Running a food empire takes leadership skills and business smarts.
This article is from the August 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK.
Curtis Stone knows how to cook, but running a food empire also takes leadership skills and business smarts. Stone absorbed some of what was needed from his CPA dad. And he learned about Michelin-starred cuisine from one of the biggest names in the culinary world. But he also learned a lot from his grandmother.
International chef Curtis Stone trained under one of the best – the UK’s Marco Pierre White. He walked through the back door into one of White’s London restaurants asking for a job and walked out eight years later as head chef. He was sought after by publicists, developers and broadcasters, but the laconic Aussie was still surprised his name was being uttered in the same breath as those of his culinary idols.
Today he has surrounded himself with school mates who now run various arms of his business and credits his grandmother, Maude, with sparking his interest in food and inspiring him to be the best he could be.
He took the old-fashioned route in his career – starting at the bottom, being prepared to do anything, and working as hard as necessary to make his mark. He now lives in Los Angeles, where he fell in love with a local – actress and documentary maker Lindsay Price – and started a family.
Stone is an ambassador for one of Australia’s biggest supermarket chains, Coles, has written five cookbooks, developed a kitchenware and cookware range called Kitchen Solutions, and has spent the last several years making numerous TV appearances and fronting cooking shows including the popular Top Chef Masters. He’s also a regular contributor to Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine.
But perhaps most significantly for Stone, in February this year he opened his first restaurant – the intimate and intensely personal Maude in Beverly Hills, named after that beloved grandmother.
He told his story to former CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley.
Alex Malley: I’m really interested in this wonderful figure called Granny Maude and, particularly, her Yorkshire fudge. Tell me about that.
Curtis Stone: My granny was a beautiful woman. My earliest food memory is going to her apartment, pushing straight past and running to her fridge – if the fudge was there I would be a happy man. If not she’d say: “That’s alright darling, let’s make it together.”
Malley: Those early emotional connections to taste or smell become life-long and clearly they have with you.
Stone learned a lot about cooking from his grandmother Maude, who married his grandfather, Keith, on New Year's Day in 1944.
To me food’s always been the most special thing in my life. It sounds silly to say that but I think the food is what creates the special time.
My mum used to play this game with us: best and worst. We had to say the best that had happened to you and why, and then the worst thing that happened to you and why. We’d go around the table and you’d get a real connection with everyone at it, and you’d understand where everyone’s at in their life, what’s upsetting them and what’s making them happy.
It’s those special moments, those special conversations, that make food so important.
Malley: I suspect, given your personality, your school reports would have said “challenging”.
Stone: Yes, I was a pretty rambunctious young kid. Lots of energy and not the most focused from an academic perspective. I enjoyed my school days but I enjoyed being outside probably more than in the classroom, truthfully.
Malley: So was your mum or dad the one saying “No, you’ve got to buckle down more and you’ve got to go to university.”
Stone: Mum was by far in charge of the discipline in my life. She was a strict mum, and my dad, he’s an accountant.
Malley: He’s a CPA more to the point.
Stone: He is a CPA, you’re right. He’s a financial controller actually. And he’s a businessman, so of course he was very driven for me to end up in university, with a degree and probably working for a law firm, truthfully.
Malley: So you moved into restaurants. How did you deal with what seems to me to be a pretty ugly discipline in a kitchen? What goes on behind the kitchen door is not flexible, it’s not relaxing. It’s tough.
Stone: I was a little torn when I was 16, 17. I was playing footy and I was half decent. I was a decent leader but never had the skills to actually make it on the footy field. And then I found myself in a kitchen and, bizarrely, they require really similar skills.
So to be a good leader on the footy field is exactly how you have to be in the kitchen: loud voice, lead from the front, put your body on the line, get in early, train hard – all that sort of stuff. Somehow Aussie Rules made me a good chef.
I did my apprenticeship here in Melbourne and I loved it. I love the craziness of a kitchen and footy is the exact same thing. You try to explain to someone what it’s like to play AFL [Australian Football League] and it’s like, “You go out and you beat each other up, literally, and then you go for a beer together afterwards.”
It’s bizarre but it’s the exact same thing in a kitchen – you scream and yell at each other and throw things around. Then as soon as it’s all over the dust settles, you take your brigade out and have a beer with them, which is a lot of fun.
Malley: You had an interest in a fellow called Marco Pierre White. How did you pursue that?
Stone: Marco’s book White Heat was the first book I ever read and if you flick through it, it’s about this crazy man. It’s about this drive to be the best at something and I can remember reading it and being turned on by it.
So, like many Aussies, I packed a backpack and went with my best mate – I think we saved A$10,000 through the course of our apprenticeship – we spent most of that in the first couple of months and London was a stop on that journey.
I had already dreamt of going to work for Marco so I literally got there, I had no money, I was staying on a mate’s sofa (he was managing a pub). I just went one day, found Marco’s restaurant and walked in the back door and asked for a job. It worked. He gave me a job that day.
"To be a good leader on the footy field is exactly how you have to be in the kitchen: loud voice, lead from the front, put your body on the line, get in early, train hard." – Curtis Stone
Malley: What did you say to him? You’ve walked in, there he is…
Stone: I literally walked in and asked if he was there. Suddenly the fridge door closed and there he was. He said “Who are you?” I told him who I was, that I wanted to work for him, that I was prepared to do it for nothing until I proved myself. I started work that afternoon.
