Interview: Ben Cooper
“I want to represent a good life. And there is a good life. It’s not easy; there are no silver platters. But the good life is there if you work your arse off and do the right things.”
- Benjamin Cooper
Life is good for chef Benjamin Cooper. It’s there in his stride. In his easy smile and freely given bear hugs. No doubt today he is on a high: Makers meets him before the bustle of 80 Collins Street, tonight serving as the venue for the opening party to end all opening parties as Rue & Co. kicks off – the CBD shipping container dining precinct joining Jimmy Grant’s George Calombaris, St Ali’s Salvatore Malatesta and Chris Lucas’ yet-to-be-unveiled newbie, Kong BBQ.
Until now associated with the kitchen that made him something of a Melbourne celebrity, Chin Chin, Benjamin has taken a step up in to the big league with a recent promotion to group executive chef managing the kitchens of Lucas’ star-studded restaurant stable: the effervescent Chin Chin, neon-lit Baby and the highly anticipated newcomer, Kong BBQ.
It’s undoubtedly a surreal space to occupy. In a city where chefs are king and food a religion, to serves as the jewel in the crown of The Lucas Group is to breathe rarefied air: the place where talent, financial resource and good organisation coalesce to create a culinary perfect storm – with Benjamin right at its centre.
Benjamin: “Life’s beautiful. I have three amazing kids, the best wife in the world and now I get to work with a boss that goes, ‘You’re good at your job, you’re doing really well, and here’s your next challenge.’ But it’s more than luck. There’s a fairly deep story to it.”
By his own admission Benjamin was a wayward kid whose first head chef pulled him up by his bootstraps, helping him through depression and misdirection in part brought on by the death of his mother as he entered in to his twenties. And pull him up she did: from Melbourne he went to slogging it out in London with the godfather of Thai cuisine, David Thompson (among others), eventually returning to Melbourne to head up a host of big-name restaurants – from Ezard and Ginger Boy, to Longrain.
If life was a fairy tale this would have been Benjamin’s happy every after. But circumstances have a way of helping us to learn our lessons.
Benjamin: “I got to the point with a wife and two kids where life was pretty full on. My wife’s mother passed away and it was too much to deal with. The industry and the backstabbing and the egos, it was all too much for me. I needed to get out and change my job in order to stay in love with my food.”
In love with my food. His words are a caress. If ever a man’s mistress was his work, then Benjamin certainly finds succour in the act of cooking for others. He speaks of his chopping board as a “security blanket”. Certainly not uncommon sentiment from those that make cooking their living. Perhaps, then, what’s different with Benjamin is the humility with which he approaches his craft. It was a shedding of ego that could only occur at the point of near breakdown.
Approached by Sal Malateste post Longrain, Benjamin jumped at the opportunity to find a new direction only to find himself in a strange new landscape: gone was the bustle of a high profile kitchen, in its place came a position making sandwiches at a Monash University’s Clayton campus cafe. But what would have been, for others, an inglorious fall was for Benjamin the beginnings of opportunity.
Benjamin: “I remember driving to work one day thinking, ‘this is stupid, you’re a chef, what are you standing here making sandwiches for – you’ve got to turn the car around and stick it’. I did turn the car around, got 1 kilometre down the road and then there was this other voice. Only this one said, ‘you’ve got a wife and two kids and you’ve got a boss who’s prepared to pay you. Pull your head out of your arse, go back to work, earn money and make people happy’. If I was going to make sandwiches, they were going to be the best sandwiches anyone had ever made.”
And they were. Within a week of Benjamin’s psychological comeback the café had doubled business. Within a month it was quadrupled. It was, he freely admits, his defining point.
There have been others: namely, cooking his exquisite Thai-centric food for an audience of four (“a demoralising experience”) during an experimental period at South Melbourne’s St Ali doing dinners. Never one to suck lemons, Benjamin used his energy to make lemonade from experiences that could have derailed a lesser spirit.
The universe repaid him. Lucas came calling and the offer was Chin Chin. The rest is history: one smashing restaurant success, an awarded cookbook and a promotion later, Benjamin has scaled his culinary Everest. Twenty years of slog encapsulated in a sentence. Of course what this neat summation misses is the contribution the man made to the making of his own success. It was about more than simple productivity; his journey is reflective of a life philosophy that values honesty, love and discipline. It is how he runs his kitchens, and how he runs his life.
Our coffee cups at Cumulus are empty and Benjamin’s phone is running hot. Story told, he dishes briefly to Makers on the brand new barbecue he has helped to build and the 15-month quest to make the perfect kimchi, both projects centred around opening for Kong BBQ, scheduled to being trade end May. He is excited about the prospect of spending three weeks cooking and seasoning his new fire-fuelled monster, and even more eager to introduce Melbourne to the type of Asian barbecue food he spends weekends preparing for family and friends at his leafy Warrandyte home. If Chin Chin is like bringing people in to his loungeroom, then Kong BBQ is all about the experience of his backyard.
Benjamin: “For me the rewards have come from being wise enough and mature enough to recognise the opportunity in every situation. It’s not your boss’s job to make you happy, it’s your job to make your boss happy, and if you can achieve that, the happiness comes back. I go out of my way to make my boss happy, I go out of my way to make our guests happy, I go out of my way to make the people I work with happy, and go out of my way to make my family happy. That is what brings love in to my life.”