All the travelling. I don’t take any place I travel to for granted, whether it’s the ACT or the US. My main highlight would be working in Jakarta, Indonesia, because everything felt backwards. They didn’t speak English, they’re very religious and pray five times a day, they don’t eat pork and their politics and infrastructure are so different to what we’re used to in Australia. You need to dig yourself out of it and you become a stronger and more knowledgeable person for it.