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In the City Summer
Monday November 29, 2010
JONI SCANLON checks out a fresh new addition to the city’s dining scene that is
overseen by one of the country’s finest chefs.
ou might expect the renowned chef of Canberra’s most highly
anticipated new restaurant to fit the stereotype of a domineering
master of the kitchen, but you would be wrong.
With his genuine passion for food, James Kidman has developed
a reputation for excellence after working in some of the country’s best kitchens.
His latest challenge saw him move to the nation’s capital to plate up classic
Italian in the city’s new restaurant Dieci e Mezzo located on Bunda Street, Civic.
Canberra is a long way from James’ roots. Born in Melbourne, he grew up in
England and Sydney.
He almost left school when he was 15 to start an apprenticeship in a kitchen,
but said he was convinced to stay in school.
From there he tried his hand at university, where he said he “failed dismally at
He remembers being called up by the dean of students.
“She said to me ‘James you’re taking the place of a student
who would ordinarily like to be here’ and I agreed with her and
I walked across the students’ area and signed off,” he said.
After a few years in limbo, James ended up doing the
dishes for Christine Manfield of Global Kitchen fame in her
James said he had an epiphany when he realised he
wanted to spend his life cooking.
“I was in Hyde Park in Sydney... we were having a picnic
and we’d gone across to David Jones and we’d bought a
whole lot of really nice food. And I was already sort of in the
kitchen doing dishes and what have you. And I thought ‘you
know I almost left school when I was 15 to start cooking’ so
it was a moment in time when I went ‘I just really like to cook’.”
So he saved up some money working in his old job and then
started an apprenticeship.
“It is a fairly physical job because you’re on your feet and yeah, there are some
long hour expectations,” he said.
But after two years and splitting from his girlfriend he returned to Sydney, where
he managed to get a job working for internationally acclaimed and award-winning
chef, Dietmar Sawyere, at Level 41 restaurant.
“That was a pretty amazing experience,” James said.
“But that was really probably the toughest job I’ve ever had, or one of them. The
hours were gruelling, every shift was a double shift so you’d start at seven in the
morning... and you’d invariably finish between 11pm and midnight.”
The tough kitchen made for a high turnover of staff and in his first six months
James worked with more than 50 different people in that kitchen, but wasn’t
tempted to leave.
“I could see that I was learning incredible amounts,” he said.
“I was being punished for my mistakes. You didn’t get a lot of praise for when
you did do something right... It was fairly draconian, but it kind of had to be.
Maybe not so much; I don’t run my kitchen that way.
“I think there’s this misnomer that a lot of kitchens are quite aggressive and
quite dramatic places. In fact they’re not, there’s just one person controlling
and running where all the food has to go.”
After close to two years he moved to Otto in Woolloomooloo, where he made
a name for himself. His eight years at Otto Ristorante taught him how to manage
people a lot better.
“I was a horrible, aggressive chef. The pressure sort of got to me. Then I
realised it just wasn’t the best way to get what you need out of people,” he said.
“You also learn a certain amount of humility because you realise that you’re
serving people... But I probably got to the end of where I could go with the
restaurant and Fiona (Wright) contacted me and said ‘James I’ve got this
project on the go’.”
Fiona had just tendered for the National Gallery contract and had
a number of projects on the go with business partner Jeremy
Paul, including a contract with the Defence Department, and
was looking for someone who could manage the multiple
“There were lots of different challenges, but that’s why I
came down to Canberra,” he said.
“In that year we’ve done a lot. We’ve totally redeveloped
and designed the menus and systems in a company that
has over 130 employees.”
The pinnacle was the recent opening of the Italian
restaurant Dieci e Mezzo in the city.
“This is a restaurant that we want people to use for
breakfast, lunch and dinner,” James said.
“The quality of the produce we are using here is really second
to none. From the eggs that we use for breakfast... they’re some of
the happiest eggs you’ll ever come across, to the bacon we use... to the
pasta we make for lunch and dinner. We use the best pasta flour from
Naples; we use the best risotto rice from near Terrine.”
James attributes the restaurant’s positive reception to general
manager Michael Gray, a man he described as “a vital cog in our
“If he wasn’t involved, I wouldn’t be here. It’s that simple. He’s an
amazing guy to work with.”
James is enjoying life in Canberra, including less traffic and
having a nice big house. On top of this he is expecting a child
with his partner, and after years in the fast lane, James
Kidman is looking forward to focusing on the food and
just taking a breather.
chef. The pressure
sort of got to me.
Then I realised it just
wasn’t the best way
to get what you
need out of
James Kidman at Civic’s new culinary
haven, Dieci e Mezzo.
Photo: Rohan Thomson
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