Shaun Quade is not tethered by tradition. Starting young, he has carved out a name for himself in Australia as an experimental chef pushing the boundaries, heightening our engagement with food and challenging what we understand as the dining experience. He has won multiple awards – such as the prestigious Gault&Millau Chef of the Year – whilst also condemning the lack of female representation in the ranks of the awardees.
And now he moves on to pastures new – leaving Lûmé in the capable hands of John Rivera, Quade and his partner Veronica are moving to LA, to launch a new venture. Cut Throat Knives had the opportunity to talk to Shaun about Australian food culture, life in the kitchen, and sources of inspiration and creativity.
Surprisingly (or maybe not) for someone with such curiosity and creative drive for food, Quade did not grow up in a foodie household. While early cooking memories are warm and loving, Quade insists that there was no importance placed on food growing up:
“My family are farmers, my ancestry is Danish and German, so food was not a thing in our household. It was just sustenance – meat and three veg kind of meals. Hungry Jacks was a real treat!”
So Quade was drawn to cooking (quite late for a chef, beginning his apprenticeship at 20) not by a love for food but for the simple joy of making. Quade has always been creative, good at building and crafting. It’s no wonder that Lûmé’s creations are almost too beautiful to eat.
While he admits there was no creativity in his first job at a fish and chip shop, he does speak with fondness of what he calls ‘an interesting start’. It certainly seems to have been where he was bitten by the kitchen bug:
“I took a lot away from that job because we used to get slaughtered on Friday and Saturday night, and you’re standing there as a 20 year old and you’re thinking – ok, let’s do this”.
Quade got the chance to indulge his creative instincts as he progressed through his career, and draws on an eclectic range of mediums for his inspiration. From books, art and music (Quade is a gallery-lover, a voracious reader and listens to a variety of musical genres), his inspiration comes from taking outside influences and applying it to the medium of cooking: “that’s how you create something quite unique.” David Lynch in particular “has a very clear vision of what he wants to do, across many different mediums, and he takes a lot of risks. I really respect that.”
And Quade’s food could be said to be risky – it’s beautiful and conceptual, which is an unusual eating style for many Australians. For Quade, that’s part of the fun:
“Making something that tastes nice is easy, and if you’re in it for the money, you should go and open a fish and chip joint – you’d make a lot more money. But there has to be a story to this kind of food, an experience you can offer people. Otherwise it’s just food on a plate.”
Pearl on the Ocean Floor is definitely not just food on a plate. If you’ve not seen a picture of this dish, you must have been living under a rock, given its alluring Instagrammable novelty – but images can’t come close to describing its symphony of textures and flavours, inspired by the calm, clear waters around Altona and Williamstown, where Lûmé’s succulents and seaweeds are still sourced. This is where the magic happens – the seamless marriage of philosophy with technical skill, and it’s this keen eye for the creative coupled with the attuned palate of the experienced chef.
"there has to be a story to this kind of food, an experience you can offer people. Otherwise it’s just food on a plate"
Marron with chestnut miso
However, despite the accolades, hospitality is a challenging industry, and Quade has been outspoken about some of the more toxic elements of working in food. Globally, the industry is male dominated, and within Australia, this is compounded by the country’s young food culture, its remoteness, an often intimidating culture of mateship, and a well-documented shooting down of the successful – the tall poppy syndrome. All these are enemies to creativity, says Quade:
“In the kitchens that I came up in, it was very traditional, very strict, no music, we were yelled at every day, abused – it was toxic. That never made sense to me. This is a creative industry and at its core is about hospitality, so how are you meant to be hospitable to guests when your staff are treated so badly?”
Quade also takes his visibility seriously when it comes to challenging the entrenchment of this culture. From openly discussing his own struggles with his mental health, to using the growing profiles of celebrity chefs to push back against traditional hierarchies of the industry, he is firm in his belief that if nothing is ever challenged, nothing will ever change – and this includes building Australia’s momentum as a fine dining destination. As a young country and remote one, he sees Australia as lagging a little behind Europe, gastronomically speaking – food has long been viewed through the lens of necessity, not luxury, and high wages and food costs can be a challenge when catering for a group craving interesting new dining styles but who are not yet used to paying higher costs.
What Quade has built with Lûmé is something that is much more than just the food and staff costs. It is an immersive experience, with great pains taken to make it look effortless: “it only takes one little thing to jolt people out of that experience,” says Quade. “If the music is too loud or there is a song playing that’s not quite in flow with everything else going on, if every element is not speaking the same language – the food is somehow the easiest part.”
Pulling all of those different languages together now makes up the lion’s share of Quade’s role these days, and that means focusing on the people around him – staff, he says, are his number one priority, and cooking comes about halfway down the list; as a restaurant owner, “you’re a psychologist, you’re an electrician, an accountant and a handyman. That’s the hardest part of the job.” Without this shared vision, the most talented people in the world won’t be able to communicate a genuine or coherent sense of the experience Lûmé strives to deliver.
“it only takes one little thing to jolt people out of that experience... If the music is too loud or there is a song playing that’s not quite in flow with everything else going on, if every element is not speaking the same language – the food is somehow the easiest part.”
This lesson will be central to Quade’s new venture in LA. Without common language, a common vision, conceptual enterprises can struggle to stay afloat. But leading by example has always been Quade’s forte, and it from the way that he speaks of his Lûmé staff, he has created a microcosm of the creative, supportive culture he hopes to see reverberate across the industry.
“We are not here to make millions and millions of dollars. It’s a very creative space. I can’t do any of it without the right staff – people that you trust and people that you learn from, and I learn something new almost every single day from everyone that I work with. The staff in any business are the most important – nothing else matters. I’ve always tried to push the staff out into the spotlight. Yes, it’s my restaurant, but that’s never been as important as acknowledging everyone else who is here.”
Amongst those Quade credits with Lûmé’s success is his partner, Veronica; behind the scenes, she works more hours than, challenges him to be better, and, helpfully, brings him back to earth when he ‘gets stuck up [his] own arsehole’ with new ideas. They are excited about the new chapter they’re about to start together in LA, excited to bring a new voice to a vibrant food scene – and with the immense accomplishment of Lûmé behind them, these two will achieve anything they put their mind to.
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