Rosheen Kaul has worked for Heston Blumenthal and for Ronald McDonald and is clear about which of them is the more demanding employer. Her palate is as broad as her work experience. Saffron, kampot pepper and calamansi lime
electrify the dishes at Etta, the Melbourne restaurant where she cooks, sharing the plates with smoked butter, grilled cherries and the bread she bakes herself. She has written three books, two of which she published herself. And, running her first kitchen and barely 30, she has emerged from what turned out to be the most tumultuous three years in hospitality as one the more prominent faces of a new generation of Australian cooks.
Kaul was born in Singapore in 1992 and moved to Melbourne in 2001 when she was eight. The Kauls left Singapore, she says, because she and her sister, Roshali, didn’t fit readily into Singapore’s definitions of race at the time. “If you’d asked me what my cultural background was a few years ago,” she writes in 2022’s Chinese-Ish, “the usual answer was something along the lines of: ‘Asian, I guess? Lots of different kinds of Asian.1’”
Kaul’s dad, Raj, is from Kashmir, and her mum, Tina, was born in Singapore to Chinese Filipino parents and adopted by a Eurasian mother and an Indian father. “My sister and I are mixed race, and it’s not a very good thing to be mixed race in Singapore,” Rosheen says. It’s not something that the education system accommodated well, so the Kauls emigrated to Australia, and enrolled the girls at Lauriston2, a fancy private girls’ school in inner-southeastern Melbourne.
At Monash University she took the perhaps unusual step of veering from geosciences into psychology, before dropping out after nearly six years’ study, much to the horror of her mother3. It was around this time she joined the East Malvern branch of McDonald’s. It was an experience, Kaul says, and really set her up for the kitchen life to come. “I’ve still never done a service, no matter where I’ve worked, that was harder than McDonald’s. Never.”
“It occurred to me after I started working at Dinner by Heston that McDonald’s and Dinner were basically the same restaurant.” Every single technique and temperature, every bit of paperwork was developed by a team, she says, tested a million times and guaranteed consistency. “I mean, you had to cook more at Dinner, but service-wise, the intensity? McDonald’s, always and forever.”
Kaul says she didn’t learn a lot about cooking from her parents, despite the fact that they’re both proficient cooks, but learned plenty about dining. “They cook really chaoti- cally. My dad, for instance, refuses to taste things. He thinks that’s a sign of weakness4.” But she was always surrounded by food and the culture of eating has always been important to the Kauls, so it was more a matter of learning at the table than in the kitchen. Tina cooks a lot of Peranakan and Malay food: lots of assam dishes, a killer sambal eggs. “She also does quite a lot of Chinese confinement food5.” Raj’s long suit is Kashmiri food, a tradition that shares as much with western China and central Asia as it does India. “Goat, lamb, cumin, breads, long-grain rice6,” says Kaul.
Rosheen’s turn to the kitchen was inspired by the stories a chef boyfriend told her. She was enthralled, she says, by the idea of an energetic workplace. She got her start washing dishes in a cafe called Mighty Boy Eatery in Fitzroy. The owner of the cafe introduced her to one of the regulars, chef Morgan McGlone, who was running a restaurant of his own, Belles Hot Chicken, also on Gertrude Street. It was McGlone who encouraged Kaul to step up, to do an apprenticeship, join a restaurant kitchen and learn her craft7.
“He suggested I go to Lee Ho Fook, so I wandered down there, and got a job as a first-year apprentice, and it was pretty great.” Lee Ho Fook’s chef and co-owner Victor Liong turned out to be a key mentor. “I learned so much in that kitchen,”
Kaul says. “The main things I took away from Victor were not to do a version of it if you can’t do it better than the original – very important – and how to cook using familiar flavours from your culture without needing to modernise them or be fusiony.”
Liong says Kaul already had “a pretty sure style” when she came to Lee Ho Fook, a switched-on and ambitious young chef, who “fit the profile of one that would do well in our industry”, people who went to university but dropped out or chose to pursue hospitality as a career or as an outlet for creativity or a personal voice. “She’s done extremely well, and deservedly so.”
Ultimately for Kaul, Lee Ho Fook was all about identifying what it is about food memories and flavours that resonate with you, Kaul says, and taking those and making them your own. “Rather than saying ‘this is my version of my mum’s dish’, it’s more, ‘what is it that you liked about that dish’. Say it was an unctuous braised pork, and you love that texture and that flavour profile – what can you do with those that are your own thing, and that fit into the context of a restaurant? There are so many flavours that I cook with at Etta that I can pinpoint a reason for. A flavour or a texture in the dish from something that I’ve loved in the past.”
As a guest at Etta, you’re not necessarily going to join those dots or make those connections. The choice to fry the soft- boiled quail’s egg on the skewer with the anchovy and the guindilla pepper is all about the fried-egg frizzle that Kaul savoured in southeast Asian cooking as a girl, and the bright dressing was inspired by the southern-Chinese tradition of pairing seafood with red vinegar. But you’re just going to get a mouthful of deliciousness, familiar and surprising all at once. “These are only things that I’ll see myself,” she says. “But I don’t pull from nothing.”
This is an excerpt from issue 3 of Swill magazine. Grab your copy today to read the whole thing.