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“Without your team, you are no one” – Chef Adam D’Sylva

The first thing you notice about Chef Adam D’Sylva is that his smile hardly leaves his face. The second thing you realise is that he is perfectly self-assured and does not mince words when it comes to stating the facts. He tells Vinita Bhatia that he does not believe creativity can be taught – either one has it, or one does not!

Chef Adam D’Sylva is no stranger to awards and recognition. He has worked at ‘Per Se’ in America, ‘Cosi’ in South Yarra, was head chef under Geoff Lindsay at ‘Pearl Restaurant’ and also became the first Head Chef at ‘Longrain Melbourne’ for Martin Boetz. He won The Age 2008 Good Food Guide’s Young Chef of the Year and has also bagged the Victorian winner in the Lexus Young Chef of the Year award, twice! And a year after he opened Coda in Melbourne in 2009, the restaurant was awarded One Chefs’ Hat in The Age Good Food Guide for the following two years.

While others would be modest and thank fortune for these honours, Adam tells Vinita Bhatia that he would have been surprised if his restaurant had not received it! After all, he believes that if one has clear focus on what one wants to achieve and know exactly how to get there, then success is bound to follow.

Vinita Bhatia (VB): What was it like growing up in a multicultural house?
Chef Adam D’Sylva (AD): Frankly, it was no different than growing up in any kind of household. It is just that I grew up with a bowl of pasta and curry on the table and I came to appreciate the diversity of Italian and Indian cultures. From there, I went on to recognise the value of all other great cuisines of the world. I love the heady spice of Indian and the simplicity of produce-driven Italian. In fact, growing up, my Italian
grandmother grew fruit and vegetables and she even made her own tomato sauce, salami and wine.

VB: Is that what sparked your interest in the food industry?
AD: In a way yes. I was born into the food business since my family owned a butcher shop and my uncles sold wine. Food was the prime focus of our family, not just at dinner table conversations but also while talking shop. Since my grandma looked after me from infancy, I began helping her out in the kitchen when I was as young as 3 years old. As I grew up, I would help out in our butcher shop and later as a kitchen hand at a restaurant. I began my apprenticeship at the Hilton on the Park in Melbourne.

VB: After that there was no stopping you, was there?
AD: You can say that. I worked as a chef at ‘Cosi’, a celebrity restaurant in South Yarra. Later, I traveled through Italy and Hong Kong to learn about these cuisines first hand. After a couple of years, I returned to Australia and worked as Head Chef at ‘Pearl Restaurant’ and then moved on to ‘Longrain Melbourne’ for Martin Boetz.

“People decide they like my food, my restaurants and me. You can't buy that liking , only create it.”  – Chef Adam D’Sylva
“People decide they like my food, my restaurants and me. You can’t buy that liking , only create it.”
– Chef Adam D’Sylva

VB: Were you surprised when ‘Coda’ won the One Chefs’ Hat in The Age Good Food Guide 2010 and 2011, just a year after it started operations?
AD: I opened Coda in 2009 and it won the first Hat just after opening. I wasn’t surprised because I was confident that we were doing great things and people loved what we did. I would have been more surprised if we didn’t. We had worked hard to get where we were.

VB: Some might mistake your confidence for arrogance.
AD: Perhaps, but then I don’t choose to be popular. People decide they like my food, my restaurants and me. You can’t buy that liking, only create it.

So, while designing the menu for ‘Coda’ and ‘Tonka’, there is a lot of trial and error that my staff does before putting something on the menu. We know that not everyone is going to like one particular dish or dishes. It is subjective and personal taste and you have to realise that you cannot please everyone. I extend the same philosophy to all other aspects of my life.

VB: You are part owner and part head chef of Coda. How easy is it to shuffle between these two roles, especially since many believe that a good chef cannot be a good businessperson and vice versa?
AD: You don’t go between the two roles. You have to be the two roles and wear two hats. Some chefs struggle to do so and that is the difference between a good chef and a great chef!

VB: If you were to give advice to young chefs what would it be?
AD: I would tell them to always treat their team and staff nicely and with respect. Without your team, you are no one. So work hard, be nice to people and don’t lose focus.

VB: Have you ever thought what turn life would have taken if you had not chosen to become a chef?
AD: I think I would have gotten into horticulture. I love nature and plants and when you’re amidst it, you get to be creative.