Curtis Stone – Appetite for adventure
Never one to remain stagnant, Curtis Stone’s appetite for adventure has taken him around the world. His culinary career spans more than 20 years, multiple continents, has led to TV fame and two highly-acclaimed LA restaurants. To put it simply, Curtis Stone is one hot Aussie export. We chat to Curtis about starting at the bottom, celebrating five years in business, and field tripping around the globe for his next delicious project.
He may not have lived in Australia, permanently, since 1995, but there’s no doubt Curtis Stone’s still ‘one of us’. His accent is intact, he’s renowned for his affability, and despite his expat status he returns to Australia six or seven times each year.
He’s reported to hate the US tipping system (very Aussie) and instead introduced a service charge at his two LA-based restaurants – Maude, an intimate, 24-seat Beverly Hills restaurant, and Gwen, a swanky, 80-seat restaurant and butcher shop. In November he took Maude’s core team and a film crew for an immersive exploration through Western Australian farms, stations, vineyards and native delicacies that will shape Maude’s next menu, due to launch January 2019 ahead of the restaurant’s fifth birthday in February.
The film crew captured the adventure for Curtis’ newest TV show, Field Trip with Curtis Stone, which will air in the US. (Talks are underway with Australian networks.)
Interestingly, this show was conceived by accident after a mate filmed Curtis and his team’s exploration of the Central Coast food and wine region in California earlier this year. (Maude’s four 2018 quarterly menus featured Rioja, Spain, then Burgundy, France, followed by Central Coast of California, and Italy’s Piedmont region which will continue until the end of December.) Realising they had the makings for a good show in their hands, the film crew is now part of Maude’s expedition entourage.
Curtis is no stranger to TV. He’s a familiar face here in Australia, regularly appearing on our televisions for Coles, spruiking Aussie-grown produce, sharing handy updates for our supermarket trips, and leaving his imprint at our kitchen tables as we serve his home-cook-friendly recipes. He also has a string of TV gigs and appearances, top-selling cookbooks, his own range of kitchen products, a high-end catering company, three restaurants on-board Princess cruise ships, and even a wax version of himself at Madame Tussauds.
For those unfamiliar with Curtis’ journey to stardom, it all began with a childhood enjoyment of cooking (read: food). His appreciation for cooking was inspired by a hard-working single mum Lozza (Lorraine), paternal grandmother Maude and maternal granny Gwen.
“My mum was an incredibly hard worker,” shares Melbourne-born and raised Curtis. “She worked her arse off in her job, then she would single-handedly take care of us kids. She’d get home, unpack groceries, cook dinner, do laundry, vacuum the floor… she was just 100% non-stop. I grew up with that being normal,” he says. “I guess that rubbed off on my resume; hard work has always come really naturally to me.”
After high school, Curtis began his apprenticeship at The Savoy Hotel in Melbourne. “Virtually everyone thought I was out of my mind,” he recalls. “Remember, 20-something years ago there were no celebrity chefs, there was no Jamie Oliver; being a cook just meant you worked in a hotel or restaurant, behind a closed wall, cooking someone else’s dinner. It wasn’t the glamorous industry it’s turned into.”
Curtis admits even he had his doubts in the early days. “The first-year apprentice gets all the shit jobs. You peel bags of onions all day, then you progress to being able to slice them, then you peel carrots all day, then you peel potatoes…” Envious of his mates’ uni lifestyles, while he was working nights and weekends, Curtis enrolled in part-time in a business degree at uni. However, as he advanced through his apprenticeship, his commitment to a culinary career strengthened and he abandoned university after about two years. (“Although, I feel like I’ve only just finished paying off my student debt!” he jokes.)
“You don’t go through an apprenticeship because you want to be a master potato peeler, you go through an apprenticeship because you want to cook, you want to be creative, and it takes a while till you actually get that opportunity in a professional setting.”
With his apprenticeship complete, Curtis (in classic Aussie fashion) packed his bag and set off for a European summer with his best mate. The lads travelled around Italy, Spain and France, and found themselves in London. Curtis’ mate continued the trip and returned home, while Curtis got comfy on another mate’s sofa and sought out high-profile Michelin-star chef Marco Pierre White.
Proving we create our own opportunities, Curtis showed up at Marco’s restaurant, went to the back door of the kitchen and asked for a job, even offering to work for nothing. By chance, Marco was at the restaurant, and put Curtis to work that same day. (“It was a three-month trip for my mate, and a 20-year trip for me, because I still haven’t gone home!”)
“I love that camaraderie you have in a restaurant. It’s a bit like playing a team sport…”
Curtis spent eight years under Marco’s mentorship, working his way up from floor sweeper to Sous Chef at Mirabelle, then Head Chef at Quo Vadis. Curtis’ status in the UK restaurant scene led to a feature in a London recipe book, which led to promotional press, which led to his first TV gig in 2003, Surfing the Menu. The Aussie program ran for four seasons and took Curtis to the US to host Take Home Chef, which became an international hit. That success cemented Curtis as a celeb chef, settled him in the US, and sparked a slew of shows, hosting gigs and appearances, from Aussie shows My Restaurant Rules and MasterChef Australia to US programs Top Chef Masters, My Kitchen Rules, Around the World in 80 Plates, Top Chef Jnr, Celebrity Apprentice in which Curtis placed fourth, The Ellen Show, and too many more to list. He even hosted a lavish beach barbeque for Oprah Winfrey and 92 of her US viewers, at The Whitsundays’ Whitehaven Beach in 2010 – which was an epic logistical task, due to the island having no running water or electricity.
“I’m naturally a bit of a risk taker,” admits Curtis, of his decision to embrace a television career and travel the world. “What have I got to lose? When an opportunity comes up, I’d be crazy not to take it. I’ve always had a job to fall back on – I’m a cook.”
During this TV-focused phase of his career, Curtis met and married his wife, American actress Lindsay Price, welcomed his first son (Curtis and Lindsay have two – Hudson, 7, and Emerson, 4), and decided to open his own restaurant, Maude, which officially opened February 1, 2014. For many chefs, an intimate restaurant offering a prix fixe menu is the ultimate creative dream. Curtis knew he was taking a risk though. (Only 24 seats? With one re-set? That’s only 48 covers per night!) If Maude was to succeed, Curtis would be hailed a genius. If it was to fail, Curtis would be deemed insane for thinking it would ever work.
So, five years in, is he genius or insane? “I think I’m equal measure of both,” he offers. “I don’t know how you really determine a restaurant’s success. The way I’ve always done it is to look at whether people love it and whether they come back.”
“The restaurant industry is surrounded by mystery – how does it all work? – because so many restaurants go out of business, so quickly, especially in a city like Los Angeles…” says Curtis. “I guess making it to your fifth birthday is a big deal.
“When you first sit down and look at the finances of it, restaurants are really tough. You work your arse off and then you look at the years play out and you’re like, ‘We did all that for that? That’s probably one of those moments you scratch your head a little bit and say, ‘Hold on a minute, why are we doing this again?’ Clearly, it’s not to get rich.
“With Maude I did set out to do something really different… it probably hasn’t been the most rewarding financial venture of my life, I always knew it wouldn’t be, and I think that’s okay. You do all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons,” shares Curtis, acknowledging the praise Maude has received from both critics and the public, as well as the creative, professional and personal fulfillment the restaurant has allowed him.
“I love that camaraderie you have in a restaurant. It’s a bit like playing a team sport, like football, where you all come into work, you do the best you can, you get ready for service, you get in the war, and you come out of it as a winner or a loser. It’s either an amazing night, or it’s not.”
When he’s not exploring the world’s best food and wine regions, sharing food with the world, or in front of the camera, Curtis is boxing at the gym, experimenting in his development kitchen upstairs at Gwen, or spending time with his family.
Despite living across the globe, Curtis is a family man – you can tell that just by looking at who he surrounds himself with. His brother Luke is his business partner in both Gwen and Curtis Stone Events (the Stone boys, with their broad shoulders and million-dollar grins are like the Hemsworths of the culinary world); his restaurants are filled with sentimental nods to his grannies, he’s still tight with his mum (who does the Christmas cooking) and his dad Bryan who he turns to for business advice (Bryan’s a finance man), and those apron strings are still tied to his motherland, Australia, 23 years-on.
He’s a brilliant advocate for Aussie produce, sharing our goodies through his restaurants and media platforms, and he’s improved our weekly supermarket shop. His role at Coles, which began in 2010, has evolved from spokesperson to Coles Fresh Advisor, and led to the supermarket giant making changes such as removing hormones from meat products, moving to RSPCA program for poultry, and other significant moves.
“I’ve loved having a seat at the table,” reflects Curtis, “and just having that opportunity to be the middleman and maybe get better ingredients in front of people for their weekly shop.
“Hopefully I have a positive influence on the way people eat.”