The time of my life: ‘Why don’t you move to Sydney and be a chef?’
Damien Grey, Michelin star chef
Damien Grey (left) and Andrew Heron, at Heron & Grey restaurant, which was awarded a Michelin star, at Blackrock, Co Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times
Before I moved to Sydney from the small town of Goulburn, Australia, I had been working in a kitchen in New South Wales in the police academy where there was a catering company and I was a kitchen hand. Someone said “‘why don’t you move to Sydney and be a chef?” I had fallen in love with the energy of kitchens. There was a guy from Germany, two guys from England, a guy from Switzerland, all as mad as cut snakes, absolute lunatics. I loved it! I thought: this is my calling, this is where I want to go.
I looked in the Sydney Morning Herald jobs section and there was an apprenticeship in a Greek restaurant. There were only two trains, one in the morning and one in the evening, and you had to be up at 5.30am to get to Sydney at 9am. I was a skater – big baggy pants, skateboard under my arm – so suits and ties weren’t the norm for me. I met Stavros – also known as Steve – in the restaurant. The second I laid eyes on him, it put the fear in me. He was a gentleman, 25 years on the circuit in Sydney working in some of the best places before he opened his restaurant, and renowned as one of the best waiters out there. I wanted the job, so I headed back to Goulburn and told my folks I was moving to Sydney.
A couple of weeks later, I got down there. I hadn’t organised anywhere to stay, so here I am with a backpack and a skateboard standing in Central station. I went to nine hostels and found one in King’s Cross, which back then was a no-go zone. I was just in the middle of bedlam, thinking, “What are you doing, you bloody idiot?”
After a few weeks, I settled in, and I started really getting into cooking. I managed to get myself into college. I did everything myself, I never asked my parents for money, I just struggled. I was getting $90 a week doing 80 hours. It was really tough. You wouldn’t have much to eat in the cupboard, so you just work and you work. But it was so electric. I didn’t care about not having any money. I was in the city, having grown-up in a small, sheltered environment. This was the big smoke. I was living the dream, going out, partying, nightclubs, life was just like, ‘Yeah!’.
It made me grow up. I was a naive kid. I thought I knew everything. It’s when you go out on your own and you’re living in an environment you haven’t experienced, and you can’t run home, that taught me to be self-sufficient and deal with problems as they arose. There was always something to go to, something to do, I was constantly exploring. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, we were going out, the entire kitchen.
So that was the turning point for me. Moving to the city was the biggest moment that changed what I was going to do. I’m just a cook. I’m just learning, constantly learning. Every day is a school day.