We catch up with the Gimlet at Cavendish House Executive Chef to get a glimpse into his day, understand what it’s like to work for a restaurant group led by Andrew McConnell and highlight the inner workings of an industry-leading back-of-house crew. Plus, how you can get involved.
There are a lot of moving parts involved in running a kitchen – even more so in a successful restaurant group. In order to get an understanding of what goes on behind the scenes we joined chef Colin Mainds at Trader House’s latest venue, Gimlet at Cavendish House, for part of his day.
Mainds has a wealth of experience in the hospitality industry and serves as a testament to where hard work and hunger can get you with the right workplace support. Originally from Scotland, Mainds spent three years at the two Michelin starred Andrew Fairlie, where the focus was on local produce from the surrounding Perthshire County. Mainds’ career with Trader House began as a chef at Cumulus Inc. before moving into a head chef role at Cutler & Co., where he oversaw the kitchen teams both there and at Marion.
After progressing personally and professionally, in-line with the group’s succession plan, Mainds took over as Executive Chef at Gimlet at Cavendish House in the summer of 2021. We stopped by to see what life is like at the popular Melbourne restaurant.
As we sit down to chat, a fresh produce delivery arrives from Ramarro Farm – a Victorian grower based near Monbulk. Mainds excuses himself to catch up with Oliver Shorthouse, owner and farmer at Ramarro, who brings boxes of vibrant colours and smells past us and sets it down on a bench. The pair inspects locally grown lettuce, giant zucchinis, eggplants (which Shorthouse harvested 180kg of) and more.
They dive into dish ideas, seasonal forecasting and cooking techniques, then Mainds tastes each of the vegetables to check for quality, which unsurprisingly, is present. The process is more akin to friends catching up over a drink – though the beers are substituted for fresh veggies in this case – and the direct relationship Mainds has with his supplier is clear.
“I’ve worked with Oliver for many years across all of our restaurants and the thing that sets the relationship apart is just how two-way it is,” Mainds tells Scout. “If there’s a particular heritage tomato, a rare pepper or alpine strawberries I’d love to see on the menu, he’ll grow it for me. There’s an open dialogue about what’s coming up and what our diners are loving.”
Mainds joined the group after Brent Savage – his boss at Sydney’s Bentley Restaurant and Bar – told him that if he was moving to Melbourne, Andrew McConnell was the person to work for. Mainds says it was McConnell’s philosophy focusing on honest, full-flavored cooking as well as working closely with local producers – values he shares – that drew him to join the team at Cumulus Inc. first, as a sous chef.
“The best part about Cumulus Inc. was chatting to Andrew beforehand and starting with a clear succession plan in place from day one,” he says. “My training and pathway was all laid out for me because I was interested in progressing my career. This is one of the core values at Trader House – if you want to make something happen, they’ll give you the framework to achieve it.”
Now it’s time for Mainds to link up with Meatsmith’s Chris Watson – who drops into Gimlet carrying a dry-aged, multi-point rib-eye over his shoulder. Meatsmith is Trader House’s retail and wholesale butcher, supplying restaurants and the general public with awesome cuts of local meats, condiments and more. Watson and Mainds chat about the steak, the farm it originated from, before the pair talk carving techniques and prepare the meat for cooking.
“It’s so great being able to bounce ideas around with Chris – he’s an ex-chef with the group as well, so no one knows both sides of the game quite like him,” Mainds says. “When Meathsmith has a whole Basque-style, pasture-fed mature Txuleta beast coming in, we can plan our menu around when it will be available and when particular cuts will emerge from the dry-ageing room.”
The advantage of having a butcher within the stable of businesses means there’s a direct chef-to-butcher communication channel, which Mainds utilises for knowledge on rare breeds, dry ageing techniques, textures, access to hyper-seasonal products and more.
