For Etta head chef Rosheen Kaul, a love of food is inextricably connected with her identity, just as much as her identity was shaped by her love of food.
It just took her to a little while to figure that out. Rosheen’s dad is originally from Kashmir, while her mum is Peranakan Chinese-Filipino. When she was eight, the family moved from Singapore to Melbourne, trading the ‘sweltering heat, the chaos, the colourful delicious food’ for the ‘curiously beige’ and quiet suburbs of Melbourne.
Before she was a chef, she says was ‘a little bit lost’, switching between majors in her Bachelor of Science. By the time she realised that she’d never loved anything more than she loved food, it was a career that made perfect sense.
‘Memories of my childhood are all littered with clear memories of what we were eating at the time. I was born to be in a kitchen — the late nights, the pressure, the discipline, I love it all,’ Rosheen adds.
She left university to do her apprenticeship at new-style Chinese restaurant, Lee Ho Fook, and later worked at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, as one of only a handful of Australians in the ‘40-strong kitchen brigade’. It was competitive, with long hours, and lots of tears (‘not because anyone was bullying me – it was because I was disappointing myself every day by making silly mistakes’). But she also learned the exacting standards that she applies at Etta, with a bit more adaptability.
‘It’s a physically and mentally gruelling industry, and the better kitchens tend to be the most unforgiving,’ she admits. ‘You definitely learn what you’re made of in a professional kitchen. It’s like the army, except you’re just cooking.’
The lessons she’s taken from from her career so far have been both professional and personal, including when the intensity of the kitchen environment pushed her ‘over the edge and into the arms of psychiatric help’. Rosheen was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which she now manages with the help of medication, mental health professionals and the support of her tight-knit team at Etta, including owner Hannah Green. Together, they’ve cultivated an elegant, very ‘Melbournian’-style of restaurant, with a contemporary and diverse menu cooked mostly by wood-fire.
‘Every dish is anchored in something I love, be it a flavour memory, a dish or ingredient that has resonated with me for some reason or another,’ Rosheen says. Her cooking is playful, and showcases her technique and ‘quiet finesse’, but most of all it’s personal.
‘Learning the ingredients and cooking styles of my mixed heritage has shown me the links and parallels between them all, and has helped me learn so much more about myself,’ she adds. ‘My identity is woven through the fabric of so many strong cultures – Kashmiri, Chinese, Australian, Peranakan, Filipino – and they’re delicious and so beautiful together.’
Below, the 30-year-old shares a day in her life, scouring Footscray Market for the very best produce you’ve probably never heard of, before a busy evening at Etta!
I generally wake up around 8:30am. The first thing I do is I reply to the zillions of early morning text messages waiting for me from my fish, meat or veg suppliers. If I’m really tired then I’m just in a bit of a daze, but I tend not to have the energy to be an unpleasant morning person. Breakfast is my least favourite meal, so I usually just have a filter coffee and a boiled egg.
I take as much time in the morning as I can to slowly get ready. I spend most of my day rushing, so the hour and a half I have to get dressed and put on my makeup is my most precious time of the day.
I’m not due at the restaurant until midday generally, but my day always begins with running errands on my drive in. I collect our beautiful bread from Falco in Collingwood, make a trip to the market in Footscray or to an Asian grocer in Abbotsford, and stop for a little coffee for myself along the way too.
Sometimes I might grab a sushi and a green juice or sugar cane juice on my way in to work, otherwise I tend to wait until our staff meal at 4:30pm. We sit down to eat together every day, and take turns cooking staff meal. Each week we choose a theme to keep it exciting, but we started the themes as a great way to challenge ourselves to cook from different cuisines and expand our flavour and seasoning profiles. We all get along really well, and there’s plenty of laughs and music all day, and the vibes come from the mutual respect and professionalism that we all have for each other. It’s an amazing environment to be in.
I’ll jump on my laptop as soon as I get to work, check the bookings and customer profiles for the day and chat to our restaurant manager Zoe about any changes to the menu or particular guests or dietaries we need to take care of for service that evening — half my job is navigating complex dietary requirements, and because Etta is built on hospitality, we make sure every single guest has the best experience we can provide. Then I jump into the kitchen for a full afternoon of prep, which ranges from pastry to fish butchery.
The kitchen has to be fully ready and prepped as soon as we open, which can be particularly tough some days when we’re really busy. I’ve got to make sure I’ve briefed our front of house with any changes or adjustments to the menu, and we take off running at 5pm with our first tables.
I’m a stickler for having a particular setup on the pass – sparkling water, fresh ink and paper in the docket printer, a fresh Sharpie and my Muji highlighters. My section is set in a very specific way as well, with my knives in place and wiping cloths folded perfectly. It helps everything flow efficiently as I’ve got muscle memory for the placement all these objects. If I start floundering for highlighters because they’re in the wrong place and lose concentration, I can send service down. The chefs and the front of house team rely on me for clear communication, and I can only bring my A-game when I’m set and ready with everything I need.
Service is best when it’s busy as hell, and the kitchen gets in the most amazing rhythm. You really have to dig deep with your skill set and resilience when it’s busy, which is awesome. I love to problem solve on my feet, I love the challenge and the immense amount of satisfaction it brings. It’s boring when it’s quiet.
I normally finish up at the restaurant around midnight on weekdays, and later on weekends, around 1am. After work, I try not to eat but if I do, it’s something easy like noodles. Sometimes I finish work absolutely ravenous, and grab something from one of the many excellent late night Korean or Chinese restaurants on my way home through the city. To switch off I scroll social media, attempt to read and I love rewatching movies — I find it very soothing to know how things are going to end.
I do quite a lot of work after I get home, be it smashing out writing deadlines or constant seasonal dish development. I’m a night owl, and seem to be the most productive after midnight. I do fall asleep on my laptop a lot though. I’m in bed by 2am usually, and asleep by 3. The more sleep I get, the more exhausted I feel funnily enough. And the very last thing I do before bed is set my alarm!
Right now I am listening to, watching, and reading…
Something I’ve learned the hard way is…
If you don’t take care of yourself and burn out, all the hard work will have been for nothing. Know your limits, learn how to recognise the signs before you reach breaking point. Listen to your body and mind when it’s telling you to stop.