Danielle Alvarez

Ethical Meats and Alvarez's Culinary Journey

3 min read

Born in Miami, trained at The French Laundry and Chez Panisse, and now head of the kitchen at Fred's in Sydney, Danielle Alvarez is one of the brightest lights in a new generation of Australian chefs.

Alvarez is passionate about using only meat that is raised to the highest ethical standards. “If you ever had to choose between spending a bit more on organic vegetables or spending a bit more on organic pastured meats, you should definitely spend a bit more on pastured meats,” she writes.

"Fred's grilled rack of lamb with gratin of stuffed zucchini flowers and jus"

There’s plenty to learn in the book about Alvarez herself, too. You can learn, for instance, that the food she cooks today is mostly a product of her professional cooking life in California. But her passion for food came before that, growing up in a Cuban American household in Miami, watching her mother, Rosa, and Aida, her Cuban grandmother, in the kitchen.

"Danielle’s passion for food came from watching her mother and Cuban grandmother in the kitchen."

It was Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook that first took her from Florida to California. “I read it as a student in culinary college and thought, my god, there could be nothing better.” The stories about the farmers and suppliers – the lobster fisherman on the east coast, the orchard where they’d buy their fruit – all of this was foreign to Alvarez growing up in Miami. “We just didn’t have produce like that.”

She wrote a letter to The French Laundry and was accepted as an intern in 2006. If she had been drawn in by romantic ideas of the restaurant’s approach, her first experience there jolted her into reality. “I walked in and I was a little bit early because I wanted to be on time. I’ll never forget it: a chef said to me, ‘don’t ever show up early again’. I said, oh, god, why? And he said, ‘when you do that someone has to stop what they’re doing to show you around and everything in a restaurant has a time. Everything is timed to the minute, so you can’t just be throwing that out’. I thought, wow, okay, this is not what I thought it was going to be.” Alvarez learned a great deal from that experience, “and I learned a lot about what I didn’t want to explore.”

"Fred’s 800g grilled grass-fed rib eye with bay leaf and kombu."

The restaurant where Alvarez found her sound was also in northern California and, like The French Laundry, it had a notable reputation for the quality of its ingredients. But in just about every other respect, Chez Panisse was a very different place.

Alvarez was hired in 2010 and her first few years, she says, were very challenging. On a typical day, she’d sit down at 1.30 in the afternoon at a picnic table under a wisteria with the head chef and the other four cooks to talk about what was on the menu that day. The head chef would write the menus, Alice Waters, the restaurant’s founder would approve them, and the head chef would give the team a very rough outline of what they had in mind. Beyond that it was up to the chefs to go into the kitchen and make something incredible out of this idea. Steep learning curve? And then some.

“I’d worked at a few places that didn’t have recipes and that was okay,” says Alvarez. “But they weren’t Chez Panisse, which was this major institution. I thought that someone had to step in and tell me how to do it, because I wasn’t sure that I knew.” But they didn’t. “You just had to get into the kitchen and fake it till you make it in a lot of ways.”

She was at Chez Panisse on the tail end of four gruelling, very rewarding years, when an enquiry came via a friend from Justin Hemmes. The owner of Sydney restaurant group Merivale, Hemmes was looking to open something like Chez Panisse. Was Alvarez interested? After flying to Sydney to inspect the shell of the building, she found herself invited by Hemmes and his sister, Bettina, to sketch out an idea for the kitchen.

“I imagined it as this very open, farmhouse sort thing I’d seen in Napa at really rich people’s estates,” she says.

It wasn’t a set-up she’d seen in a restaurant before, but she had done many a catered dinner in similar spaces and thought it could work. “And Justin said, ‘cool, this looks great, let’s do it’, and they proceeded to build the restaurant around that. And that in a way became the brief for what Fred’s was going to be.”

Alvarez moved to Sydney in 2014, opened the doors at Fred’s two years later, found acclaim nearly instantly, and has cooked for booked-out services ever since.
Chez Panisse remains the gold standard in the US for farm-to-table cooking, and it also remains a chief inspiration for Alvarez. “Alice was doing farm-to-table 50 years ago before that term existed.”

Their approach was purely from a flavour standpoint. And that 100 percent still stands; cooking this way isn’t just good for the environment, it’s also the best-tasting food.

Having women leaders like Waters in restaurants is essential for the viability of the trade, Alvarez says.

“If I was to say one thing to women,” she says, “it’d be that I’m proud to be a woman chef that other women want to work for. It’s important just to be visible, to be encouraging, to help women see that there is a path in this career that is amazing.” And a life in restaurants is not something that has to end if you decide to have a family and have children, she says, whether you’re a woman or a man.

"I’m proud to be a woman chef that other women want to work for."

If you’re a talented, caring, strong individual, there are ways of building things around you. We need more people like that, and the last thing I want to do is discourage anyone from joining an industry that has given me everything.