As Mainds prepares to cook a cut of the rib-eye over fire with one of the junior chefs, Nick, he explains that he’s been learning from some of the best in the business since he got on board, which allows him to pass on a wealth of knowledge to junior staff.
“Andrew is a very hands-on owner and operator – he’s in-venue most days of the week, and not just to check on you, he’s helping run service, he’s in the kitchen cooking with the team and he’s passing knowledge on to everyone involved in the venue. He talks food, not business,” he says.
“One minute I’m learning from a great chef, and the next I’m chatting to [Trader House beverage director] Leanne Altmann, who has one of the best minds in the industry. She’ll tell me specific regions in France where I can source a certain vinegar, she knows wine like no one I’ve met before and she’s just got so much knowledge to offer.”
We step back as Mainds explains the preparation and cooking steps before beginning to show Nick the ropes. The rib-eye is prepped with some salt, pepper, oil and herbs, then the pair cook the steak over fire while Mainds explains timing, heat and more to the young chef. It’s part of the day that Mainds says he finds extremely rewarding, and he always takes time to pass knowledge onto his team at any opportunity.
“As I mentioned, there are pathways and progression plans for anyone who wants them. We have ongoing skills training, management and business training and field trips for staff to learn about where the food comes from,” he says. “Once you’re in, there’s plenty of crossover between venues. Maybe you’re working behind the bar at Cumulus Inc., then there’s a head bartender position up for grabs at Supernormal that you can put your hand up for – we want to find the best opportunity for people within the group, and that grows from training.”
Just as we’re getting distracted by the smell of the wood-fire-cooked rib-eye floating through the restaurant, Mainds calls the kitchen team into a huddle to go through a new dish. Mainds runs through the ingredients in a simple but punchy salad and the team gets an explanation on flavour profiles, information on where ingredients are sourced, plating tips and more – before there’s some back and forth with questions. Mainds then explains the dish’s place on the menu and the staff all taste before getting back to their pre-service prep.
It’s clear that Mainds runs a tight kitchen and has the respect of the team, but the whole service area is buzzing with banter and energy while the chefs get back to their preparation duties. Mainds says the camaraderie permeates throughout the restaurant and across different venues.
“There’s a head chef catch-up every couple of months where we all get together for a meal and share advice, swap resumes and mention that we might have a team member at our venue that would be great for a leadership role at another,” he says. “You’re joining a large team with a common goal – to keep hospitality amazing in Melbourne, pass on knowledge and train the next generation. Without training, what is the future?”
The buzz around the venue builds as we get closer to service – the staff are chirpy, there’s conversations happening between the front and back-of-house crews and there’s a feeling of anticipation and excitement around. Mainds is checking in with maître d’ Tasha Forgan and sous chefs Perry Schagen and Tim Stapleforth when a sharply suited man with a huge smile approaches, carrying the salad Mainds made earlier.
As it turns out, it’s head sommelier Anthony Pieri. He and Mainds sit down to share the salad and talk wine pairings. Pieri suggests a red and a white, describes them both in context of the dish, and the pair polish off the remainder of the salad while they muse over the interacting flavours. It’s clear that Pieri knows his stuff, and the trust between the two is evident.
Part of Mainds’ creative responsibility with menu direction is bolstered by working closely with key people at Trader House. Similarly to the head chef catch-ups he mentions, the group engages in weekly forecasting and planning sessions between the venue manager, wine buyer and head chef, as well as constant, big-picture project work.
Mainds says the leadership team is also engaged in monthly meetings with McConnell to help identify development pathways and make key business decisions together.
“People feel so empowered when they have a say in how their workplace runs. Each restaurant is treated as its own business, and managers have visibility across the financials so they know how their decisions and actions can have an impact,” he says. “The same goes for staffing – we’re constantly talking about development opportunities for staff, and keeping in touch with teams about their ambitions through appraisals and catch-ups.”
Photography: Ben Moynihan
This article is produced by Scout Jobs in partnership with Trader House.