Mietta & Friends

Australia's top chefs and food educatorsin words and photographs

Donovan Cooke
'If you can't stand the heat - get out of the kitchen'. Donovan is serious.
Photograph ©Tony Knox 1995

Donovan Cooke

Alain Chapel, the great Lyonnaise chef, once said to me: "In this industry there are two types of people - madmen and businessmen".

As, clearly, no woman could fall into either category, he was right. This series of dinners involved examples of both, as well as a number of women who, in Australia at least, are as essential to the industry as the men.

Within Chapel's broad generalisation, there are two further sub-categories: chefs and restaurateurs. My career has been as a restaurateur, not a chef. In restaurants at the level we are discussing in this book, that is unusual. But, I have found it has allowed me to change and grow freely. Rather, perhaps, it has forced me to grow; there is a certain inescapable immediacy in seeing your customers respond daily to your restaurant.

Looking back, I am surprised at how my business grew and changed over the years. In the early 70s, when Tony Knox, Jules Lavarack and I began our simple shop-front operation in a run-down inner suburb, we knew very little about our chosen craft. Jules, Tony Bilson's sous chef at the Albion Hotel, knew how to cook, Tony knew enough (from working with his father, Alistair Knox) to build the restaurant, and I had a little waitressing experience coupled with abundant childhood memories of my grandparents' restaurant, Mario's, and had inflicted many dinner parties at home upon friends and family.

With assistance from my own and Jules' mother, who neatened up the jagged edges of our ambition, we gradually developed Mietta's Fitzroy into what could be described as the archetypal modern cafe - smart casual service, a menu of diverse cultures, constant change and considerable visual style. It prospered, but it did so alone; that was the 70s, when no other such establishment existed.

Tony took a few years off to start Mietta's at the Queenscliff Hotel with my two sisters, Robin and Patricia.


Donovan, elated, prepares to send the meals out. Photograph ©Tony Knox 1995

Another range of experiences - hotels, public bars and accommodation - were accumulated. But above all, we learnt about the service of liquor - Mietta's Fitzroy was still a BYO.

Not being a chef has allowed me to learn from my staff; and so it has happened that Jules, Stephanie Alexander , Winston Chung, Fred Chalupa and many others have affected the shape of the business. In the 80s, Jacques Reymond was a particularly important influence; he was the medium through which Mietta's became a "French" restaurant. Combining Jacques' skills and cultural knowledge with my limited understanding of France and greater intimacy with Melbourne allowed us to create a world that was new to me and, to a considerable extent, new to Melbourne.

Entranced with this new toy, Tony and I imported chefs and waiters from France with gay abandon. They included Remi Bancal and his friend Patrick Simiand, both from the Ritz in Paris (to which Patrick has returned as Premier Maitre d'Hotel of the Ritz restaurant), Philippe Malleret, Thierry Barberat and many others who came in that period, and have moved on to other restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney. In the late 80s, French was the most widely spoken language in the restaurant.

It was at the beginning of this period that we moved to Alfred Place in the centre of Melbourne. There, we began an additional business, The Lounge - a casual eating and drinking, essentially late night operation that broke new ground. It had couches, armchairs and Singapore cafe tables with bentwood chairs arranged apparently at random. There was a menu to match, and people sat on sofas to eat pasta while their friends sipped cocktails or ate icecream. This was the mid 80s. The deconstruction of the dining experience that The Lounge pioneered has become the stock in trade of today's casual cafes.

Donovan, determined to get it right, inspires his team. Photograph ©Tony Knox 1995

During the last few years another change has occurred - entertainment entered the world of Mietta's. Through associations with Mark Rubbo of Readings Bookshops and Moffatt Oxenbould of The Australian Opera, a few readings and concerts were programmed at odd times in The Lounge. It grew until, in mid-1995 to celebrate Mietta's 20th Anniversary, we launched into a full program of entertainment which ran the gamut from internationally famous opera singers such as Yvonne Kenny to comedians like Wendy Harmer, to groups like The Red Onions via Feydeau farces, forums, food, Kate Ceberano, Lisa Gerrard and, as this is the 1990s - more.

Into all this came 27-year-old Donovan Cooke and his wife, Melbourne-born Phillipa Sibley-Cooke.

Donovan, and his accent, come from Hull in the north of England. His experience has been extensive: an apprenticeship at the Savoy, three years with Michel Roux at the Waterside Inn, three years as chef with Marco Pierre-White (in the period just prior to the award of a third Michelin Star) and a year at Côte St Jacques, near Burgundy. For those who follow such things, all these restaurants, with the exception of the Savoy, have, or have had, three Michelin stars.

The drive and the adrenaline level of this young team allowed us to present food of the highest standard. It is food made to order, with no shortcuts, with labour-intensive stocks, with the strength and vigour of flavour that can only come from proper technique, hard work and a really fine palate. The classical foundations of which Donovan is so proud, and upon which he builds so well, did not position us at the height of gastronomic fashion; rather, the team at Mietta's was committed to doing what we could do best - deliver classical food in classical surroundings.

Hermann Schneider recognised the calibre of Donovan Cooke and his brigade when he worked with them for his dinner. "I really appreciated the professionalism and the knowledge of technique. Donovan has had excellent training. It is rare to find this in young cooks," he told me.

After the last year at Mietta's, I feel Donovan now has a maturity far beyond his years as a cook. He had already developed all the normal cooking skills but continuously providing a variety of preparations for the superstars of Australian cuisine was like having decades of experience sandwiched into three months. Each dinner in our Culinary Coming of Age series was so distinctive, each chef so different in their working methods and in their requirements. He and Philippa, his wife and our pastry cook, coped with all comers whilst training and developing their own brigade. They needed every one of them to cater for the frantic final months at Alfred Place.

Our culinary coming of age and the last year of Mietta's, Alfred Place, saw the restaurant wheel come full circle - from 1974 and our Brunswick Street rebellion against the classic restaurants of the day, to the classic refinement and youthful vigour of Donovan Cooke's state of the culinary art at Mietta's, 1995. A fitting end to a proud era.

Donovan, ever watchful, sees something that needs attention.
Photograph ©Tony Knox 1995

Donovan Cooke's Recipes

Torte of slippery jacks, pine mushrooms and sauce madeira
Salad of prawns on kipfler potatoes
Surprise Paquet with Sauce Diable
Parmesan and sage crusted veal cutlets, broad beans and saffron gnoochi
Sable of apricot sorbet and star anise mousse with sauternes poached pear

Mietta O'Donnell
©Mietta's 1996