Gasolina Chef Wylie Dean has travelled the world as a celebrity chef and chef to celebrities. He’s owned his own restaurant in his home country of New Zealand and starred in a television series. At the end of the day though, he’d much rather be in the kitchen behind the scenes than on camera.
Last year, Wylie had sold his business in New Zealand, where the impact of the GFC made hospitality businesses suffer. He returned to Melbourne where he’s lived on-and-off for the last 16 years. It was complete chance that he came across the chef job at Gasolina. “I came in for lunch one day, and I just really liked the look of the place. I’m a big Harley fan. I sent the boys [Dean and Carl – owners of Gasolina] an email and they happened to be in the market for a chef at the time,” he says.
With a background in business himself, Wylie was able to contribute to strengthening Gasolina. “We did a bit of a business evaluation and had a look at where we were. We found that the rustic Italian concept that they started with probably wasn’t in tune with the aesthetic of the business itself. I sat down with Dean and Carl and we have made some subtle changes over the last few months.
“We still do all the pizza and we employ a pizzaiolo – so it’s all hand-stretched pizza.” Gasolina now also has two distinct menus. The section overlooking the workshop where bikes are worked on acts as a bistro with classic burgers and the restaurant side is opened restaurant hours – 12 – 3pm and 5pm – 10pm, with more of a bar and grill menu.
Despite a broad skill set from media to business management, Wylie’s intentionally made his way back to the kitchen. “I like to cook. I think that’s what I’m best at,” he says. “I opened a restaurant in New Zealand called The Food Store and there was a television show attached, and we went through that whole thing. We had three seasons of a TV show over there, had one of the most high profile restaurants in Auckland which had $100,000 per week through the restaurant, all that sort of carry on. And at the end of all of that what I actually found was that I would rather just be in the kitchen cooking than being the face of a business and being on television and being recognised in the street and all that sort of carry-on. I’m a cook by trade and that’s all I am and that’s what I like doing.”
Still, Wylie credits his experience outside the kitchen with making him a better chef. “I think I was your quintessential bad tempered, narrow minded, self-serving egotistical chef until I bought my own business. When I was just a chef and I was just a cook it was all about me and my vision, and this is my food and blah blah blah.
“It was just very sort of self-serving. And then when you own your own business and you’ve got PAYE and tax and all these staff to look after and you’ve got to try and market your business and get it out there and all that sort of carry-on, cooking just became the smallest sort of part of my day. And I think it just sort of changed me as a person, it changed me as a chef and it changed the way I approach what I do for a living.”
It seems unlikely we’ll see Wylie Dean on our screens anytime soon. “I think the celebrity thing can be quite detrimental to the cooking genre as a whole. I mean Marco Pierre White was the original rock star chef and then you know Gordon Ramsey was one of his apprentices, and those guys probably have started that whole movement. But I think young chefs now work in the industry and view that as the end gain. Whereas if they concentrated on cooking and running their business successfully those things come to you as opposed to chasing that as a particular sort of career path.”
“Each to their own. I just find that getting recognised in the street is a bit weird. People you don’t even know talk to you as if they’re your lifelong friends, which is all really nice but I just found it to be a bit of an invasion of privacy thing almost. You know I think if you can make money out of it do it while you can because cooking is probably one of the hardest ways to make a bit of cash that you’ll come across. So if you can get a media career out there and write a book and do all that sort of carry on – then go for it. But I think there’s also a lot of really deserving chefs that will never get that opportunity. Which is one of the issues I have with the Masterchef format. You know you get people that have never worked in the industry and they’re amateur cooks and at the end of that show they get thrown book deals and restaurant deals and there’s guys out there that work in the industry their whole lives and toil over a stove and will never get that opportunity. And I just think that’s a bit wrong.”
Seems the only way you’ll get a glimpse of this talented chef is to take a look over the pass at Gasolina. He’s the one that looks like a rock star.