You know there’s that old saying, “if you don’t ask, you don’t get”, and if you don’t put yourself in the running for something then you have no chance of getting what you dream of.
[But] just because you ask doesn’t mean you will get. You’ve got to be prepared for that door to be shut in your face. It’s been shut in mine plenty of times, but that day it worked out for me.
You’ve got to be prepared to have a crack at it and that’s what I did. I started as the guy in the corner picking the salad leaves and sweeping up the floor. It was a pretty tough kitchen to walk into. Not pretty tough, bloody tough. But I’d spent eight years with Marco and ended up the head chef of some of his different restaurants.
And there were many amazing experiences. We had a lorry and we’d drive the lorry to Paris. I’d go shopping at Rungis wholesale market [the world’s largest fresh produce market, in greater Paris] and buy the foie gras and vegetables for the entire business.
I baked bread for different restaurants and created a few initiatives within Marco’s little empire that he responded to, so I was lucky.
Malley: You now have a stellar career that you seem comfortable with these days, but it started by chance. It was all about a book.
Stone: Yes, I got a call from a publisher saying they were putting together a book called London on a Plate and the subtitle was "Recipes From London’s Finest Chefs". I couldn’t believe they were actually ringing to speak to me and when I found out the other chefs they were using, they were all guys I’d idolised and one day hoped to work for. So to be put in a book with them was pretty special.
When the book came out I did some press to promote it and a couple of things on the BBC. One was called Saturday Kitchen, it was around Australia Day and it was with [Australian chef] Ben O’Donoghue. They got the two of us doing hangover cures. I met Ben for the first time and we started a great friendship.
Somebody saw the segment and came up with the idea for [the television series] Surfing the Menu, which went on to be an incredible opportunity. As a guy who’d worked his life in the basement, when someone rings up and says, “We’ve got an idea for a show where you’d surf and eat and drink and see your country, and we’d pay you quite handsomely for it” – you don’t have to think too long [about it].
Malley: You’ve started a restaurant in Los Angeles called Maude, after your grandmother. But the boutique nature of it, the 20-odd seats, no menus, it’s counter to every business principle known to man isn’t it?
Stone with his wife, Lindsay Price, and their son Hudson.
I always think there’s an inch between someone that’s a genius and someone that’s insane. If this restaurant works then I’m a genius; if it doesn’t, I’m insane. You’re only ever an inch from it going one way or another.
Like everything we do, we’re having fun with it and it comes from a place of doing something I want to do. If I told you how many times Las Vegas or Atlantic City or Singapore have called to say, “Come and do a restaurant, big licensing deal, put your name on it, you’ve only got to show up for four days a month” … [but] it’s never interested me. I’m not saying one day it won’t interest me but right now it doesn’t.
Before I do any of that I want to open a beautiful little restaurant that I can cook at and cook at a really high level and do what I love. So that’s why we’re doing it.
But there’s a second reason to calling the restaurant “Maude”, and it is because she inspired me. She’s this beautiful woman who I wanted to honour. She was also the only really religious one in our family and ever since she died we all got very lucky. We’re sure she’s up there so I know that she is going to look after me.
Malley: So what does the future hold? Where would you like to be in the next five to 10 years?
Stone: I want to be exactly where I am, which is having fun, enjoying what I’m doing. The person who runs my business, Jodie, she and I went to primary school together. Harry and I, my business partner in the products, we went to the same high school and been mates for years. Tiffany who runs my publicity, we’ve been mates for 10 years.
I like having great people around me. I feel really special and blessed to have been able to do that and we literally have fun together. So I want to continue doing that.
I’m also passionate about helping people. Whether that means helping them have a nice dinner or whether that means working a little more philanthropically, I want to do that, too. I think there are all sorts of interesting ways you get enjoyment and fulfilment out of your life.
Having the courage to fail
Alex Malley: I talk to a lot of colleagues and young people about having the courage to fail. If you’ve got the courage to fail, you’re most unlikely to fail.
Curtis Stone: You’ve got to be OK with the rejection and be, ‘Oh well, I had a crack at it, it didn’t work out.’ If you’re OK with it, you’re not scared to ask for it because you’ll just keep on going back and back.
I also think putting a lot of irons in the fire, so to speak, means that even if you only get 50 per cent of them, there’s still plenty. So I think you’ve just got to have a go at it.
I’ve always got out of bed excited to get to work, whether that’s in the kitchen or going into a business meeting with a bunch of investors. If you really care about it then you love it, you don’t work a day in your life and you’re also not embarrassed of it. So whether you’re standing up on a stage or addressing important folk, if you really believe in it then it’s actually quite easy I think.
And this is what his dad says...
“His main trait is hard work. And his success hasn’t changed him. When Curtis comes back to Melbourne he still catches up with his mates in the same way. I’m very proud of all my kids,” says Stone’s father, Bryan, a CPA who works as a CFO in Melbourne.
“And he’s a good dad. He has him [Hudson] cooking with him in the kitchen and picking vegetables in the garden.”
His favourite Curtis dish? “I’m a very plain eater, not as plain as I was! We went to Maude when it first opened and the food’s just beautiful there.”
And Curtis the accountant? “He’s not bad, he’s very astute. Much more astute than just being a chef.”
This article is from the August 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK.