Inspired Series with Danielle Alvarez
"Trying to go through this industry without a mentor is like walking blindly in the dark."
If you’re a foodie, chef or work in hospitality in Australia and haven’t heard of Danielle Alvarez, where have you been?
The delightful Danielle is the Head Chef of Merivale’s hottest new restaurant, Fred’s, and is making waves across Australia’s dining scene for her produce-driven cuisine and female-led team.
When Danielle agreed to be on the panel for our Sydney Inspired Series Q&A in September alongside Dan Hong, we were really excited. Not only because she was going to be the first female to feature on the Inspired Series panel, but because we knew her youthful energy, modern philosophies and amazing attitude would be just what our TAFE students needed for inspiration.
Born in Miami, Florida to Cuban immigrant parents, food was always a part of her life growing up. Every family gathering was centred around food and she’d always be in the kitchen next to her mum.
But cooking wasn’t something Danielle imaged she’d be doing for a living. She went to university and studied art history but after she graduated she realised it wasn’t for her.
“I wanted to be more involved and be more creative rather than talk about other people’s work,” she said.
“Cooking was something I always loved but I’d never worked in a restaurant, I didn’t know anything about restaurant life but it sounded cool to me, so I thought I would give it a shot.”
You’d think people would have been encouraging of Danielle wanting to get into the industry but unfortunately, they weren’t, which is something that happens a lot and is a pity to hear because hospitality is such a fantastic and rewarding industry.
Especially in Australia given 50% of students drop out of their apprenticeship. We have a duty as professionals in the industry to mentor, encourage and pave the path for a bright future for our aspiring cooks.
Luckily Danielle stuck to her guns, “I owe a lot of things in my life to this industry and the excitement, the energy and the faraway places it’s taken me, which I would never have been able to do without working in food,” she said.
At 22, Danielle came into the industry full of passion and put herself into a cooking school in Miami. From there, she wrote a pretty bold letter and sent a blank CV to one of the best restaurants in the world, Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in the Napa Valley. They offered her a 3-month internship.
“I believe if you want to learn as much as possible you have to work for the best and at the time in the early 2000s, The French Laundry was at the top of the game,” Danielle said.
Despite working in a kitchen of the highest level, everything Danielle learned at cooking school didn’t apply there. “They wouldn’t let me cook,” she said.
While she was “boxed in,” with little opportunity to move around, Danielle tuned her experience into an opportunity to learn and soak up as much as possible.
“I always think even if you’re put into the corner to do some menial repetitive job, you can open your eyes and see everything going on around you. Even though I was just picking herbs I learned so much about people’s body language, I listened, I picked up every little thing I could, even if it wasn’t something I was directly involved in.”
Danielle ended up getting a job and working at The French Laundry for 1 year and it was here where she found a connection to the farm and sustainable produce.
“I spent a lot of time in the garden picking things that were going to be on the menu that night, which was very inspiring,” she said.
In her spare time, Danielle would read cookbook after cookbook, learning as much as she could about cooking. “Cookbooks are hugely important, they’re the textbooks of our industry,” she said, her favourite being Essentials of Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan.
For inspiration, she’d also eat out at different restaurants. “It’s hugely inspiring and interesting seeing what other people are doing with the same things I have access to,” she said.
Danielle then went on to work at Alice Waters’ acclaimed restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, for 4 years. Believe it or not she wrote another letter and that’s how she got the job.
If you haven’t heard of Chez Panisse, it’s at the forefront of the sustainable, farm to table food movement in American and in the world. This is where Danielle learned how to cook.
“The menu would change daily, we would meet with the Head Chef at beginning of the day, talk about what’s going to be on the menu and set out to get cooking. There were no recipes, no guidelines and each chef would be responsible for a certain course,” she explained to our keen Sydney TAFE students in the audience.
Alice is one of Danielle’s most influential mentors who not only guides her but encourages her and cheers her on when times get tough.
“Trying to go through this industry without a mentor is like walking blindly in the dark,” Danielle said. “It’s important to have someone that’s been there before who can guide you.”
Despite Danielle moving to Australia, Alice is still her close friend and mentor but says it’s important “When you’re young and starting out to give proper time to each restaurant you work at but work in a few restaurants to find out where you want to be.”
“Travelling really gives you a well-rounded perspective of the industry. The more you can see and do, the more humble you are. Although one chef does it one way, another chef in another country will show you a different way. It shows you many different perspectives,” she said.
Following a holiday "Down Under", Danielle fell in love with Australia and its “incredible” food scene. A friend then asked her if she’d be keen to move to here because Justin Hemmes from Merivale was looking to open a Chez Panisse style restaurant and were looking for a Head Chef.
A few weeks later Danielle made the move and was coming up with the idea for Fred’s, a 60-seater, seasonal produce driven restaurant in Paddington. This month marks Fred’s 1-year anniversary and only a few months ago it took out Gourmet Traveller’s 2018 Restaurant of the Year award.
For those starting out in the industry, Danielle had some fantastic advice I couldn’t agree with more. “It starts with a conversation,” she said. “This industry is so dynamic and if you’re driven, work hard and have natural talent, you can go where you want to go. There are opportunities at every turn.”
Danielle started at the bottom just like the rest of us. For 12 years she worked her way up the ranks but now she’s 33 and running one of the best restaurants in the country. For anyone starting out in the industry or thinking of quitting, you can achieve your dreams, you just have to have the patience, passion, commitment.
“I couldn’t imagine not cooking,” Danielle said. “I wake up and go to sleep thinking about it. Sure, the hours are long and there’s a lot of pressure but when you’re excited and love what you do it doesn’t feel that way.”
As well as mentors, Danielle wouldn’t have gotten to where she is without support from her family and friends.
“You have to get your people around you who want to see you succeed. When you love what you do and believe in yourself, those people will want to support you.”
Seeing as we spend more time at work with our colleagues than at home, a support system at work and a work-life balance is also very important. “There’s been a shift in conversation where the ‘working yourself to the bone’ model is changing,” Danielle said.
While many chefs and students have thought about throwing in the towel, Danielle said she’s never thought about it but believes taking a holiday, doing exercise, eating well and socialising outside work is a necessity for keeping health, being happy and excited to go to work every day.
“It’s good to take a break so you can regain your energy. There’s nothing wrong with taking a step back if you need time out, but if you love what you do, you should keep going,” she said.
Starting out in the hospitality industry is tough, you don’t get much recognition or money to make it feel like it’s worth it, but you have to look at the long game… There’s light at the end of every tunnel.
Watch the video here.