SUCCESS IS a team sport, says Ian Curley, executive chef with the European Group and one of Melbourne’s top restaurateurs.
“A lone ranger will never be successful – you always have to rely on someone, so the trick is to employ a good team,” he says.
Curley has clearly done this, since without the right team it’s unlikely he would have been able to open his four restaurants – and have more in the pipeline.
Nor would he have had time last year to host Channel Seven’s highly successful cooking show, Conviction Kitchen.
So what is Curley’s secret recipe for getting the right people on board? “Hire for the company,” he says.
“Some people will have all the skills, but if you don’t think they will fit in with the culture of the workplace, then they are never going to work out.
“The key is to trust your instincts.”
Trusting his instincts was what brought Curley to Australia from his home town of Coventry in the UK, and also what helped him become the person he now is.
Trusting his instincts was also what led Curley to employ a raft of young chefs, apprentices – and even convicted criminals.
Having spent more than six months in a juvenile detention centre himself, back in the UK, Curley says everyone deserves a second chance.
“Thirty years ago I got into trouble with the police,” he recalls. “I was in a gang and we would fights gangs from other suburbs. I ended up getting out of control and punched somebody who was hurt quite badly.
“I did six months in a juvenile detention centre and didn’t like it at all.”
After he came out of the juvenile detention centre, Curley was put on a ‘work for the dole’ scheme and began cooking in the canteen of a former factory that was making tin drums for reggae bands.
“There was a guy in there that said to me, ‘if you want to work, just learn how to cook. You can travel the world’.”
So Curley did just that, and admits he has never been happier. “Luckily, I found I had a real passion for cooking,” he says.
“I also had a real passion for travel, so the job really appealed to me.”
He still does a lot of travelling, but most of it now, however, is within Australia.
With restaurants planned in Tasmania and Perth, the chef spends a lot of his time commuting between Perth, Hobart and Melbourne.
While he still enjoys the travel, Curley admits it has become a lot harder to leave Melbourne since he became a father.
“Being a parent comes first – always has and always will,” he says. “But I also love being a cook and wouldn’t change it for anything.”
Refreshingly down to earth, Curley prefers to refer to himself as a “cook” rather than as a chef.
“I do what mothers and fathers do every single day for their kids. The only difference is, I get paid to do it,” he says.
Even after the success of Conviction Kitchen, Curley remains an incredibly modest man.
In between running four kitchens and being a loving father to his two girls, Cooper and Cassidy, he volunteers for several charity organisations.
From working hands on through St Vincent De Paul with clients who are dealing with drug and alcohol problems, to auctioning off his time and skills to raise money for Starlight and The Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation, Curley does a little bit of everything.
“I think it is important to give back to the community that supports you every day and keeps you in employment,” he says.
“In life, I think we make three or four big decisions that determine who we are and what we do. All the other decisions we make stem from the big ones. I’m lucky to have made the right decisions along the way.”
One of those right decisions was his choosing to move to Australia.
“A lot of people expect me to return to the UK and open a restaurant,” he says.
“They say you haven’t made it until you make it in the UK. But why would I want to leave the country that has helped me become the man I am today?”
Indeed, if Curley had moved back to the UK to open a restaurant it’s possible he would never have enjoyed the acclaim, success and even the notoriety that he enjoys in Australia.
It was this notoriety that landed Curley the plum job hosting Conviction Kitchen.
Airing last year, the show gave criminals a shot at redemption in a restaurant.
“I didn’t condone anything the people had done,” he says.
“Some of those little bastards deserved a massive kick up the arse. But if they want to work and they want to start again, they deserve that chance.”
The eventual winner, Anastasia, is still employed by Curley and currently doing “great things”.
“There was obviously a concern that Anastasia would not fit in with the culture of The European [restaurant], but she has been an excellent addition to the team,” he says.
“I trusted my instincts, and once again they didn’t fail me.”
Sound advice indeed.
“Simplicity is the key to success. In the kitchen, when I try too hard to do too many things, you end up failing to impress. Similarly, in business, if you try too hard and don’t stay true to yourself and to your instincts, you can be easily led astray.”