The challenge for everyone will be scaling up the processes of what they normally do. We might be cooking for 350 people on the day. That's roughly the number I cook for in a whole week.- Michael Portley
Hunter Valley chefs Thomas Waite and Michael Portley will be pulling no punches against their Sydney opponents at next month's Food Fight.
They are up against Tetsuyas' executive chef Joshua Raine and Restaurant Hubert's head chef Alexis Besseau at the annual fundraising cook-off organised by the Hunter Culinary Association.
The four chefs will be preparing a dish each for about 300 diners, who are then set the task of deciding which chef cooked which dish, and who did it best. Money raised at the event helps to fund hospitality industry scholarships and nurture young talent.
Last year COVID-19 delivered a last-minute technical knockout for the Food Fight but this year Portley and Waite are ready to deliver a knockout of their own.
Waite, who is sous chef at Bistro Molines, has cooked at two previous Food Fights and attended many more as a guest.
"It's one of my favourite days on the calendar," he tells Weekender.
"I don't know a huge amount about the Sydney competitors but I know their restaurants and have a lot of respect for them."
Waite was born in Cessnock and has lived in Bellbird his entire life, attending Bellbird Primary School and then Mount View High School.
"I first realised I was interested in cooking when I was very young, about 8 or 9, and I was rolling pastry to make pies with my Nanna," he says.
"I completed an apprenticeship at TAFE in Kurri Kurri and have worked at the Bellbird Hotel, Wandin, Two Fat Blokes Gourmet Kitchen and now Bistro Molines.
"I'm nervous but mostly excited about Food Fight. Every one of the chefs will be hard to beat on the day but I can't wait for the opportunity to cook alongside all three of them."
Portley opened Newcastle wine bar and restaurant Humbug with his wife Steph earlier this year. Unlike Waite, he is a Food Fight rookie.
"I'm excited. It's a massive logistical undertaking and a really impressive event," he says.
"The challenge for everyone will be scaling up the processes of what they normally do. We might be cooking for 350 people on the day.
"That's roughly the number I cook for in a whole week.
"There's pressure on to get everything plated up and off the pass in a matter of minutes."
Portley grew up in Balmain and says he had "access to fantastic food growing up".
"We had Victoire bakery around the corner from my childhood home, and we would get up on the weekends and grab amazing freshly baked croissants and baguettes. We used to go out to eat in Chinatown every other week."
He started an apprenticeship at the age of 21 and says his experiences working at Porteno and Bodega in Surry Hills were "really formative".
"I learnt to really love seafood, offal and charcuterie, and got to experience these foods served in ways that were really delicious and approachable. I think it's important in a good dining experience to be able to gently push people's boundaries without making them feel uncomfortable.
"Myself and Steph worked at Africola in Adelaide at the same time and we were really inspired by their commitment to their local community, the strength of relationships they formed with their supply network, and their amazing (and ever changing) wine program.
"I think our experience there really gave us the inspiration to focus our energy on our wine list at Humbug as much as our food."
Opening Humbug, he says, was a lifelong dream come true.
"I would love to throw a big thank you and a lot of love to Eduardo Molina of Flotilla. His work ethic, wine knowledge, and ability to work a room have been a massive inspiration for us," Portley says.
"He has also been extremely generous and supportive of us and our business.
"Steph is killing it with her wine lists and we feel like we are really hitting the mark with what we came here to do. I feel like the potential to keep growing and exploring is limitless.
"Staffing definitely isn't always easy at the moment, and the hospitality industry really need to put their heads together to help us all find some long-term solutions, but I am so thankful and appreciative for all of the quality people we have.
"Our second boy, Lenny, was born two weeks ago. Our other son, Kobe, just turned three. We work a four-day week so that we can try to give our boys, ourselves, and our business the attention they all deserve ... well, we're still working on that."
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